When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the country to close last spring, many district leaders were gripped with anxiety because their teachers weren’t ready to pivot to remote learning.
But not Panama-Buena Vista Union, a K-8 district of about 18,000 students in Bakersfield, Calif., in the Central Valley, about 155 miles north of Los Angeles.
And not Jason Hodgson, the school system’s director of professional development, who had spent the last two years laying the groundwork for that moment—even though he didn’t know it at the time.
When Panama-Buena Vista hired Hodgson in 2018 to overhaul its professional development program, officials had to coax teachers to attend the sessions because they took up a lot of time and delivered few benefits.
Just a month after arriving, Hodgson started working on what eventually became pbvU— a kind of in-house university for district teachers that offers a suite of nearly 130 multiweek courses in English, math, science, and essential skills like classroom management.
The PD courses, which are taught primarily by Panama-Buena Vista teachers, provide seven hours of instruction, plus two periods each for reflection and implementation.
- Invest Big in Culture: Trust first and often, embrace constructive conflict, invite mutual accountability, and celebrate risks and teamwork.
- Lead with Learning: With transparency and the best interests of others at the forefront, model humility, listening, and empathy while learning from and with others.
- Focus on Results: All students can learn, but some lack belief and hope. We must develop clarity with a narrow purpose and by regularly reviewing results and fostering a belief in ferociously pursuing continuous improvement.
Teachers who demonstrate mastery receive credits that can move them up in the salary schedule. Accruing enough credits can put them in a brand new “seventh” column on the district’s salary scale, or on track to earn up to $101,072 annually. (The starting teacher’s salary is $50,000.)
So when the pandemic halted in-person instruction, Hodgson quickly got to work, transforming pbvU into an online university and helping the district’s nearly 1,000 teachers get up to speed on creating effective distance learning plans and honing the technical skills they needed to deliver those lessons successfully.
Hodgson and his team hosted 10 days of online training for teachers on Canvas, the learning management system. They also offered a dozen sessions in Spanish and English for the district’s 19,000 parents.
But he was not done. In the fall, Hodgson launched PBVUSD-Distance Learning through which teachers can earn three different levels of distance learning certification. The new feature also provides teachers with grade-level resources about online learning, specific instructional practices and lesson designs, and monthly tech tips.
Customized Professional Development
It helped that Hodgson had spent the last two years working with teachers to fine-tune pbvU to create courses that were tailor-made for the district’s needs and the unique challenges Panama-Buena Vista teachers faced in their individual classrooms.
“Jason does a great job of rolling with the punches,” said Valerie Park, the director of assessment, curriculum, and technology, who worked with Hodgson to prepare teachers and parents for remote learning.
“He’s very much a change agent and a problem-solver,” Park continued. “Without him, we would have been in trouble putting Canvas in place.”
School districts have long struggled to get PD right. Teachers are often dissatisfied with those sessions, reporting that they do little to help them acquire the skills they need to do their jobs or improve their practice, according to a 2015 report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Districts also discover that unless PD is mandated—for example, required in collective bargaining agreements—many teachers don’t attend if the sessions aren’t held during school hours.
Panama-Buena Vista faced similar challenges with its veteran-heavy teaching staff when it went searching for its first-ever director of professional development.
Effective professional development is content-focused and job-embedded, with built-in opportunities for implementation and reflection, according to Maria E. Hyler, a senior researcher and deputy director at the Learning Policy Institute’s Washington office.
PbvU offers all of those things.
It’s a desired activity versus a required activity. That has to be the sweetest piece of the system.
In just two years, Hodgson has made significant headway with pbvU, changing how the district’s teachers view PD by offering them relevant courses, taught mainly by their peers.
The built-in financial incentives and the ability for teachers to choose their own courses also make pbvU popular: 90 percent of the district’s teachers have participated in pbvU courses, and many of the classes are full. Waiting lists are not uncommon.
An overwhelming majority of teachers who have taken pbvU courses—90 percent or more—have consistently ranked them as “valuable” in surveys. (Teachers complete satisfaction surveys after finishing each pbvU course.)
“It’s a desired activity versus a required activity,” Hodgson said. “That has to be the sweetest piece of the system.”
Peggy Dewane-Pope, who has taught English language arts at the district’s Earl Warren Junior High School for the last two decades, can’t get enough of the pbvU courses.
“I signed up for five classes in one semester. You can only take three,” she said.
Dewane-Pope praised a social-emotional learning class that gave her just the right tools to resolve a longstanding classroom management issue with some students who frequently refused to do their work. Those encounters had often left her feeling frustrated and helpless.
The course helped her to realize that she was taking those incidents personally, instead of offering the non-compliant students choices.
“They’re not fighting me, but just fighting,” said Dewane-Pope, who called the class an “absolute game changer.”
“I got my B.S. in 1980. Here I am in 2019 getting this great material on how to deal with challenging kids.”
Despite the enthusiasm for the courses and the ability to increase their salaries, other districts may not recognize the pbvU credits, meaning that teachers may see salary cuts if they move to another school system.
Designed For Teachers, with Students at the Core
While pbvU empowers teachers to own their continuous learning, it was designed with students in mind.
“Oftentimes, a district forgets one or the other—students or staff,” said Hyler from the Learning Policy Institute. “It’s encouraging to hear those two pieces coming together.”
Hodgson has always been motivated by what’s best for children.
The first in his immediate family to attend college, Hodgson initially intended to major in business administration. He switched to education after spending the summer between his freshman and sophomore years working at orphanages in Bucharest, the Romanian capital.
The dire conditions he saw changed his perspective. Even after he returned to the United States, the orphans remained on his mind.
“I just couldn’t take the lack of hope that kids there had,” Hodgson said.
He decided on a career that would allow him to help children pursue their passions, regardless of their life circumstances.
Hodgson’s first job as a 22-year-old teacher was at Arvin High School, an academically struggling school in the Kern High School District, where nearly all of the students qualified for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Half of the students were English-learners.
It was there that he met Blanca Cavazos, the school’s principal, who later became his mentor. And it was from Cavazos that he learned the power of collaborative leadership. Her empathetic style with a fierce focus on students—the child of Mexican farm workers, she used her personal experience to champion equity initiatives, including bilingual education programs, for her students—reassured Hodgson that he’d made the right choice.
He has sought to emulate Cavazos’s collaborative leadership style throughout his career.
The true test came when he was revamping Panama-Buena Vista’s PD program.
“I knew we needed a professional development model that mirrored the research-based models where teachers were at the center of the work, as well as a model that contained all the hallmarks of continuous improvement—plan, do, study, act,” Hodgson said. “I also knew we needed to evaluate and reflect on our effectiveness routinely.”
A major challenge was getting teacher buy-in.
Hodgson used several creative approaches to get teacher support. He introduced the new initiative via podcasts, videos, and road shows, and enlisted teachers’ input on the logo, name, and other components.
Perhaps the most effective tool was the human capital piece—building trust.
He invited teachers to be part of the team. About 150 district teachers facilitate pbvU courses, and a Collaborative Work Group—a team of districtwide administrators and teacher representatives—provided feedback and tweaks to the original pbvU concept and continues to serve as advisors.
Panama-Buena Vista teachers aren’t the only ones giving pbvU high marks.
Kern County superintendent Mary Barlow praised Hodgson for his vision to rethink the structure and delivery of PD for busy teachers.
Barlow worked with Hodgson in 2016 when he was a management analyst at her office and the office was revamping its continuous learning programs.
“The pbvU concept has been embraced by educators for its foundation in continuous improvement, its relevance, especially during the COVID pandemic, and the fact that it is embedded in the district’s strategic approach to professional development,” Barlow said.
Several districts reached out to Hodgson after his presentation on pbvU at a California School Boards Association meeting last year. Hodgson and his team are also planning to expand pbvU in fall to offer a select group of high-interest courses in a blended learning format to teachers outside the district.
As he prepares to expand pbvU’s footprint, Hodgson is still enjoying the “honeymoon’ phase of his job.
“It sounded too good to be true,” he said. “I get to work with a district-level leadership team that impacts students’ lives on a large scale, and to work with teachers who are passionate about creating hope.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as In-House ‘University’ Transforms Teacher PD