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The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, on the west side of Indianapolis, has gotten a fair amount of attention for personalizing the professional development it gives to teachers in its virtual high school and blended learning programs. The fact that voluntary professional development can attract 90 percent of teachers is seen as a wild success. It’s that success the district, and by extension, Michele Eaton, its director of virtual and blended learning, has been known for. Until now.

Eaton won a competition called FailFest at the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference a couple weeks ago. At the gathering of district technology leaders, Eaton admitted that her successful professional development program was only the very end of the story. It started with failure.

Two years ago, when teacher participation in professional development was just 35 percent, Eaton tried to create individualized learning plans for all 60 teachers in the district’s virtual and blended programs. There was a lot of talk about the value of doing this for students, and Eaton thought it could work with the adults in the district as well. She asked teachers what types of professional development they were interested in, gave them a range of choices (including webinars, discussion activities and online courses) and expected the teachers to clamor for the opportunities. They didn’t. At the end of the year, attendance was still just about 35 percent.

“I had worked a lot harder to get the same outcome,” Eaton said.

Instead of giving up or trying to fix it on her own, Eaton gathered all 60 teachers together, owned up to her failure and asked them what needed to change. They ended up redesigning the program together.

“That was the lightbulb moment,” Eaton said. “This whole time I had been doing professional development to teachers, not with them. Especially with personalized learning, where it’s all about voice and choice – I had figured out the choice part, but I had lost the voice.”

Related: Three cheers for failure! What, what?

Last year, Eaton debuted the redesigned professional development program. The choices for teachers were more streamlined to be less overwhelming, though Eaton maintained a “Choice Board” for teachers who wanted extra freedom. Teachers also asked for periodic reminders about professional development opportunities, acknowledging that even if they had good intentions about participating, it was easy to forget week after week. Last year’s program also started out with one webinar for everyone as a structured group activity and teachers followed that up by choosing their own online activities.

“This whole time I had been doing professional development to teachers, not with them. Especially with personalized learning, where it’s all about voice and choice – I had figured out the choice part, but I had lost the voice.”

Teachers specifically asked for all of these things. And when they got what they asked for, they showed up. Last year, 90 percent of teachers participated in the program and the same has continued to be true this year.

At FailFest, Eaton talked about the eventual success of the professional development program, but she emphasized the initial failure. It’s a lesson that teachers frequently try to get students to understand.

“We want students to view failures as opportunities for iteration and growth,” Eaton said. “We say that really confidently about students, but we never give ourselves that room.”

There’s a good reason for that, of course.

“It’s scary to come up with an idea and fail,” Eaton said. “You have students for one year. You can’t fail them too much. It’s easy to say ‘fail forward,’ but it’s scary.”

It’s also scary to talk about failure in front of your colleagues. Eaton said she had to get over that to present at FailFest. But she finds the practice important. Most of the stories posted on social media or reported in articles talk about successes, she said. It’s easy to forget that even the most successful programs didn’t necessarily work on the first try. Eaton hopes being honest about that can help other districts attempt new things.

In her district, it has been worth it. Next year, administrators plan to expand the personalized professional development beyond the teachers in the blended and online programs. And already the redesign has ensured that the vast majority of online teachers have first-hand experience with personalized learning that they can take to their own students.

This story about professional development courses was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletters.

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