Field Trip: Building a Culture of Professional Learning


Mary Kathryn Moeller and her team facilitate professional learning at Jenks Public Schools in Oklahoma. In this interview, she discusses the big questions that shape their program, how they iterate and improve, and what it looks like to measure impact.

When we spoke with Mary Kathryn, the Director of Professional Development, she spoke with us about:

Full Transcript  

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: It was one of the most fabulous professional learning experiences, because the high school kids were totally in their element. And the teachers, we were all on the floor, acting out – we did all these crazy things, but it was helping the teachers grow in a particular area that maybe they weren’t as comfortable with.

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MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: That question of, “How do I know the impact of it?” That has now become embedded, or it’s becoming more embedded in our continuous improvement. “How can I know that this will have a positive impact on our teachers, but especially on our students and their learning?”

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today, we’re speaking with Mary Kathryn Moeller at Jenks Public Schools near Tulsa, Oklahoma. They have ten schools, and about 12,000 students. Mary Kathryn was in the classroom for 11 years, she taught social studies and art history at Jenks High School. After some time away at grad school, teaching at a university, now she’s back at Jenks. It’s her third year as the Director of Professional Development. She works with their teaching staff, their teaching and learning specialists and administrators around the district to facilitate professional learning for every staff member, both certified and classified. We wanted to find out how they provide professional learning that has real impact in the classroom.

Well Mary Kathryn, thank you for joining me today.

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Thank you I’m really pleased to be here.

I’d like to start with a somewhat broad question: you are working in your role to develop student-focused sustainable professional learning. How do you do that? What do you find works well at Jenks for you and your team?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: We almost always start…when we’re looking at really trying to be very intentional about our professional learning, we start with, “What is our basis of need? What’s been the identified need that has come up? Or what’s the point of interest? Is there emerging research that we’re trying to stay abreast of?” So that’s always our starting point.

That basis of need might also be looking at student data, might be looking at work samples. It might be looking at test scores.

Let me pause here for a minute — this is something you’ll hear Mary Kathryn come back to again and again, the basis of need. They don’t see professional learning as a check-off-the-boxes kind of thing. It always starts with “Why? What do we want to see happen in our classrooms?”

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Typically we provide some kind of professional learning opportunity that might involve bringing in an outside voice, to provide something that we feel like we need. Then from there, we collect some feedback, some immediate feedback, and that might be perception survey. “How did you feel about this? What do you learn from it? What did you get out of it?”

When we say “immediate,” it might be more of, “What’s more the immediate impact that we’ve seen in the classroom from this?? Then that usually leads us to some next steps. From there, we tend to stay in a cycle of, “Okay let’s identify some next steps. Okay, those next steps tend to lead to more professional learning opportunities.” They might be outside speakers, but they might be some coaching, it might be a book study. It might be a PLC, it could be a variety of things.

Then one of the data points that we tend to look at is we look at implementation. We look at fidelity of implementation which is always a question, always making sure that we’re talking about equitable distribution of the information and of the support that teachers need to implement.

We tend to stay in that loop. Next steps, more learning, implementation, data points, next steps, professional learning, implementation data. We will stay often in iterations of that cycle, we will stay there until we feel like we’ve been driven back up to the top of, “Okay what’s our next basis of need? What’s our next point of interest? What’s our next look at emerging research?” There are a lot of things out there in education and there are a lot of products out there, and so when we are evaluating those things, we can take them through, “Where are we are in this particular practice? “Well, we’re in iteration and we just need more time to really let our teachers practice with this and reflect on it. We need to gather some more data before … Let’s do that before we may be really go after something new. Let’s spend some time on it. Because our teachers are very busy, and they’re pulled in lots of directions.” We want to be really intentional before we introduce something new or ask them to make a shift or a change. 

Mary Kathryn said a really important part of their work is building connections with district and site-level leaders and teacher leaders all over the organization. I asked her, “What do those connections look like? How do you build them?”

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: A lot of times it’s in conversations with our teaching and learning specialists that we have at our different sites. They are at the sites and working directly with the teachers. We’ve had something recently come up where we have a teacher at one site who’s very well-versed in a particular practice. She’s been very open to let a number of us come into her classroom and see the practice in action.

There was so much excitement about this, and we were seeing that really forwarded student thinking. It really helped them think through a different processes, but also think about their own thinking. So we were really excited about that, and then from those opportunities to come into her classroom and see what’s going on there, that has then led to discussions at another site, at a totally different grade level about using a similar practice. Then I just recently learned that from those discussions at that site level, we’re now creating connection over to another site at a completely different grade level.

A lot of it is this ongoing communication and this opportunity, really considering our teachers’ professional experience and what expertise they have at providing opportunities that they can share that expertise at different grade levels.

If there’s excitement around something, we really want to capture it, provide the leadership. We may need to also provide some resources, we might need to provide some release time for the teachers, or maybe sub coverage. We may need to put some resource behind it so that we can sustain these connections among colleagues so that they can really grow from one another.

I love what you are saying about leadership. How do you build that, what are some of the specific ways in which you at Jenks are building leadership in your staff? Whether it be teacher leaders or whether it be encouraging and empowering your district and site level leaders, what other things that you find builds leadership well?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Some of it starts really just with all of us understanding … We work really hard to make sure we have common language. A lot of it starts from the minute that you come in to Jenks, we try to build — at all levels — we try to build a lot of common language. So that’s one of the ways so that we can all talk about what we are excited about, what we feel like needs to improve or what we feel like needs to change. Then we work very hard to stay connected from the district level to the site level. Our executive director of teaching and learning along with other directors in our teaching and learning department, we meet regularly with our teaching and learning specialists.

Then almost all of our sites have site leadership groups that really bring in different voices of their staff. They bring them in to help make site decisions. It’s a lot of community-building it’s a lot of communication, trying to be very, very clear with our communication, and really helping teachers build agency and build capacity for trying new things out, taking some risks in their instruction. They heard about something, they want to give it a try, and providing them the support to give that a try and then also inviting them to share that out.

Letting them have opportunity for that voice is a lot of the ways that we try to build leadership.

As you are thinking about what new things to try or what risks to take, as you look at professional learning at Jenks and try to determine the direction you should go, what are the questions that you and your team are asking? 

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: One of our immediate questions, if something’s new, a lot of our questions would be about the “why” of it. If we’re going to consider something new, we really want to understand the purpose about it, and then we really want to examine our existing practices. Is this something that will expand our practices that might open up new opportunities for connections for our students? Is it something that will just layer on, deepen our existing practices and structures, or is it something that would require us to abandon what we’ve done? Those are the things you have to weigh a lot of times. We always want to be faithful to the work that our teachers are doing and the work that exists. That’s one of the major things we look at is, really honoring the existing work before we adopt something.

We also really look at the source of it. If we feel like, “Yes, it does really honor the work that we have been doing,” and that it would provide a deepening of that or a growing of that in some way, then where is this coming from? Is this a speaker, a researcher, someone who is in the work and doing it, someone who’s really out there speaking and sharing with teachers? Is it someone that really understands the many things that go on in a classroom? Where’s the source of this information that’s being provided? 

As I talked about our cycle, if we did bring something like that in, we would talk about fidelity of implementation and equity. We would talk about teachers’ comfort level with a particular practice. “How can we collect data around this, what would be the data points that we would need?”

Those are the things we try to think about when we’re considering going in a new direction or bringing something in. But we always want to honor the work that’s been done by our teachers and by our administrators in leading up to this moment.

I was curious about this loop, this cycle of improvement and of learning and implementation and examining the results — because of course a culture of continuous improvement like this doesn’t just happen. I asked Mary Kathryn about the things that helped them build that culture. She said she went back and spoke with some of their administrators who had been there a bit longer than she had, and that it really began with creating a district motto.

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Our district motto is “A tradition of excellence with a vision for tomorrow.” The PDSA model that we adopted in the early 2000s was our way of trying to make that motto a livable part of the work that we do. One of the things that happens in our new teacher induction is that we invite all of our certified staff to what we call our continuous improvement model training. They really go through this history, they talk through the history of the district and how our vision and our understanding of what we do, how it really developed over the years. And talked about how you as … “You’re a teacher coming into our district, how does this work for you?” Well, you develop this really solid understanding of your students and what their needs are. Then you continue to push for tomorrow. “What’s your next nudge, how can you nudge that student forward a little bit, how do you continue to grow them?”

At the classroom level, at the district level, we have this understanding of, “We really want to understand our past, and we really want to understand our present, and then we always want to push ahead.” We talk a lot in the district about continuous improvement. We always try to challenge ourselves. Whenever we do something, especially when it’s new, we immediately begin to go into, “Okay, how did that go? What could we do better? What do we need to change?” It’s just a part of a lot of the work that we do. 

We always want to consider how we can continually improve in service of our students and our other stakeholders in our community.

Can you share any specific examples, Mary Kathryn, of how this has played out at the individual level?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: We had a particular instance where we had a site on a particular grade level, a Pre-K teacher was really interested in growing dramatic play in the classroom. There’s so much research we know now about how in early childhood play I such a central part of their learning. So again, thinking about our impact cycle, our basis of need and our point of interest, those kinds of need, in this case, it was a group of teachers and an administrator really interested in exploring a particular research strand which would be understanding how play figures into the pre-K learning experience. At a particular site, they had begun exploring this, and then we had other sites who were interested in learning this as well. They had done some of their own work, some of their own research.

We created a professional learning opportunity for them to really learn about puppetry and the expansion of the dramatic play center. In a lot of pre-K classes you might have the play center, the play kitchen, that kind of center, and those are really wonderful opportunities for children to play. But in this case, what we were interested in was, “How can we expand that, how can we expand that beyond the dress up box and beyond the play kitchen? What can we do a little bit further?”

So what we invited in a master teaching artist, and she worked with four of our Pre-K teachers at two different sites. She worked directly in their classroom and we wove it in at the time when they were exploring some different things around science and they were looking at ecosystems. She brought in the puppetry as a way to explore… I think specifically, they worked on a pond. “What are the animals that live on and around a pond? How do they interact and how are their interactions beneficial to one another? And how does the pond survive with this kind of interaction?”

We had this master teaching artist come in and do that, and then the dramatic play center became an opportunity for the children. They were really invited into, what kind of play center could we create? What do we need in our play center? What it created was this opportunity for the children to direct the play center a little bit.

As the teachers incorporated this dramatic play, the kids dove into it, took ownership of it. If they’re learning about veterinarians, one student might pull out a stethoscope while another draws a picture of a dog that they’ll check out. And this group of teachers really took their role in it seriously. Since puppetry is a big part of this learning, they realized that one of the steps they needed to take was to get better at really pulling off characters, getting into the performance aspect of it.

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: So what we did was we went to our Trojan Players, who are our drama students at the high school, and said “Can you work with teachers and help them develop performance skills through gesture emotion and voice?”

Then we partnered pre-K and K teachers with our high school students. It was one of the most fabulous professional learning experiences because the high school kids were totally in their element, and the teachers we were all on the floor playing things, acting out. I played the part of a fish. We did all these crazy things but it was helping the teachers grow in a particular area that maybe they weren’t as comfortable with and the idea the performance of it. That was how we identified the next step.

Then we’ve done more book studies, we’ve had more work with the Trojan Players. This focus on dramatic play, we’ve tried to connect it to, “How can you weave dramatic play into your read-alouds with your kids and weave it into your literacy block? How can we bring music into this and work on music and weave that into story telling?” Really going at this in a lot of ways.

I would tell you, if we were talking about our impact cycle, I would tell you that right now we’re just in our little cycle of, we’re going to keep doing a little bit more, and we’re going to keep growing it, and we’re going keep doing a little bit more.

It’s really fascinating to see and see how the kids are doing this. It really fits with what the research is about play the importance of play in early childhood. We’re continuing to think about how we can collect some data on this. After the master teaching artist left, we had the students … they could use text or draw, whatever they were comfortable with, and they wrote down what their favorite piece of learning was. Those, I have to tell you, were some of the most dear, precious little drawings that I’ve seen of what they like to learn.

Again, in terms of collecting data, that’s a data point for pre-K because it’s the thing … “What is the thing that you love that’s stuck out to you from that experience?” So that’s been one of our data points. We will continue to identify other ways that we can collect data about the impact of this in the classroom and on our students’ learning.

I also asked Mary Kathryn about what it looks like as they create a culture that promotes positive risk-taking. How else has it taken shape as they encourage teachers to try new ideas?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: We had an interesting instance where one of our teaching and learning specialists was going to work with a group of teachers, and she was going to focus on this specific idea. She wanted to really encourage some risk-taking in their instruction. And the goal was for them to become risk-takers and then find ways that they could encourage their students to be risk-takers in their learning and push out of their comfort zones. So the teachers are going out of their comfort zones, and the students might be going out of their comfort zones.

So the teachers had some discussion about what that might look like, and what vehicle they would want to identify to help them do this. And they decided to explore the 20% time, or sometimes called the “Genius Hour,” which is something that developed in the work environment at Google, in which the employees were able to spend about 20% of their time on a project of their own choosing. Which is how products like Gmail developed.

And so this was really out of the box for these teachers, because this involved a different shift in the way that you organize your classroom, in the way that hand over time to the students, and how you facilitate and coach them through their own exploration. And so this went on for a good portion of a semester, and it’s a PLC model, so they would come back together and talk about how this is being rolled out in their classrooms, what challenges they’re experiencing, how best they can guide their students, and how they can set this up. 

And then ultimately, it led to going public with the projects that the students developed. When I talked to the teaching and learning specialist, I said, “Tell me about some of the favorite projects that you saw,” and she had the hardest time. She said, “I’ve got so many.” But a couple of them really stuck with her.

There was a student in a class who developed a weighted scarf for individuals who have sensory issues. It’s a scarf that has weights that you can put insight of it, and it just gives a little bit of compression, a little sense of security that a lot of those dealing with sensory issues feel like they need. And she was really intentional in the design. The scarf was made out of fleece and it had tassels at the end, so it gave them something they could fidget with and play with, which often helps a lot of students, a lot of learners. And then the weights were removable so you could wash the whole thing and put it back in. So it was this really fascinating design.

Another project was a student really wanting to explore spoken word. So she created an entire album of spoken word projects that she developed herself. And then designed her own cover, did her own art for the cover of the album. So these were students who were really exploring things they had interest in that really pushed them to go far in their learning and research around it, in the design and presentation of it. And then it also encouraged the teachers to take some challenges with the way they set up the room and the way they conducted things and encouraged exploration.

And you would say that these projects came out of the fact that teachers were intentionally taking risks in their own instructional practice?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Absolutely. That was really the focus of it, “How can we encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zone, try something different?” This is not a model that you see in most classrooms, and it can be difficult to carry off, because you may need to rethink your classroom management, you may need to rethink the physical space, the way you set up your classroom. It’s going to challenge you to juggle all the things you have to juggle in making instructional decisions. But it really allowed the teachers to try something different and have a safe cohort where they could come back and talk through what was working and what they needed some more think time on, so that they could really encourage their students to make these projects that in the end, everybody was really blown away by.

As we talk about taking risks and learning from mistakes and pursuing success and, can you talk about how you iterate in professional learning. When you see success in something, how do you continue to refine it?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: I think we have a strong practice around reflection. I think that is our baseline from… figuring out where we need to go next is always collecting data or feedback from lots of different voices, trying to hear from everybody that this might impact. In May we tend to do a visioning meeting around professional development, professional learning for the next year. We always invite parents into that as well which might seem odd because they might not think that we would include them in discussions around teacher professional development. But in fact, having the parents as part of that conversation I think is really, really valuable. Because they know what’s going on in the classroom and they work with their own child. As we’re thinking about, well, in the end we’re all working together to the benefit of the students so the parents then are an essential part of that.

We tend to always try to incorporate as many voices as we can that we feel like would bring something to a discussion, and reflect to be very intentional about where we go next.

And then there’s the perennial question in professional learning: how do you know that it’s making an impact? I wanted to know about the data that Mary Kathryn and her team look at — how they collect it, how it impacts their program?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Well, that’s such a grand question about, “How do we know that this works?” We know that when we collect data, it’s got to come from multiple sources and come in different ways. From the minute you have a professional learning opportunity to a year after, there needs to be data collected along that timeline. We have surveys that go out to employees, that go out to parents, that go out to students. We do these big district surveys each year but then we also we’ll survey … One of the surveys I did earlier this fall was surveying our new teachers about their new teacher training that they did in August. We use surveying tools quite a bit, but we know that it’s just one particular data point.

We do look at standardized tests — we know that that has a role to play — it’s not the end all be all, but we know that it has a role to play in our data points. In a lot of ways we’ve recently been trying to gather, this is maybe an odd data point, but we’ve been recently trying to gather a lot of something I learned from a training that I was involved in with a university here in Oklahoma, looking at empathy research. Asking questions about how people feel. When I say, “Ryan, professional development, what are some of the things you hear, feel, think and see?” That’s an odd data point because it’s not terribly formal but, when you ask that question and you ask the questions in the right way, it’s very personal to people so you get some real personal responses in a way that you might not get on a more formal type of survey.

We’ve been trying to use the empathy research to really help understand how people feel about things. We’ve been using it in a variety of different settings. Learning is such a personal experience. Sometimes a more formal surveying tool doesn’t always capture how you feel about something. 

As part of our continuous improvement, we always come back to, “How can we collect more data around this? How can we then look at the long-term impact?” We do a lot of observations. We will take board members, and parents and a variety of stakeholders, we will take them into the classroom so that they can see it. So we are gathering some data through those kinds of observations, trying to be really creative with the way that we approach data because it is an overwhelming piece.

You spoke earlier about the importance of reflection. As we near the end of our interview, I’d like you to do a little bit of the same thing. Most of our conversation today has centered around teacher learning and how to provide the best instruction. I want to ask you in your role, what have you learned?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Oh, wow. There are so many things. I really value the systems approach that we take here in Jenks. When you hear about a need, and we talk to teachers or we talk to students and we talk to administrators, and we identify, “This is something we really need to grow in.” I really have learned the value of, “Okay, let’s take that and let’s think on it, let’s get maybe some empathy research, let’s ask, let’s try to collect some data. Let’s really go about it in a systems approach, so that when we decide how we provide the support for the teachers and how we provide the support for the students, we feel really confident in the direction.”

So I really value this systems approach. I’ve learned that a lot from coming into this role. I guess I’ve learned, more than anything, the value of being really intentional about the support that we provide, and the ways that we determine when we want to grow and how we want to grow.

I’ve also really learned the outstanding things that are going on in our classrooms. I taught at one particular site, I didn’t know everything that was going on in all the different sites and the different grade levels and so I … More and more I go into classrooms or visit with people, and I’m just really blown away by the way they’re being really intentional and by their hard work and by all the ways that they’re working to help their students. It’s very humbling I’m very proud and privileged I feel to work with such a great group of people.

If you could go back and talk to the younger you right after you took this role, what would be at the top of your list? What would be one thing you would say I’ve got to tell myself that?

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: I would say, go into as many classrooms as you can, ask to go into those classrooms, but go see what’s going on in classrooms, and look for ways that you can partner with teachers, with administrators. I did a lot of things in my first year, I really tried to listen as best I could and take in what they were saying, and take in what they were needed before I injected a sense of, “Okay guys, we’re going to go in this direction.”

Those are still things that I want to continue to do, building partnerships across our sites across our classrooms and across our community.

Mary Kathryn Muller is director of professional development for Jenks Public School in Oklahoma, Mary Kathryn, thank you for taking time to talk with us today.  

MARY KATHRYN MOELLER: Thank you so much Ryan I really appreciated.

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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.