5 Tips to Ensure Connected Professional Learning for Teachers This Fall

This is part of a series of blog posts based on HMH’s recent report titled The Connected Learning Era: Mitigating the COVID-19 Learning Loss.

Ever since schools made the transition to remote learning in March, teachers have worked tirelessly to ensure students’ social and emotional well-being and their continued academic learning. In many cases, this effort has negatively affected teachers’ own social and emotional health and continued learning.

A nationwide survey addressed in this webinar and conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) asked teachers to describe their most frequent emotions over the past few months—and their answers were anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad. Teachers reported that they are feeling these emotions for both personal and professional reasons. Indeed, as many of us have, teachers have seen their personal and professional lives become entwined as a result of the pandemic.

As we move forward to a new school year, teachers must be given the opportunity to do as the airlines and my colleagues Francie Alexander and Amy Endo advise: put their own masks on first. Regardless of whether classes are held remotely or in the classroom this fall, by implementing a connected professional learning system as part of a larger connected learning system, schools will give their teachers a chance to take care of their own personal and professional needs before they take care of the needs of their students.

A connected professional learning system that is flexible, personalized, collaborative, and sustained will enable teachers to reflect on and improve their instructional practices, build capacity within the school, and improve students’ social and emotional well-being and academic achievement. This sort of system will build connections through webinars, virtual coaching, and online collaboration, all connected to an assessment system and high-quality curriculum materials.

Tips for Education Leaders

When executing a connected professional learning system among their staff this fall, education leaders can use the following five tips to ensure their efforts are successful.

1. Encourage a Culture of Reflection

As teachers moved their classes online this spring, the vast majority had to instantaneously change their behavior and practices without the benefit of previous experience, focused professional development, or knowledgeable coaches to guide them. While teachers have performed remarkably well considering the circumstances and have certainly learned valuable lessons this spring, it may have been difficult for them to find the time to reflect on and share the lessons learned with colleagues and coaches. Before the start of school in the fall, and during this coming school year, schools and districts can provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on the changes in instruction individually, with their colleagues, and with knowledgeable and informed coaches.

Research has demonstrated that reflection is an important component of improvement, but to maximize the potential of reflection, it is important for teachers to have a coach or knowledgeable colleague to help them reflect and focus on what is most relevant to student success. A study involving virtual teaching simulations found that teachers who received coaching between practice sessions demonstrated a more rapid development of skills than teachers who only reflected on their teaching. The teachers who received coaching also improved their perceptions of student behavior and ideas about next steps for addressing perceived behavioral issues. Even without virtual simulations, these lessons could be applied to coaching in general—for example, presenting teachers with classroom scenarios and then coaching them on best practices. Such studies suggest that virtual environments were able to simulate the “on-the-job” environment enough for teachers’ skills to improve.

2. Model Empathy and Understanding

In addition to encouraging reflection in teachers, schools should ensure that their leadership and instructional coaches are reflective moving forward into the new school year. By reflecting on how they can adjust their beliefs and behavior to acknowledge and respond to the current uncertainty in both education and the world, leaders will be more effective in helping teachers change their behavior to fit new circumstances. Reflective leaders and coaches are better models for effective teacher behavior. By demonstrating empathy and understanding about the challenges of in-person, online, and blended teaching; building their own social and emotional skills; and changing their practice, leaders and coaches can encourage teachers to do the same.

3. Tailor Professional Learning to the Current Situation

School leaders can help teachers improve their practice by building collective knowledge across technology, pedagogy, content, and social and emotional learning. In developing a personalized professional learning plan, schools will need to consider and prioritize the types of knowledge that are most essential for their teachers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. By personalizing professional learning, leaders can ensure that teachers receive knowledge, practice, and support in the areas where they need it most. Many experienced teachers have deep knowledge of both content and pedagogy but have had less opportunity and need to develop their technological and social-emotional knowledge. As we move into a new school year, these two areas of professional knowledge will be crucial to develop as teachers adapt to remote or blended learning environments and work to meet their students’—and their own—social and emotional needs.

4. Build a Collaborative Community of Teachers

Teachers who are encouraged to collaborate can share and support other teachers in the areas where they have the most experience and knowledge. This will also build leadership capacity among teachers by building their confidence to share their expertise. By being flexible, schools may recognize that just because a teacher has a certain expertise while teaching in the classroom, that doesn’t mean that expertise has translated flawlessly to remote or blended learning. This recognition and acknowledgment can lead to support where needed.

5. Commit to Making Professional Learning a Priority

For many teachers, whether professional learning will take place in person, online, or in a blended way this coming fall has yet to be determined. But with staggered schedules, some schools and districts are exploring the possibility of splitting their student body into two groups that each attend school two days a week, and then using the fifth day of the week for PD. Schools and districts that adopt this approach have the opportunity to move professional learning forward in a meaningful way by ensuring authentic and productive collaboration among their teachers. These professional learning days will be most beneficial if the professional learning is “sustained, …intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused,” according to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). By demonstrating a commitment to effective professional learning, schools will build collective efficacy across all four bodies of knowledge and have a teaching staff and student body that feels safe and supported.

Similar to students, some teachers felt prepared and well-supported throughout the transition, while others did not. Some teachers have thrived teaching remotely and may have even felt that they were more effective than when they were in the classroom, while others have not. Schools and districts that identify and meet teachers’ technological, pedagogical, content, and social and emotional needs through a connected professional learning system will find that their teachers are well-positioned to improve their practice and contribute to their students’ social, emotional, and academic growth.

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For help as you continue teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.

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