Administration & Leadership

Planning for Better Professional Development in an Uncertain Future

Teachers will be operating in a different world next year, and administrators are thinking now about how best to support them.

June 16, 2020
DGLimages / iStock

We’ve all experienced a pretty steep learning curve as parents, homeschool tutors, and a new-to-working-at-home workforce as we constantly try to adjust to the Covid-19 world. For teachers, that learning curve has been even steeper (I’d say a 90 percent incline), and it’s slathered with bacon grease. As we all start gazing into the crystal ball to see what school is going to look like come fall, my thoughts turn toward how to help teachers and support them with that learning curve so they don’t do a nosedive off the cliff.

So what are the shifts in teacher development and support that education leaders need to have their eyes on? I’ve identified five specific shifts that we need to address in a quick pinch and for which we then need to begin making plans for long-term development and support. And then there’s one big caveat that’s a must regarding strategic implementation if we want the fall to be more successful.

Five Necessary Shifts in Professional Development

1. Trauma-informed instruction: Every student (and potentially teacher) is experiencing some level of trauma with the current pandemic and the recent protests around the country against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident who died after a white officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. What does this mean for teacher learning in preparation for the 2020–21 school year? Teachers will need professional development in trauma-informed instruction for their students, and most likely they’ll want to explore how they’re experiencing trauma as well. With a trauma-informed approach to teaching, the emphasis on relationships could help us all come out stronger on the other side and able to address real issues that are impeding student learning.

2. Team building and collaboration: It’s sometimes assumed that because teachers are adults, they will work together well as a team. Not so! Building highly effective teams is integral to teacher performance, teacher learning, and ultimately student learning. From the teaching conversations I’ve been in, there seems to be an uptick in teacher collaboration forced by the pandemic. How can we build on this and purposefully come back to school buildings as even more highly effective teacher teams?

3. SEL (for teachers and students): This type of professional learning was already in motion long prior to the pandemic, but distance learning has shined an even brighter spotlight on social and emotional learning for both students and teachers. In order for SEL to impact students, studies show that it must be embedded in the whole school—teachers included. And a recent survey of 5,000 teachers showed that the five most mentioned emotions were: anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad. How might we support teachers even more in this topic so that we can all come back in the fall healthier, happier, and full of strategies to help our students on the same journey?

4. Dynamic hybrid learning and distance learning: As the school year winds down, school leaders (and parents) are beginning to speculate about what classrooms will look like in the fall of 2020. I suspect that, with the safety of students in mind, we will still have strong social distancing guidelines in place in many states, and in some cases schools may have a mix of at-home and in-person instruction. But what does this mean for the classroom and for pedagogy? Teachers will need to flex their trial-and-error muscles while translating highly effective brick-and-mortar learning experiences to the online world. They will also need training and support in using videoconference systems in and out of the classroom, and in figuring out how to attend to the needs of students sitting at desks in the school building (and in their home living rooms). And we need to address the technology gap and other inequities that distance learning is shining a spotlight on.

5. Family engagement: Despite the difficulties posed by emergency distance learning, I’ve heard many teachers say that it’s led to much more meaningful, deeper relationships with families and caregivers. As a stepparent of four teens in public school, I have experienced this from the proverbial opposite side of the conference table as well. How can we build on this momentum and support teachers in continuing to build these meaningful relationships, which are integral to learning?

And now, the big (important, must-have, if-you-read-one-thing-read-this) caveat regarding implementation: Teachers are feeling some pretty severe burnout right now. Perhaps, some burnout is to be expected toward the end of the school year, but the stress and anxiety that arrived with Covid-19 have really ramped that up for a lot of educators.

They are our frontline workers when it comes to supporting students. They are our starting lineup. And we need those starters well rested and ready to give their best in the fall because—let’s be honest—there are so many unknowns unveiling themselves every day. Let’s just embrace the honest truth that fall is going to be challenging. So we need our teachers ready to tackle that challenge with resounding brilliance.

But teacher morale is currently down even more than usual due to the pandemic. Teachers need time to relax, recalibrate, and then have choice in their learning pathways. We can’t expect teachers to learn it all in a few months—they are only human.

They should be given a menu of options for professional learning based on their knowledge of themselves as adult learners and the needs of their incoming students. Then they can choose from a variety of pathways for professional learning. For some, that may be book studies with colleagues, webinars, virtual workshops, and/or Twitter chats. It should be up to the individual teacher to take charge of designing their own learning, refreshing their educator soul and spirit to tackle the 2020–21 school year and whatever surprises it might bring.

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