Schools were thrust into an environment of uncertainty in March 2020, and this uncertainty loomed over communities and families in a way no one could have ever imagined. Parents were asked to become teachers. And teachers were immediately asked to provide virtual instruction that ran counter to every educational college course they had ever taken.
Prior to COVID-19, teachers were masters in placing students in small groups, providing whole-group lessons, and creating learning centers. But in no college preparatory courses did teachers study how to use Zoom with 32 first graders! Nevertheless, educators were champions through it all and answered their call of duty.
Teachers have always been the center of the educational experience. They widen students' imaginations in ways that create doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and the next generation of educators. Today more than ever, National Teacher Appreciation Week in May should be filled with accolades from the mountains to the foothills so that teachers feel recognized for their sacrifices as teachers work to close the COVID learning gap.
So, how are district leaders preparing to support teachers in this new era of teaching and learning? Well, hopefully not the way I provided professional development early on in my leadership career—with all my teachers sitting in a media center, listening and learning with the same presentation.
Strategies for Redesigning Professional Development
As educators plan for the future, here are three strategies I’d recommend considering.
1. Tier Your Teachers
Teachers are typically told to identify the needs of their students and to group them according to their needs. What a novel idea, right? So why don’t we do this for our teachers, too?
A great way to begin this process is to group teachers according to their skill sets. For example, if I’m a teacher who isn’t comfortable with small groups, pair me with other teachers in a similar situation to learn from a “master” who can support growth. The “master” teacher shouldn’t be chosen based on how many years of experience they have, but rather, how successful they are in ensuring academic success is the norm for all students.
Sit with your leadership team and begin to discuss where your team members are in this tiered approach. In the process, ask teachers these questions:
- Do you have a framework for grouping/identifying the needs of your students?
- Have you established 30-60-90-day benchmark goals for success?
- Do students have personalized learning plans?
2. Identify Teacher Needs by Asking Questions
Most often when I ask teachers what they need to do their job better, the typical responses I hear are: fewer students in my class, longer planning periods, and more copy paper! Never in 28 years have I heard a teacher say “more professional development”—unless it was to attend a conference out of state.
After you have tiered the teachers, ask them what supports they believe would make them better teachers. Have them research what’s new and relevant in the field of education and provide you with why they need this professional development, which is likely more important than ever. Also, ask them how they will implement what they learn, share this learning with their colleagues, and extend this new learning in their career to make students more successful. Always hold teachers accountable for what they say they need.
"After you have tiered the teachers, ask them what supports they believe would make them better teachers."
Within 30, 60, and 90 days of receiving the professional development, teachers should be able to demonstrate the value of their new learning. One way of doing this is by having them tell you how they will now be able to support each student daily as it relates to their specific needs in their classrooms.
Recently, I had an opportunity to hear from a third grader and a high school senior. Both of these young people described interactions with their teachers. The senior explained how her Advanced Placement teacher quit, while the third grader explained how his teacher “did the best she could” during the pandemic. In both examples, neither teacher was prepared for remote learning, and in fact, they needed more support from their leaders. If we don’t address the needs of teachers, we will lose more to the profession. Now is the time to ask, collaborate, and expect results.
Professional development not practiced doesn’t create a return on investment for teachers, students, or the district. Teachers should be able to support all students (regardless of their tier), and all professional development taken should lead to this as the primary goal.
3. Planning and Next Steps
Coherence mapping is one of the best ways to link and identify gaps in instruction. Currently, I’m working with several districts across the country in this process, which has proven to be even more valuable now as a result of the unpredictable changes in learning we all have endured over the last year. Similar to strategic planning, I developed an approach to use as a litmus test to determine what we continue, change, or eliminate all together. As you develop a strategic plan, ask yourself:
- Does your plan allow for equity for all students?
- Can you measure your results over time?
- Are you working to change and shift what you’ve always done in the absence of growth?
Having a plan for the sake of having a plan doesn’t do anyone any good if it’s not achieving your anticipated goals. Now more than ever, educators should feel empowered to make decisions which prove beneficial to encourage differentiation and independent student learning.
Launch a process for strategically identifying needs and aligning the professional development according to the gaps identified within the curriculum and instruction. This will leverage data and lead to “ah-ha’s” regarding why students are struggling to make academic progress and why student proficiency rates remain static.
But more importantly, ensure equity for all is inclusive and available to accommodate all stakeholders. In the U.S., schools provide public education for all students. But we have to do better at safeguarding so that all students have what is needed to ensure they can access the learning in the way that fits them best!
This is my 28th year in education, but I have learned more about the resilience of schools, students, teachers, and families over the past year. At the heart of education is a fundamental desire to discover—to engage and be engaged. Schools and teachers provide a respite for children. Children fulfill the life’s mission of the teacher who became an educator to share and inspire. And families depend on all of us to stimulate, motivate, and encourage their children to dream.
We all need each other, and in spite of this horrific tragedy, I believe hope and revelation around the changes in education that needed to happen will now manifest in such a way so that all students will be the beneficiaries of quality and equitable learning.
Watch a recording of a webinar featuring HMH’s Dr. Amanda Patterson and ICLE’s Garth Harries to learn more about the key challenges and solutions in helping district leaders close the COVID learning gap.
Learning didn’t stop during the pandemic. It just took new forms. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.
Dr. Troy Hicks
Professor of English and Education, Central Michigan University
Katie Risolo Radovich
First-Grade Teacher, Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York