Saturday, October 24, 2015

We've Sung Every Hymn in the Hymnal

“Teacher growth is closely related to pupil growth. Probably nothing within a school has more impact on students in terms of skills development, self-confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers.” 
Roland Barth

This photo of Saint Simons Island is courtesy of TripAdvisor

For seven years, I lived on St. Simons Island, Georgia, a beautiful coastal community roughly halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. While living there, I attended services at Wesley United Methodist Church at Fort Frederica every Sunday for seven consecutive years. One Sunday, near the end of my time there, the music minister stood to tell us which hymn we were about to sing and added something that surprised me: “After singing today’s hymn, we will have sung every hymn in the hymnal since I arrived here as the music minister.” Even though I had attended services at this church nearly every single Sunday for seven consecutive years, I had no idea that we had worked our way through every song in the hymnal or that the music minister had an apparent strategy behind what he was doing in his leadership role. Although this particular moment took place over a decade ago, I was reminded of it recently when reviewing feedback from our staff about a recent professional learning day in our district. caption
For three years, I have had the honor to help plan--along with a host of other very talented colleagues--the professional learning (PL) events in our district. We take these opportunities rather seriously since there is never enough time for professional learning and we want to maximize what precious time we do have available to us. Immediately after each formal PL event on our calendar, we send a survey to all staff asking whether the time spent on PL was useful and soliciting feedback on how we can do better. Thankfully, the feedback we receive is always positive overall, a testament to the fact that the vast majority of staff in our district are not only teachers, but also lifelong learners themselves who are continuously seeking ways to grow and become even better at what they do. When we perused the comments section of the survey from our most recent PL day, we noticed that some folks suggested we bring in “outside experts” on a topic (which we have done on several occasions) while others asked for extended time to work in job alike teams for planning purposes (which we have also done on several occasions). Still others suggested we plan an Edcamp style event (which we did two years ago). It struck me that, in a way, we have “sung every song in the hymnal” over the past three years when it comes to what we have planned and implemented in terms of PL experiences.

Honestly, this has not been accidental; indeed, it has been intentional. We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all model of learning for kids; we are equally opposed to such models for staff. As a result, we strive to plan widely varying PL events in our district. We have hosted nationally renowned leaders like Tom Guskey, Todd Whitaker, and Tom Murray in our district to name but a few. We have sent staff to local, regional, and even national conferences near and far. We host an annual Teaching and Learning Conference each January as a way to kick off the second semester to each school year. We schedule ongoing grade level and PLC meetings to continuously re-examine what it is we want kids to know, how we will know if they know it, how we respond when they do not learn, and how we respond when they have already mastered what we intended to teach. We have hosted district wide Twitter Chats on a variety of topics, asking all staff to choose one in which to take part. We have joined forces with neighboring districts to host an annual summertime “TechCamp” focusing on teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment. We have hosted optional face-to-face after school workshops and within the day “lunch and learn” workshops. We have created a district hashtag (#engage109) on which many staff share articles, resources, and ideas they try out in their classrooms. This year, we even unveiled our new anytime, anywhere PL platform we call Deerfield University, offering over 30 opportunities to complete a mini PL course, with topics ranging from Project Based Learning to Home-School Connections, and allowing staff to earn digital badges and incentive points along the way. Honestly, this brief list merely scratches the surface of the amazing amount of professional learning opportunities that amazing educators in our district have planned, designed, and implemented over the past three years.

In reflecting on these wide-ranging professional learning opportunities, it seems we have attempted to offer every type of learning on every possible topic during a relatively short period of time, much like the music minister in my former church was able to cover all the hymns in our hymnal over time. Not to belabor the point, but when comparing these two seemingly-unrelated events, I find a few additional parallel points worth noting:
  • Although we sang every hymn in the entire hymnal at our church, some were way more popular than others the majority of attendees. Likewise, some professional learning events tend to be more widely popular with most staff than other events.
  • Not everyone in my church had the same favorite hymns. Hymns I considered the absolute best were ones my neighbor did not like at all. Likewise, some professional learning events we have planned were extremely popular with some staff while somewhat unpopular with other staff members.
  • The actual singing of the hymns was only a small--but extremely important and talked about---part of the entire service. Likewise, professional learning is but a small part of our school year, but equally important and talked about.
  • The actual singing of the hymn was only part of the overall point. The meaning behind the words, how--if at all--they impacted us, and how we acted as a result moving forward was more important than the actual singing. Likewise, professional learning events themselves are only a small part of the learning; what we DO with what we learn is more important still.
  • As but one individual among hundreds of church members, I had no idea whatsoever the strategy and intentionality behind the music leader’s efforts. I marveled when I learned there was actually a rhyme and reason to the songs he selected each week. Likewise, although it may seem random to some, in school districts with effective professional learning, designers of such learning start with the Why? and have a purpose in mind for every learning event they schedule, as well as an overarching, long-term strategy.
Excellent teachers I have observed over the years plan and deliver daily lessons and units of study that are intentionally designed and which purposefully call on students in the class to engage in a wide variety of learning activities, all aligned to specific learning goals. As adults, our learning must be equally intentional and purposeful. Engaging in a variety of professional learning experiences on a variety of topics is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!


  1. Thanks Jeff! I enjoyed the analogies and appreciate the variety in which professional development has been delivered in our district the last couple of years. I especially appreciated the comment about how different people in the church enjoy different hymns just like different staff in the district favor certain PD over others. With that, learning styles of teachers is recognized and accommodations are made when planning these PD days. Thanks!

    1. Michelle, Thanks so much for reading and commenting; moreover, thanks fro being a big part of our PL the past three years through the great work you are doing and sharing with others! Jeff