As we countdown the days to summer break, school leaders are thinking about summer opportunities for staff professional learning and development. Many of our innovative school peers offer or seek out opportunities to improve their practice and to help teachers further personalize learning for students. Summer feels like a “reset” – a time to re-energize your passion for teaching and learning and to recharge your school’s commitment to its mission and values.

At Building 21, we offer teachers and leaders in our Network a Summer Design Institute. This summer’s Institute will be our fifth, and each one has taught us a little more about designing learning opportunities for our team that are meaningful and engaging.

Here are ten of our takeaways:

Create community and build relationships

Your team’s energy and interconnectedness can sustain positive momentum.

 Whether you have a network of educators or you’re building culture among a small staff, think about the best ways to facilitate supportive and dynamic relationships across your team. Just like young people, adults learn best when they feel connected.  No matter the level of experience or content area of expertise, educators benefit from sharing their experiences and exploring their learning edges in an open and trusting environment. Think about creating opportunities for your team to launch these relationships during summer PD and continue these connections throughout the year.

Focus on design

Summer PD snaps you back into “school mode”. And teachers usually arrive at PD with the same burning question, “What do I need to be ready for September?”

A PD experience that facilitates the design of studios, units, projects, or plans for the upcoming year helps teachers feel grounded and ready. Working through an intentional design process, while free of school-year distractions and supported by school leaders, strengthens a teacher’s design muscle and acumen. Our Institute concludes with a “pitch” presentation of each teacher’s studio, a PD deliverable that requests teachers document and share their design work. We provide both internal and external design feedback and celebrate their hard work.

Incorporate opportunities for connections & resources

When asking teachers to design projects that connect learning to the real-world, enlisting the expertise of industry partners can go a long way.

If you have partners or connections to industry, consider inviting them to participate in a part of your PD. Allow your team the space to explore how partnerships can add dimension to their units and help incorporate authentic learning and career connections. We are still fine tuning our approach but have landed on coordinating a culminating session where teachers “pitch” their project concepts to a combination of external design experts, school leaders, and partners for feedback and ideas about industry connections.

Feedback, feedback, feedback

In the summer, all things are possible. This sentiment, while positive and energizing, can lead to scale and scope challenges when teachers implement their plans.

We have found that structuring time to provide direct and actionable feedback helps teachers focus their projects and design units that better engage their learners. It is also important to examine a project plan for access and scaffolding. Will all learners be able to access the content and activities? Are the right pieces in place to scaffold an experience? Or is there too much scaffolding and the teacher should up the level of student independence and project rigor? Devoting PD time to both giving and receiving feedback will help teachers fine tune their plan and feel confident when implementing. 

“Just in time” versus “just in case”

Often PD can look like an experienced educator standing in front of teachers working her way through a slide deck about a set of strategies and tools that will be crucial…someday soon. While the information is essential, it is hard to absorb and then perfectly recall when it is needed. We try to think about how we can build PD experiences for our educators that require essential learning in an authentic context now and not “sometime down the road” or “just in case”.

Example: building a Google Site for your studio. Rather than presenting on how to build a site in one session and hoping the teachers will recall this information when they need to build their site in the fall, we integrate the building experience into PD. All of our Institute materials are found on a site, which provides visual examples and requires teachers to use the technology as their students will. We have the teachers start building their sites and imbed small training modules throughout PD. We have veteran teachers share their work as best practices for inspiration and mentor new teachers through this process. And we provide feedback as a part of our process. This learning in the moment, coupled with the experience of being in the position of a user and not just a designer, helps our teachers retain the skills and strategies covered in the summer.  


Planning summer PD comes with an inherent tension. While you want your whole team to learn and grow together, some introductory content or step-by-step design processes will feel repetitive for veteran teachers. Teachers, who have been a part of your team for awhile, don’t want to hear the same thing year after year.

Ask your teachers what they are hoping to take away from the experience and how they would like to participate. We have found it helpful to include a short experience inventory within our registration that allows all participants to rate the topics we plan to cover from “Extremely Valuable” to “I’m ready for the next level” and also allows returning educators the option to volunteer to be a design mentor for new teachers during PD. This data then helps our team plan sessions and experiences that will be compelling and valuable for all participants.

Use your veterans wisely

Along the same lines, we can use the data from our registration inventory to identify meaningful roles for our returning teachers.

For this year’s Institute, some of our returning teachers will serve as design mentors for our new teachers. Some of our veteran teachers and Lab School leaders will plan and lead sessions on school culture, CBE, and studio design. Engaging and involving our broader team of school leaders and educators in PD increases our resources and the personal touchpoints we have with our new team members, creates a meaningful role for our veterans, and, through this teamwork, strengthens our community and relationships.

Create a culture of adult development

The best programming and learning experiences in the world will fail to move the needle for adults if we do not nurture and develop the necessary underlying mindsets and perspectives that enable teachers to grow.  

During PD, we spend time talking about adult development and how we can grow as educators and people to better serve our community. Through sessions on race and class, cultural competence, growth mindset, and trauma-informed care, teachers examine their own beliefs and mindsets and how these impact their practice and the world beyond the classroom. We have found that carving out time to focus on adult development creates a powerful experience for our team.

PD is an investment. Protect it.

Plans made in the summer sunshine can feel like a dream when school realities hit. Think about your accountability and support strategies now. You’re about to invest a week of coveted vacation time and resources to bring your team together and plan for next year. Without intentional check ins, additional time for design and “real time” plan adjustments, and the promised support of leaders and partners, this work is at risk. Now is the time to let your team know the accountability plan to ensure the work stays on track. For successful implementation, it is essential that teachers have opportunities to design and collaborate throughout the year.

“Good vibes only”

We try to celebrate hard work whenever we can. And we aim to create positive associations with the Summer Design Institute through small and thoughtful touches. This year, the Institute will incorporate offsite networking gatherings (i.e.. “Pizza and Design” and a closing celebration) and time for teambuilding, mentoring, and personal check-ins with leadership. Think about the unique and positive touches you can add to make your team’s experience memorable and fun. And don’t forget the power of sharing a meal to build community.

Creating professional learning experiences that develop a community of educators committed to designing personalized learning for all students, expanding their mindsets and beliefs, and building strong relationships to grow as a team is challenging and rewarding.

We wish all educators and school leaders a productive and recharging summer. If you are interested in learning more about Building 21’s Summer Design Institute, please reach out to