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Teachers benefit from school-level differentiation of professional development

HIGHLANDS RANCH – If you were to hop from school-to-school during a Professional Learning Community (PLC) Day, you would find that the focus of the professional development at each building varies widely. This is something that is not only permitted, but also celebrated and supported by the District’s Professional Development (PD) team.

While it is crucially important that the school-level work be aligned to the Douglas County School District’s Strategic Plan and Academic Cabinet Goals, as explained last week in the first story of this series on Professional Development: Professional Development offers teachers chance to pause, grow —Building Leadership Teams (BLTs) and specifically Professional Learning Specialists (PLS) have a tremendous amount of latitude to ensure that their employees are getting the support they need during these special days and throughout the entire year.

Many DCSD schools are like Rock Canyon, where PLC Days are structured like a conference, beginning with a breakfast and pep talk by Principal Abner.

“After covering some of the nuts and bolts, we talk about the goals for the day,” Abner explained. “The feeling that I try to leave at the end of that staff meeting in the morning is exactly how you feel at the end of a key note speaker.  You’ve got a hundred ideas racing through your head; you’ve got a lot of excitement and energy. You’re ready to out and try to do new things and are really inspired.”

Teachers then break out into different sessions.

“We take a very differentiated approach,” explained Abner. “We look at all the different things we are trying to accomplish and work on as a school and then we ask teachers. We gather feedback through surveys and through conversations with teachers and we ask them what they need to do a better job in certain areas or where they might need the most support. We try to cater to that.”

PLC days are an excellent chance to focus on how to make the high-level vision a reality.

“We appreciate the embedded time to take these big philosophical conversations and figure out how we apply it to our school,” explained Mesa Middle School PLS Erin Gilbert. “Now let’s work with it.”

While there may be times when the entire staff needs training on the same thing, Abner says it is better to let the teachers decide whether it is beneficial to them, rather than forcing a staff-wide session.

"We have more than 100 teachers that are sitting there. Some might need it, but some may not and will consider it a waste of time,” Abner said. “You certainly do not want that negative feeling around your professional development.”

Rock Ridge Principal Peter Mosby says quality PD should be structured just like good instruction in the classroom. It is differentiated and provides staff with voice and choice throughout the entire process.

“I have seen both good and bad PD days,” Mosby explained. "When an activity is not working as planned  you have to say, ‘Hey guys, I can tell by your body language, that this is not connecting with you.’ Just like a classroom lesson plan that does not work the way that you planned you have to modify the instruction to meet the needs of the staff, taking it in a different direction.”

In the end, Abner says you want staff to walk away from PD opportunities feeling positive about the experience, because it should give them the support they want, while helping to improve their craft, for the benefit of their students.

“That is what it is all about,” Abner said. “When we have a Professional Development Day, we must make sure that what I am learning today will have a positive impact on my students tomorrow and give me an opportunity to grow as a professional in my job.”

District support: Made to order professional development
While PD has created Learning Progressions, which are designed to be replicated again and again during in-person classes, PLC days and online courses, the department also works closely with schools to support the needs of their specific teachers.

“Our initial goal with the learning progressions was to saturate the system. We have face-to-face classes, as well as online and blended. Now, we are really working to bring this into the school-level and help building leaders to meet their teachers where they’re at,” explained Professional Development Coordinator Jeff Mlsna. “We believe in servant leadership. We do not go to a school and say, ‘you have to do A Case for Change,’ for instance.”

While the PD staff will certainly present the District’s Learning Progressions, if requested, they prefer to instead empower BLTs to deliver whatever training is needed, not only because of the capacity created, but also the differentiation that is possible.

“We are really working with buildings to support what they’ve identified as needs within their schools. The Building Leadership Team (BLT) helps us to determine the best fit for their staff and to help them to develop training that is delivered in a high quality way,” Mlsna said.

PD’s role is to provide the expertise in how those buildings can meet the unique strengths and challenges of their teachers.

“We are in this journey together, so it important we are supporting them all along the way,” said Amy Lane, PD’s director of World Class Education Professional Development Planning & Implementation.

“Most of the time the BLTs are very honest and they bring those pieces out right away and then we’re able to design that training that is the best for their staff,” Mlsna added.

In some cases, it may be providing teachers an “off ramp” about creating and assessing high quality units, collaborating with students or World Class Outcomes.

“This year, PD has really focused on building capacity,” explained Redstone Elementary PLS Jill Casas. “They are building capacity of trainers, so that we can build the capacity of teachers. Together we are able to put all of the foundational pieces in place, so people can move forward, build synergy and move the system forward.”

“By supporting PLSs the way they are, we now can go back to our schools and support our own teams with their unique needs and wants,” Mountain View Elementary PLS Jean Taylor said. “To quote Jim Collins, we are helping our schools create that little ‘pocket of greatness.’ Our District is so large, it is important to have PLS supporting teachers at the school-level.”

Again, the school decides what to focus on during professional development.

“[At Pine Lane] we have been focused on getting to a deeper understanding of the World Class Outcomes, because our staff, our teachers want to do a good job,” said Pine Lane Elementary PLS Jene't  Marsh. “We are letting our teachers dive into one thing deeply and go back and try something in their classroom, so they can build some confidence. Everything we have done since the beginning of the year has been aligned to that.”

Because of differentiation, teachers can move on when they feel comfortable with a topic. So, at Pine Lane, teachers who have conquered outcomes can move on to explore new ways of delivering content.

“We’ve got two teachers, for example, during our embedded time that are bringing in some design thinking and some other things. We are pushing and feeding teachers separately, based on what they need,” said Pine Lane Elementary PLS Jene't Marsh.

“I’m working right now with Castle Rock Elementary and they brought in a person working with PBL,” added Mlsna. “They were working on World Class Outcomes, so we looked at the content the consultant had brought and helped them make the connections.”

Similarly, at Rock Ridge and SouthRidge Elementary, Mlsna and Professional Development Assistant Director Sara Curto have been working to crosswalk the District’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum to the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

“We are currently working on the first two stages in backward planning. During our PD day we were able to modify Yellow Card camp to incorporate IB terms into the class in collaboration with district PD staff members,” explained Rock Ridge Principal Peter Mosby.

“A lot of it is just getting over that vocabulary piece,” Mlsna said. “It is like two different languages, so we are just helping teachers to see the great work that they’re doing at Rock Ridge, which is phenomenal, can translate into the Douglas County language.”

PLSs provide PD support everyday
The Professional Learning Specialists are a key component to the success of DCSD teachers. Throughout the District they are the ones that are helping to lead the school level PD efforts, by organizing PLC days, as well as supporting teachers daily.

For example, Sarah Pascoe, the PLS at Rock Canyon is constantly on the move.

In addition to being a liaison to the District’s PD Department and the training that entails, she organizes the big PLC days, as well as weekly PD offerings. Rock Canyon’s staff can participate in Chat and Chews – PD offered during lunch, Tuesday Talks – PD during planning periods and occasional technology trainings. These opportunities are popular because they cover things that staff need to know. For instance during the next Tuesday Talk, staff will have the opportunity to learn more about threat assessment protocol and how to help students through crisis.

In many cases, PLSs strive to keep up on the latest literature regarding planning, assessment and instruction – as well as encouraging a forum for teachers to share what they have learned.

“At Mesa [Middle School] it is happening organically,” Gilbert said. “Teachers are going out because there are so many opportunities to go out and get professional development. They are going out and bringing it back to the school, working in it and then other teachers are saying, ‘hey, what are you doing?’ and ‘how are you doing that?’ ‘Let me try this’ and Let me try that.’”

The PLS can act as an excellent resource for staff. Teachers can ask them for assistance, if they’re having trouble in an area.

“[Sarah] does it in a way that is non-threatening, non-evaluative, so there is less pressure and less stress around the situation,” Abner said.

PLSs are able to offer new teachers and veteran staff alike support at a peer level, without involving superiors.

“It’s a good buffer between teachers and evaluators. They are able to ask for help, without concern that it could reflect on their evaluation,” added Mosby.

Again, the primary goal of all of the professional development is ensuring that teachers have what they need to succeed and grow, which, of course, benefits our students.

“We want to meet the teacher where they are and to provide them with opportunities to reflect and to grow within their practice to benefit their students,” Abner said. “Of course, Professional Development is only is going to be as successful as the person’s openness and receptiveness to growing.”

Learn more about DCSD’s Professional Development and sign up for courses at

Next week, we will continue our series on Professional Development by exploring how technology is revolutionizing Professional Development efforts.

February 21, 2016 | By rmbarber | Category: Professional Development

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