“Be brave, be kind, and be an includer.” These are the words that we say to our daughter and son each time we drop them off at their elementary school. This phrase is a reminder of the power they have to influence those around them in a positive manner and start a ripple of change.

In the fall of 2019, my school district, Richland One, asked me to participate in their Professional Learning Design Team facilitated by Mira Education. As a teacher, I always consider it an honor to represent my colleagues in a larger context. While I was excited to be asked, I was also nervous about the time commitment involved, as it would take me away from my students for multiple days. Also, teacher voices are not always included in broader decision making, so figuring out how to give an honest, productive perspective while being cognizant of this history felt like a mental and emotional hurdle.

As an institution, education has at times struggled with the inertia associated with change – we hold onto outdated practices because “We’ve always done it that way,” or we throw everything out and start over. Despite this history, I was optimistic about the prospect of learning a new practice and believed that to fully unpack an educational problem, teachers must have a seat at the table.

In the first session, the concept of micro-credentials was introduced and we discovered that along with representing every grade level within our district, the group of educators present had arrived with varying amounts of familiarity with the topic. Everything seemed straightforward and smooth: pick a micro-credential, complete it, and then return in the spring to discuss the process. The micro-credential I chose was “Cultivating a Shared Purpose.” I wanted to utilize my work as Science Department Chair to build a community with the teachers in my department. I knew increasing collegiality and collective problem solving would strengthen our support for one another and our students.

The shared purpose of identifying and meeting student needs in the classroom is one that would not only improve my instructional practices but those of my science colleagues as well. I worked to complete the required artifacts and was excited and relieved when I was awarded the micro-credential. I made notes about the process to share with the Professional Learning Design Team and believed the impact and reach of the experience would end there.

However, in the spring we returned for a two-day Design Team Retreat, and our discussions centered on the process of obtaining the micro-credential. This experience felt different.

Could we talk about struggles? Could we candidly convey our feelings about the process? The facilitators pushed for more specifics. “Be BRAVE,” I thought to myself.

I hesitated, and then asked, “Do you really want to know what we think? No one has asked that before. The space for that type of input hasn’t existed.” The Mira Education facilitator reminded us of what she told us at the beginning of our day: they were very impressed with the work of the Richland One educators who completed micro-credentials. Our work was thorough, thoughtful, and exemplary. Initially, we nodded and moved on, not fully processing nor embracing these commendations. But now, we were being met with what teachers long to hear: “Your perspectives are important and why we are gathered here.” The opportunity to BE KIND presented itself when the facilitators realized we were hesitant to share and paused to extend kindness and be intentional about the type of setting we were in – one of value, trust, shared experience, and expertise.

Then the breakthrough happened. We were open to the process they were guiding us through and chose to be vulnerable when we gave feedback. Educators shared why they chose certain micro-credentials, why they changed micro-credentials, what support they received, and what support they wished they had. Throughout this discussion, a theme of personalization emerged. The initial self-assessment and reflection required us to pick a micro-credential. The request for more time led to an extra workday provided by district leadership and supported by our administrators. The recognition of this need proved pivotal to most of the group, as it gave us the time and space for focused, intentional work. The facilitators were there to talk through concerns, and other educators were there to offer ideas and encouragement; this built a community of professionals with the goal of improving their craft. Our thoughts flowed about what worked for us, what was less effective, and what would help others engage in this process.

The retreat culminated in a “fishbowl” activity. While decision makers watched and listened, we were led through a series of questions that addressed successes, concerns, and allowed us to validate others while hearing ourselves be valued. The next steps included forming committees to discuss implementation and potential best practices and obstacles, while recognizing that professional development will always be an ongoing and iterative process.

So what is required of decision makers to replicate this type of personal professional learning? Be AN INCLUDER.

The shift Richland One made in the way district professional development has been presented this year has already moved toward giving teachers choice in their growth. These choices include self-paced sessions that present opportunities for technology exposure. Including educators in the decision-making process creates buy in, ownership, a sense of personal accomplishment, and ultimately authenticates the experience for others. How might having educators who experience these qualities impact teacher retention?

Being INCLUDED creates a pathway for educators to be BRAVE and KIND. Speaking for myself, being encouraged to be BRAVE in a KIND environment and being INCLUDED by Richland One among a diverse cohort of experts had a positive impact on how I view the future of my chosen profession.

At a time when schools, the profession, and our country is in crisis, personalized professional development can be a bright spot. There is much we cannot control; but teachers can control their professional growth and work toward the shared goals of the district community through personalized professional learning pathways like micro-credentials.

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Dottie Adams

Dottie Adams is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) with 20 years of classroom experience teaching science, math, and STEMrelated electives, all at the middle school level. Dottie has degrees in Early Childhood Education, Teaching Math and Science, and School Administration. She currently teaches 8th grade science at Hand Middle School in Richland County School District One in Columbia, SC, where she also serves as a Team Leader, Science Department Chair, Teacher Mentor and Evaluator.

This story is published as part of a storytelling retreat hosted by the Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP) housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. CEP partners nominated practicing educators, administrators, and system leaders to share their stories. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a CEP partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CEP_UofSC and @teachingquality.