Wilburton Elementary: Professional development and the art of vulnerability

Wilburton Elementary is a state-of-the-art school being built from the ground up, following the guidance of the Microsoft Education Transformation Framework, in a collaborative effort between the Bellevue School District (BSD) and Microsoft. Follow Wilburton’s progress as it happens, from breaking ground, to hiring, to becoming a true 21st century learning community when it opens its doors in September 2018.


For the teachers who will soon be part of Wilburton Elementary, the 2018-19 school year will include a long list of “firsts” – an entirely new building, new faces, new curriculum, new everything. It’s exciting and a bit scary at the same time. That’s a good thing, if you ask Wilburton Principal Beth Hamilton.

“At Wilburton, we have an opportunity to start something fresh, but we get to create this as an experience all together,” she told me. “I can make a list of what everyone needs to know, but to get to those things we need to be comfortable enough with each other to take risks.”


Building trust through professional development


How do teachers get to that level of comfort? It’s all about building trust. Hamilton and Liz Ritz, Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Bellevue School District (BSD), sat down to talk with us about how Professional Development (PD) can help create a culture that celebrates life-long learning, inspires creativity, and allows everyone to be vulnerable – something that doesn’t come easy for most adults.

“My wish is that educators – teachers, principals, anyone in service to students – would have courage to be vulnerable,” says Ritz. “It’s really complex to teach and learn and there is no way that one person can hold all the answers. So, Beth and I are working to create a culture that celebrates PD opportunities and supports collaborative learning approaches.”

For Hamilton, this means it’s ok to say you don’t know something. In fact, it’s what we expect of our students every day: to be vulnerable and take risks.


Seeing professional development in a new light


Over 70 percent of teachers feel they are not successful without suffiencient professional development. Yet, anyone who has taken part in professional development knows that quality can be hit or miss. And according to many teachers and school leaders I meet, it has everything to do with follow-up and support.

According to Sonja Delafosse, global educator program manager at Microsoft, “For technology to impact student outcomes it is absolutely critical that teachers have access to job-embedded professional development that is directly tied to lesson planning and their professional learning communities.”

Wilburton Professional Development Principles

To ensure that PD takes on a different meaning at Wilburton, Hamilton and Ritz agreed on some basic professional development principles, which they expect to be championed by the Wilburton community. These include:

  • Understanding that PD will help educators and staff strengthen and deepen relationships, and build trust.
  • Believing that PD can inspire teachers to try something new in their classrooms.
  • Ensuring that PD at Wilburton is not about “sit and get” for educators, but instead provides meaningful opportunities to align new strategies for their classroom needs.
  • Recognizing that adult learning is different. What we model in PD is incredibly important. This includes how we greet people, how we answer a question, how we treat someone when they feel vulnerable.

“It’s about inspiring the learning process for adults, and then they will in turn inspire students,” says Hamilton. “A lot of this goes back to who we hire.”

Cultivating a culture of vulnerability; inspiring lifelong learning; building trust with teachers from many different backgrounds; helping them to use their strengths and grow them at the same time. That’s a tall order. So, Hamilton and Ritz have turned to the Microsoft Educator Community as one of the many PD tools and strategies to help.

“By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, we hope all our educators will become Microsoft Innovative Educators,” says Hamilton. “The Microsoft Educator Community makes it easy. This is online learning – it’s not ‘sit and get’ – it’s about being a learner at all times, being evaluative in your practice, without being overwhelming.”

And, says Ritz, knowing that everyone will be doing it provides the space for Wilburton teachers to work together and learn best practices from teachers around the globe.


Creating a structure for support and coaching 


Developing as an educator while meeting the daily demands of a classroom can be overwhelming, so support is necessary.

“There are teachers [throughout the district] who want more opportunities to engage in coaching experiences,” Ritz says, “and while they love teaching, they also want to share with their peers. There isn’t a system-wide structure in place to help share, even though they are considered the ‘master’ teachers. We’re looking at ways to support embedded coaching and to critically examine what’s working and what’s not.”

“We love the idea of having a ‘thought partner’ to push thinking, to be reflective,” says Hamilton. “It’s a real leverage point for education. Opportunities for coaching are big. That level of coaching also helps with vulnerability and emotional resiliency.”

“Education isn’t a competition,” she says. “While I want to be the best school, I want all the other schools to be the best schools, too.”

And there you have the fundamental starting place for professional development: helping teachers, in the broadest sense, to do what’s right for students.


Up next: STEM curriculum


Wilburton’s mission of being a 21st century learning environment means that a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum is a given. But what does that look like in an elementary school, where the computational and computer science needs of a kindergartner and a 5th grader are very different?

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