Mother Sauce: Teams Unifying Professional Development

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My youngest daughter is a fashionista. As a preschooler she was already coaching me about what I could do to dress up my go-to black dress and black tights so I could have a little “pop” of color. Now that she’s ten I take her whenever I go shopping because inevitably if I get a compliment on my outfit, it’s something Ahna picked out for me (lead image–Ahna talked me into it). She’s very good. A few weeks ago we ordered the first DVD season of Project Runway (2005) which is a competition between fashion designers who are judged “in” or “out” based on what they show on the runway.

As expected, each designer has his or her own special style. Austin goes for couture while Kara Saun dresses her models with a classic look. This is true of coaches too. My colleagues and I have read many of the same books, attended the same trainings and spent many 90-minute sessions on Friday learning from each other, but each one has their own special style.

About halfway through the season of Project Runway, there was a challenge for each designer to create an outfit for the year 2025 and have it fit with the other designers as part of a collection. While there were some unique individual futuristic pieces, they failed as a whole. There was no unifying look—no collection. The literacy coaches face a similar challenge when they offer professional development. How can the third- and sixth-grade writing classes look similar enough to be part of the collection, yet be different to fit the coach and the audience?

My colleague Janeal uses a cooking metaphor that I love. She says together we create a “mother sauce” of professional development and then each person tosses in their own special ingredients. Here are a few ways that we unify our professional development without losing our individuality.

We plan together. At least a week before a class we plan a brainstorming session. We start with the end in mind and ask, “What do we want participants to walk away with at the end of our time?” Sean throws out an article idea, Paula pulls up a video we might use and Samantha brings out the notes from something similar we’ve taught before.

We use a common template. When we share a class or co-present, our pacing guides are always the same. The predictability makes it easy for us to read and deliver.

We have a table with these four headings:


We are each responsible. Often our planning sessions are short or happen over lunch. Before we part, everyone takes on a piece of the work. Samantha is going to type up the pacing guide and send it out to everyone; Paula is going to design a graphic organizer; Sean and I are going to capture some video in a classroom. We also agree on when we will be done with our parts.

We build our bins. In our district we teach classes after school 1-2 times a week. For the one of the writing courses we offer, there is a class for each grade level. Paula, Sean and Sam each teach two different grade levels. A couple days before each class, the clear bins come out. They are filled with the pacing guides, copies, mentor texts, charts and supplies.

We debrief. After we all teach, we come back together. It’s not unusual for one of us to share that we spent a lot more time with one activity while someone else shortened it. A couple of us are known for last-minute text changes or different protocols. We talk about what worked and what didn’t; we try to replicate the successes and minimize the fails.

The result of the “mother sauce” approach is that we use the best ideas of everyone, divide the work and improve continuously.

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