Inside-Out PD: Teachers as the Seeds of Innovation

By Niamh McQuillan for Discovery Education

“Our stakeholder data said we needed to make changes, and here is what we did.” Rebecca illustrated each step carefully that she and her principal had taken to build the teacher professional development system in their elementary school.  The design she was sharing was based on the model I had created for my own school as a Professional Learning Coach. She paused after detailing the modifications they had made to meet the needs of their school and looked at me with concern. “Are you okay that we changed your ideas?” I beamed back at her immediately. “Of course! I am delighted that you have made it your own. That is the whole purpose of Inside-Out PD.” She smiled back, relieved, and turned to Dustin. “Your turn, now.” For the next 10 minutes, Dustin elaborated on his high school’s version of Inside-Out PD. In truth, I was more than delighted that both of my colleagues had personalized the PD model for their schools. I was intrigued at their innovation. 


Rebecca, Dustin and I were partnering to present on the evolution of our schools’ PD models at an upcoming monthly district conference for PD teachers.  I was in my fourth year at Windsor Mill Middle School, one of seven pilot middle schools selected in Baltimore County Public Schools to launch a district-wide initiative to give every student and teacher a laptop and to make the shift to a Learner-Centered Environment. My task was to distil the abundance of PD that I received at district meetings and conferences and bring it to the school in a manageable and relevant way, so that teachers could make the shift to small-group instruction and incorporate purposeful technology. Our first year, the pace was fast and furious. On everyone’s radar were the visits from other schools and districts beginning in January. We used every method at our disposal—needs surveys, whole group, small group, individual, and independent professional development, blended learning and drop-in workshops. The teachers threw themselves in on the deep end sharing successes and failures like candy.

By middle of the first year, three things became obvious. One: Technology was not the Holy Grail--sound instruction was still at the heart of learning. Two: Teachers were battling overwhelming time constraints. Three: Despite all the planning and surveys, figuring out how to provide meaningful PD that translated to the classroom was like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck.  The conclusion? We needed to reconfigure teacher learning.

The Why of reorganizing our PD model was clear. The PD we had in place was not consistently purposeful to impact and stay with teachers. The next step was the What and the How of change. I had one foot in my new role as Professional Development Coach where I saw the big picture of what we needed to do, and one foot still very firmly in the world of the classroom; 18 years as a high-school English teacher left me with a visceral feeling of what it was like to be responsible for a room full of students every day. As a teacher, I always liked new learning at faculty meetings, but more often than not, it was like a barnacle on my practice. I attended PD and took the handout back to the ‘To Do’ tray in my room with the full intention of incorporating it into a lesson that week. Without fail, something would come up, and at the end of the year, when I finally got to the papers--now stacked like archeological layers in the tray--I would remember the activity or strategy and say, maybe next year.



Our school’s biggest assets were a fearless principal whose motto was “Do what it takes,” rock-solid assistant principals, and an open-minded faculty. For the next few months I turned the pieces around in my head, and by spring had a plan to take to the principal. We hashed out the big picture and the details and found the answer: Inside-Out PD—a streamlined and purposeful professional development model that held teacher practice at its core. We had two central ideas. PD would be generated from inside the teachers’ classrooms. What were our teachers doing and where were they asked to go? How could we begin the inquiry in the classroom and expand and respond from there? Our second core idea aimed to tailor the dizzying myriad of district and school initiatives and requirements that teachers were asked to field every year.

Over the course of the next three years we developed a solid learning structure that was also flexible enough to be responsive to the changing needs of our teachers and school.  The basic premise was always the same. Inside-Out PD centered around Inquiry Teams--areas identified as crucial learning for our school.  Teachers chose the Inquiry Team that matched their need and interest with the understanding that they could move to another team as they developed their skills and learning. Teacher Leaders facilitated the teams, and each month I trained this teacher core in leading their teams and designing the new learning for their sessions.

Our Inquiry Team topics marked our goals and growth as a school. The topics for the Inquiry team changed accordingly throughout the three years, covering a range from effective feedback, to higher-order thinking, responsive instruction, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination, a rigorous college preparatory program), Project-Based Learning; and International Baccalaureate in preparation for our goal to earn IB accreditation.  

At the launch meetings in September we established a first-meeting model for monthly Inquiry Team meetings. We generated Norms; Inquiry-Team goals grounded in the Charlotte Danielson Highly Effective Framework, Outcomes; and group procedures. All materials were housed in a One Note notebook created for each team. Again, each year we tweaked and changed the Inquiry Team agenda to respond to teachers’ feedback about what they needed. The meetings began with a one-minute team-building activity. Teachers then partnered up to do 10 minutes of coaching—5 minutes each way—to ask powerful questions about the impact and outcome of the previous month’s Inquiry Team PD that they had incorporated into a lesson. The goal was simply to understand the thinking of the work and practice.  This was followed by 10-15 minutes of team-specific PD. Teachers had the remaining time to plan a lesson with the new learning. The meeting closed with teachers entering an artifact or brief note into the One Note of their plan. The aim was to ensure that the learning was purposeful, responsive, and directly applicable to what was happening in the teachers’ classrooms, and to provide a space for teacher ownership and collaboration.

As a PD Coach, I now had a specific point of entry to work with each teacher that blended instruction, practice, content, and technology. I was also able to make connections among the practices of teachers to give them a go-to partner for support and ideas. We could seamlessly blend asks and resources into teachers’ existing work during an Inquiry Team meeting or co-planning. Technology morphed into a tool to support instruction as opposed to a bright shiny object to add glitz to a lesson. As a pilot middle school, a Discovery Education resource teacher worked regularly with our faculty. Inside-Out PD was like an index for her to build relationships with teachers, generate authentic connections for planning, and introduce the myriad of Discovery Education tools based on where the novice or veteran teacher was in their own learning and development.


From the onset of Inside-Out PD our principal wanted to ensure that all teams had access to each other’s learning. If a teacher selected Project-Based Learning as her topic, how could she learn about effective feedback? When we calendared the school year we built in opportunities for shared learning. We planned a Virtual PD in October where teachers answered a series of questions about their Inquiry Team learning and experience. We scheduled Learning Walks from November to February so teachers could see the new learning in real time. And at the end of the year we hosted an ‘Ignite’ Gallery Walk where teachers took turns sharing to small groups key highlights of their learning. And the outcome? Classrooms that were like individual gardens that reflected teacher learning and ownership of their learning.  


Dustin let out a breath. “Whew! And that’s us!” Rebecca and I paused to take in the myriad of ways Dustin’s high school had adapted the Inside-Out PD model to fit the needs of the teachers and the school goals. We glanced at our watches. The time had flown.

“What are your takeaways from the work?” I asked.

Rebecca spoke first. “The teachers like that they can focus on one topic. They loved the collaboration and getting readings and resources they could reference later that were specific to their work.

We looked at Dustin. “Teachers were able to choose their topic for the most part. It gives them voice. In 98% of the meetings, the topic or strategy is applicable in their classrooms within a day or two. They like that it is immediate. They tell me that they have grown in the classroom.” 

“And what about your takeaway?” Rebecca asked?

“Probably the best thing I could have heard. A teacher told me this week that I had made it safe for teachers to take risks and to fail.”

Our trio packed up our bags, ready to present our work to almost 200 PD teachers the following week. And like any teacher, we were excited for people to learn.

Niamh McQuillan is the Coordinator of Professional Learning in Baltimore County Public Schools who works with educators and district leaders to develop and achieve team, school, and district instructional, leadership, and equity goals. She also curates Ripple Out, a web-based forum for intentional women’s leadership.




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