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Teacher Leadership and Personalized Professional Learning at Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Professional Growth

A look inside VBCPS’s innovative design fellows program.

Note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


“When I was a classroom teacher, I thought I had the best job in the world. I still feel that I do — I just support the learning of children in a different way.”

Janene Gorham is a self-described hometown girl: she grew up in Virginia Beach, went to the University of Virginia, then came back to teach fifth grade at Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She eventually moved on to different roles, working as a computer resource specialist and supporting teachers in integrating technology. Over time, Janene realized how much she loved professional learning and working with adult learners. She’s now the Director of Teacher Leading and Learning in the district’s Office of Professional Growth and Innovation.

Virginia Beach is a diverse district. With around 69,000 students and 5000+ instructional staff, you’d probably describe it as suburban, even though it stretches from rural areas to a hotel-dotted beachfront. It’s high-performing and prides itself on innovation: the district’s 5 year plan, Compass to 2020, focuses on high academic expectations, personalized learning, social-emotional development for students and creating a culture of growth and excellence.

Professional Learning that Balances Personal, District and Building Goals

No surprise, professional learning plays a key role in equipping teachers and staff to support these goals. Like many school systems, Virginia Beach requires a certain number of professional learning hours for each teacher: 22 every year, taken outside of their contract day. This is helpful in many ways, Janene says, but it can also turn learning into just another exercise if they’re not careful.

“We’ve created a flexible system that allows [teachers] to go about setting their learning goals and acquire those hours in a variety of ways….The teacher obviously has his or her own interests and priorities.”

While building and district goals need to be balanced with each teacher’s personal focus, the majority of those 22 hours are left to each teacher’s choice. Virginia Beach has introduced a competency-based model of professional development. This allows teachers to move at their own pace and helps increase teacher buy-in as they can choose learning opportunities to develop the skills they need.
teacher with tablet
“One of the things that we are launching this summer is a program to allow teachers to really show us what they’re able to do. The specializations that we’re starting with are around teacher leadership: the idea of being a team leader, and being a professional learning leader. Within those, we’ve identified competencies, we’re having face-to-face classes and we’re providing online resources so that teachers can also choose how they want to learn.”

Virginia Beach teachers enjoy the ability to set their own professional learning paths as well as learning with colleagues in this face-to-face environment, gathering in professional learning communities for collaboration and reflection. Teachers meet regularly with others in their grade level, department and even cross-school to discuss their work and share ideas.

Beginning the program with teacher leadership wasn’t an arbitrary decision. Although Virginia Beach currently focuses on developing team and professional learning leaders to equip teacher leaders in supporting their colleagues, next fall the plan is to roll out additional specializations and personalized learning.

Amid this positive learning environment, each educator is expected to focus on the skills and competencies he or she is aiming to develop, and has the option to demonstrate mastery of those skills through a capstone project — much like their students do.

Virginia Beach’s Design Fellows Program

As Virginia Beach seeks to transition to a more personalized learning model for students, one of the four goal areas of the Compass to 2020 vision is “multiple pathways.” To implement this goal and explore how to implement personalized learning in the classroom, Virginia Beach began a pioneering professional learning approach with a select group of teachers known as design fellows. The program started in 2015 with a cohort of 57 teachers, followed by 73 more the following year.

Janene noted that it was deliberate: “This was a much slower, organic, teacher-led process. We brought in a group of teachers and said, ‘You’re going to help us flesh out what this looks like. You’re going to be the leaders. You’re going to be the ones helping us set the direction.’”

Avoiding a top-down approach allowed design fellows to get creative, collaborate and even bring students into the goal-setting and planning process. The group met regularly to share their progress and work together around these questions:

  • What does personalized learning look like in the classroom?
  • How can I show others what personalized learning is?
  • What do teachers need to know and do to successfully implement personalized learning?

“I think teaching is really hard and complex — and I think the most powerful learning experiences that we can provide teachers are ones where they take an active leadership role in their own learning. That’s really the most exciting part of my day: working to build the capacity of teachers to be leaders. The idea of empowering teachers who come with so much experience and expertise to be able to share what they know, and to learn alongside their peers, is really the most exciting development I’ve seen in Virginia Beach in terms of how we’re improving professional learning.”

Using principles of design thinking, design fellows were given freedom to innovate, try new ideas (sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing) and share results, all in a safe environment. The Office of Professional Growth and Innovation partnered with them throughout the process to provide support. “We sometimes had to remind ourselves that this is going to be a slow process. But the exciting thing that’s happened is we see schools that are feeling comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to take a risk and try something, and I think part of that is because it has been a teacher-led initiative.”

Since 2015, the design fellows have helped Virginia Beach flesh out their definition of personalized learning and come up with specific strategies for how to implement it in the classroom. They contribute articles and artifacts to a district-wide blog about the initiative, and have recorded videos of their own instructional practice to serve as models for other teachers. New cohorts of design fellows will begin working this fall on developing best practices to support students with special needs.

The Results of Teacher Leadership

pen and paper“One of the things that has been a pleasant surprise is how much ownership the design fellows took on in helping us lead the implementation. They really, truly felt empowered and excited. Last year, we had them on a panel talking about their experience. Most of them said that this was probably the most profound learning experience they ever had. When we think about teachers, every day they design instruction in the classroom, and the process that we took them through of really thinking about personalized learning as a design challenge — ‘How will you do it? How will you make the shift to having students have more ownership and let them figure out their starting place?’ — really was the model that we were hoping it would be.”

Janene and other leaders at Virginia Beach City Public Schools noticed that what the design fellows learn spreads to other teachers, too. “I sometimes will go into a building or be on a learning walk with a principal, and I know there are design fellows in there: the flexible seating, the student-created rules, the goal-setting…things that I would expect to see from a design fellow. Then I see it in other rooms [as well] and I’ll ask, ‘How did that happen?’ And a lot of times it has been very organic… it’s other people seeing the design fellow and asking questions and trying things out on their own.”

Giving tours of design fellows’ classrooms has been instrumental in spreading the word about the program. Janene tells the story of one third grade teacher who had been encouraged by her principal to stretch herself and join the design fellows program. Once the program was underway, the school board visited her classroom to observe students working on a project.

“The really fun part of it was once we started talking to the children, they could tell us the part [of the project] that they were working on — and they were actually at multiple stages. Some of the students were further along and were reflecting on a rubric that the class had created — they were able to really articulate where they were on their development along that rubric. All over the room you saw examples of how the students were owning their learning.”

Once nervous about observers in her classroom, that third grade teacher has begun presenting to administrators at Virginia Beach. “She has become a leader at our school, sharing ideas of what she’s doing. It has really empowered her to see herself as someone who has something to share. That’s been really exciting.”

The Future of Professional Development at Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Risk and failure are both part of the growth process, as educators have long understood.

“I think our approach to learning that we took with the design fellows, where we supported them as risk-takers in their classrooms and gave them opportunities to collaborate and get feedback, really boils down to the idea of collaborative inquiry, where teachers are excited about investigating authentic questions that mean something to them. Their classroom is where they learn. We have good resources to support that learning: coaches, principals and assistant principals that are able to provide feedback, our Office of Professional Growth and Innovation, a virtual reference library where we have a huge collection of online books… there are lots of opportunities to help teachers answer those authentic questions.”

Change on this scale doesn’t happen fast, however. “One of the challenges when you have lofty goals….Some of our goals really require shifts in mindset. The shift that we’re making with personalized learning and our digital transformation where we’re really requiring our teachers to make large shifts in how they operate in the classroom and the roles that they play with regard to student ownership of their learning — those aren’t things that can happen quickly. They take time.”

In the meantime, administrators, teachers and students together are learning what it looks like to solve problems. What that looks like long-term, Janene says, is hard to discuss concretely, but for the best possible reason: “The focus of our work is going to be aligned to our priorities with Compass to 2020. But we want our teachers to have some ownership in helping us develop how we get there.”

Ryan Estes

Ryan is managing editor for the global award-winning creative team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and creating content for leaders in K-12 education.