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Category: Personalized Learning

Changing the Language to Build a Culture to Support Transformational Leadership

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As defined in Simply Psychology(opens in new tab), “Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in those led and invests in the success of every member involved in the process.” Nowhere is this more critical than in the post-pandemic educational environment. With a focus on student-centered learning and personalized professional growth, educational leaders must reevaluate their leadership systems to inspire, support, and collaborate to transform learning and innovation. 

Quintin Shepherd, Superintendent at Victoria ISD in Texas, and Sarah Williamson’s recently released book, (opens in new tab)The Secret to Transformational Leadership(opens in new tab), recognizes the ‘lone wolf’ leader as a thing of the past. Instead, leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend fundamental changes that reflect their mutual purpose. Therefore, educational leaders need to have a growth mindset and follow another path of leadership skills that results in high achievement and academic success in schools.  

Competency vs. Compassionate Language

Competencies are a person’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and talents that allow them to complete the responsibilities of a specific job successfully. However,  simply communicating competency may not be enough to inspire success.

“Competency-based language of leadership is like a suit that doesn’t quite fit right anymore,” writes Shepherd. “It works and gets the job done, but you know it is not as good as it could be. Leaders want to tackle the critical and challenging topics facing them every day, but competent language gets in the way of having the conversations that matter.” 

According to Shepherd and Williamson, following another path of skills requires leaders to move away from competency language to the more collaborative language of compassion. This mindset shift will result in better performance and visibility into what the school community expects of its leaders. Choosing to use compassionate language prompts leaders to think differently about how they evaluate their efforts. Compassionate leadership’s transparent and shared purpose or vision includes positively valuing differences, frequent face-to-face contact, continuous commitment to equality and inclusion, clear roles, and a strong team. It embraces the digital world we live in, the generational difference in the school community, and the need to accomplish organizational goals and bring people together around ideas. 


This new language inspires and empowers at the same time. It can unite the school community regarding complex issues that impact students and staff. “It focuses equally on great questions over satisfactory answers, embraces the unknown, and wrestles it into manageable,” writes Shepherd.   

Building Relationships 

To master the new language of leadership, leaders must pivot their thinking from focusing on individuals to concentrating on interactions between individuals. This pivot requires constructive de-polarization that brings people together around purposes and relationships and does not divide based on ideas or ideology. 

The relationships between leaders and active followers should be based on influence and, therefore, multi-directional with more than one follower and typically more than one leader. Leaders and followers purposely desire specific changes, and these changes must be substantive and transforming. Through non-coercive influence relationships, compassionate leaders and the school community can develop objectives that reflect their ideals and mutual intentions. 

Communication Framework 

Shepherd and Williamson identify a four-part communication framework of why, who, how, and what embedded in the shift to compassionate language and transformational leadership.  

Communicating the “why” is mission-critical for the work’s success, as the words of a leader will fall flat without meaning, and the innovation’s success will be in jeopardy. 

Communicating the “who” of the work builds unconditional faith and an ability to connect with the emotions of others. Investing in training resources and processes is non-negotiable, so leaders must have the compassion to treat others as professionals in their work. Shepherd says that if leaders intend to embrace compassionate leadership to the fullest, they must immerse themselves fully in the work and dreams of others.  

Communicating the “how” means enthusiastically embracing innovative ideas. By doing so, districts reduce the cost of failure while increasing the value of innovation, resulting in a powerful paradigm shift in the school culture.  

Communicating the “what” is key as improvement cannot exist in a vacuum. Compassionate transformational leaders share the “what” of the work with deep compassion. 


Shepherd highlights that leaders need to understand their thought processes and disrupt any competency-based language that falls into the “good” or “bad” continuum. His advice to leaders traveling down the path of transformational leadership is to embrace compassionate language by connecting more deeply with their current climate and community. Immersing in the crowd-sourcing of decisions and optimizing digital strategies will create shared spaces for everyone to have their voices heard.  


FETC 2020: A Focus on Stem and Underrepresented Students

FETC recognizes the challenges and roadblocks school districts and educators face when providing equitable access to STEM education for all students.

According to the National Science Foundation, students need in-depth, high-quality educational STEM experiences to succeed in the “information-based and highly technological society.” Across the country, districts recognize STEM education as a priority and implement programming that provides K12 students with hands-on, project-based STEM lessons. Based on a 2018 report, STEM education is not an equitable experience for all school districts or all students. In the case of the haves and have nots, school districts in low-income areas with limited funding resources struggle to provide students with access to computer science classes, comprehensive STEM programs, and adequately equipped science labs. Even more disturbing is that underrepresented students, such as girls, students of color, students with learning disabilities, and students in low socioeconomic backgrounds, are not regularly presented with learning opportunities that would expose them to challenging STEM. 

FETC (Future of Educational Technology Conference) recognizes the challenges and roadblocks school districts and educators face when trying to provide equitable access to STEM education for all students. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in Miami, Florida, on January 14- 17, 2020, FETC once again will prove itself as one of the top edtech conferences to attend this year. With a wealth of STEM sessions, workshops, learning labs, and school tours, attendees will experience proven strategies and solutions to combat the growing numbers of students with little or no exposure to STEM projects.

STEM Keynote

No one is more in tune with the urgency of ensuring that all students, especially those in the underrepresented categories, have an abundance of STEM educational opportunities than Justin Shaifer. Shaifer, aka Mr. Fascinate, is the founder and executive director of Fascinate, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides culturally responsive lesson plans and experiences to students across the US. During FETC 2020, this high energy 24-year-old will engage attendees with his STEM Keynote presentation, “Bring STEM to Class: A Practical Guide to Education.” Shaifer’s goal “to be for STEM what ESPN is for sports” and to inspire young people to “embrace their inner nerd despite their surroundings.”

STEM Sessions

Echoing Shaifer’s mission to bring STEM education to every classroom and every student are the courageous, committed, and visionary edtech leaders, educators, and support staff presenting at FETC 2020. Within the six edtech strands that have become synonymous with FETC, numerous sessions focus on innovative practices and solutions to ensure students are positioned well for the yet to be created STEM positions available when they graduate. 

Sessions such as Coding in K-8 Classrooms: Empowering Creativity and Content CreationCross-Curricular STEAM Integration for Every Classroom, and Collaborating Across Curriculums Using Digital Tools and Maker Space highlight the importance of ensuring that makerspaces are not the only place students learn science, technology, engineering, and real-world math applications.

These sessions reflect the belief that coding exposes more students to STEM education when integrated across curriculum areas, resulting in students who are more engaged, energized, and active participants in their learning. 

Educators recognize but don’t always have the skillset to connect and engage underrepresented students in STEM areas. Encouraging Underrepresented Populations to Engage and Stay in STEMEngaging Students in 21st Century Skills Through an Engineering Mindset and Hero Elementary: Designing Accessible Digital Experiences to Promote STEM Equity sessions showcase how classroom teachers can champion inclusion by connecting students to content-rich STEM experiences while supporting their needs and learning struggles. 

When school districts have the necessary funding and educators have the tools, skills, and resources to provide students with multiple opportunities to have hands-on STEM learning opportunities, the playing field becomes leveled for underrepresented students. Attending FETC 2020 is an opportunity for edtech leaders and educators to learn about the struggles of underrepresented students, interact with colleagues on common issues and leave with strategies and solutions to the barriers many of our students experience in STEM education. 

Source: FETC 2020: A Focus on STEM and Underrepresented Students Tech & Learning January 2020

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How This Principal Uses Personalized PD for Teachers

In May, when surveyed principals, personalized PD for teachers was the number one topic of interest. With all the responsibilities and tasks on principals’ plates, relevant, engaging PD focused on best practices can be extremely challenging.

In a recent edWebinar, Dr. L Robert Furman, principal of South Park Elementary Center in Pennsylvania, asked the question, “Why is it that when we think of PD, it becomes a comedy or a depression and teachers automatically assume that it is going to be a colossal waste of time?”

Related content: 3 takeaways from my STEM PD

Personalized PD for teachers can alleviate these feelings because it gives teachers opportunities to be better teachers, translating into improved student learning.

Furman and the school administrators have completely revamped teacher PD by using curated webinars and accessible and relevant resources on edWeb. 

Teachers are expected to do their best every day, and this expectation can weigh heavy on them unless principals support them with productive instructional practices. Education leaders at South Park Elementary Center decided creative, innovative, and personalized PD for teachers was the best way to support them in doing their best in classrooms every day.

Using edWeb resources, teachers quickly find their topic of interest and easily access webinars that enable them to “jump in and get a lot of great information in a hurry.” Access to edWeb resources also gives principals opportunities to meet with teachers and reflect on questions such as: “Did it challenge your thinking? What caught your attention? Did it change your way of thinking about the topic specifically? What evidence could you show that helped you change ideas or concepts from the webinar or artifacts that mesh or contradict with your current beliefs?”

edWeb as a platform for PD is done fairly regularly in South Park Elementary Center. Because teachers were excited and engaged in this type of PD, the program expanded from weeks to semesters and school years. The teachers also began to group topics based on their groupings at school. For example, the six second-grade teachers all picked the same topic and collected 60 different artifacts. A wealth of knowledge flowed when they held team meetings and had conversations around what they learned. The teachers then implemented the instructional practices as the final piece to this personalized PD.

As the person who’s doing PD, Furman firmly believes that principals need to change PD’s format. Principals need to model what they teach and present learning opportunities that address their relevance to teachers’ learning styles and engagement. Using the built-in resources of edWeb for personalized PD for teachers, educators can learn at their own pace and pick their interests, language, and cultural background in an accessible, safe, and collaborative environment.

Source: eSchoolNews

Taking Personalized Learning to Scale

Aurora Institute (former iNACOL) defines personalized learning as “tailoring learning for each student’s strength, needs, and interests—including enabling student’s voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.”

Dr. Monica Burns, curriculum and educational technology consultant and founder of, in a recent edWebinar, echoed this iNACOL concept. Before designing learning experiences that are personal to individual students, it is critical for classroom teachers and school leaders to identify student engagement, student interest, student choice, student voice, cross-curricular connections, and differentiated resources.

When it comes to student engagement, Burns said, “We want to make sure that we are capturing student attention by having students’ eyes where we want them to be or their hands where we want them to explore.” At the same time, it is essential to recognize that engagement looks different for every student in a classroom. By listening to what students are excited about and identifying their needs, teachers can provide a flexible learning environment that supports, energizes, and engages all individual learners.

Student choice and voice happens when students have opportunities to share what makes their interests unique and are active participants in conversations around success criteria and curriculum-based norms. How students demonstrate what they’ve learned and celebrated their learning journey is important to the personalized learning process as engagement, interest, voice, and choice.

Students can celebrate and share small learning wins through various personalized options such as text, graphics, collaborative discussions, and digital tools such as podcasts and videos. With their interests identified and supported, students get into the flow of learning and see the purpose of what they are doing in class.

Expanding your personalized-learning practice

To put personalized learning into practice, various cross-curricular connections need to happen across a grade-level team, school, and district. School districts can establish norms and clear standards connections for personalized student experiences through curriculum mapping, school-wide goals, and thematic exploration. Resources should be curated and differentiated and ready for individual students, “whether it is based on their particular reading levels, the way they like to engage with content in online and offline modes, or whether it is merely thinking about what gets them interested in a topic,” said Burns. Resources can be distributed to individual students using digital tools to experience content relevant to their goals and interests.

With adaptive-learning software, student’s learning journeys are customized and supported with resources based on their interest and excitement around particular subtopics while at the same time, allowing teachers to make data-driven educational decisions. Open-ended creation tools such as movie maker, website creator, and eBook tools provide opportunities for students to create concrete or tangible unit projects showing what they have learned.

How to expand personalized learning outward

Educational leaders need to model what a personalized learning environment looks like so that personalized learning happens more widely in classrooms, throughout buildings, and across the district.

Customizing professional development based on educators’ interests and needs and providing more flexibility for PLCs establishes norms and a culture that honors the personal experience that school leaders want for students. School leaders need to allow educators to have time to explore, plan, and reflect on the curation of resources and redesign classroom activities that honor student voice and choice. Along with modeling, school leaders need to support personalization by ensuring that the school community has the resources necessary to support every individual student.

Burns advised school leaders and classroom teachers that there are multiple ways to infuse personalized learning without feeling overwhelmed by the process. By “chunking it down” into daily, weekly, and monthly goals, finding tech partners, and keeping tool belts light, the school community can focus on one or two areas that feel manageable right now. She also advises leaders and teachers to share their personalized learning journey through social media and connect with other districts and teachers doing the same work.

Source: Taking personalized learning to scale eSchoolNews February 2019 

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