Corrected: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect location for the South Portland district. It is in Maine.
After running online teacher training for almost a year, the Clark County school district in Winchester, Ky. switched back to more in-person PD in July 2021. Its leaders knew immediately that they’d made a mistake.
“We over-pivoted. I’ll be honest, we lost a few teachers in the process of going back to in-person school, which included in-person PD. They went to work in flexible remote jobs,” said Dustin Howard, the superintendent in Clark County.
Howard and his colleague Tammy Parish, the director of human resources in the district, said their goals now are to be more “employee friendly” and retain trained professionals, and opportunities for teacher development—especially if they are virtual—seem to be a big draw.
“There’s a bigger push towards mental health now. Teachers will ask, ‘Are you going to let me do this training at my own convenience at home or make me stay back for a two-hour meeting after school?’” said Howard.
The push-and-pull over the place of virtual PD—more than three years after the nation’s sudden shift into all-virtual learning—poses a bevy of questions for the leaders charged with making sure teachers keep their skills and techniques fresh. Clark County’s move to adopt more virtual trainings is reflected in new nationally representative survey data from the EdWeek Research Center.
All in all, that survey shows that district and school leaders expect more PD to contain an online portion in the next five years. More than 250 district leaders and 100 principals responded.
Virtual training resources have long been available to teachers in Kentucky, said Howard, but resources mostly contained one-sided, non-interactive videos. “There was no accountability with those videos either. So virtual was actually a problem at that time,” said Howard.
When the pandemic pushed all teacher training online, the district leaders realized that only doing in-person PD had downsides, too: It was often costly and inefficient. It also wasn’t great for employee morale.
Now, Clark County wants to forge a new type of PD for its teachers—one that’s customized to their needs, and crucially, one that’s available throughout the year. Parish says the district won’t have to fly in training experts or pay for a location, electricity, and travel for teachers. Or get teachers to give up a lot of their instructional time.
Online PD isn’t a silver bullet
Clark County’s leaders are picking out which parts of their PD should be online. It’s a fine line to tread, said Howard, because they don’t just want to “take stuff off the internet.”
Parish said modules on classroom engagement and classroom management are being developed to push out to the 380 teachers in their district. “They can use our ed-tech tools to do self-paced, continuous learning themselves,” Parish said. Virtual modules also give the district leaders a chance to dig deep into individual teacher instructional needs in a way that wasn’t possible before a single administration.
“We can now work with teachers individually on skills like questioning techniques. We can evaluate if they ask low-level compliance questions in their classrooms,” said Howard.
Teachers often must sit through in-person PD that’s boring, or not suited to their needs at all, while virtual PD can inject more “voice and choice” into the system and turn PD from a few conferences and meetings in a year to a continuous process of learning and development throughout the year.
With time and cost efficiencies baked into the format, virtual PD can sound like it’s a silver bullet to districts’ professional development problems. Principals, though, want to be cautious about what parts of PD they want to put online, pointing out that some training simply is more meaningful done in person.
“I prefer to do core modules, like practices under restorative justice, in-person,” said Katherine Holden, the principal at Talent Middle School in the Phoenix-Talent, Ore. district. Teachers must be trained, and then have an opportunity to model in a real classroom, how they create places for students to mediate their grievances. It’s not an easy practice to shift online, said Holden, if teachers aren’t present or paying attention in a Zoom training.
Scott Tombleson, principal at the South Portland High School in South Portland, Maine, faced that problem himself, when trying to attend an online training. “They kept asking us to put questions into the chat box. My mind kept wandering. I was miserable. How can I expect my teachers to learn from online training? I firmly believe we learn from conversations with each other,” said Tombleson.
At South Portland High, Tombleson has put only mandatory trainings like bloodborne pathogen training into teachers’ virtual PD bucket.
Holden acknowledged that one of the advantages of virtual PD is that teachers can connect with other educators spread out through the district—and build supportive cohorts.
“I’ve noticed that teachers have built wellness cohorts. If they are feeling worn down or burned out trying to engage the students in their class, they need to feel supported by others going through the same thing,” Holden said.
And as the district adopted a new English/language arts curriculum, “we’ve been able to stay connected with the curriculum developers virtually. Teachers can check back with them, ask questions. The developers continue to support the teachers virtually,” Holden said, adding that this constant back-and-forth would have been difficult to facilitate offline and in-person. Like Clark County’s Parish, Holden counts continuous training as a key benefit of virtual PD.
Stephen Jordan, an English teacher at an alternative school in Illinois, said virtual PD is beneficial if it mimics at least some aspects of a live, in-person discussion. “We could potentially even learn from teachers in Finland about how they approach their classes,” he added.
Jordan’s own school only does compliance training virtually, but he enjoys a virtual class he takes every week on “Leading teacher development and student learning,” offered by National Louis University in Chicago. Jordan says he couldn’t complete a parallel class he was taking online because it was only self-study with no Zoom calls with other educators.
Tombleson, the proponent of in-person PD, is sure that his teachers learn best when they grapple and disagree with each other over a topic—an experience that he considers hard to replicate online. “If there’s a choice between [accessing] a high-level trainer online vs. a local expert, I’d choose the latter,” he added.
New material can be virtual
Tombleson says he might consider turning the in-person training into a hybrid one that features both the out-of-town trainer and the local one. EdWeek’s survey indicates the percent of school and district leaders who already offer a hybrid version of PD will tick slightly upwards—from 30 to 36 percent—over the next five years.
Virtual PD lets principals unite self-paced study modules and in-person, collaborative learning when dealing with new subjects, or entirely new technologies.
Ben Feeney, the principal of Lampeter-Strasburg High School in Lancaster, Pa., had used this hybrid format for AI training with his teachers. “Teachers have a very wide understanding of what AI is. I want them to become more educated on how AI tools can assist them,” said Feeney. Feeney’s instructional designers have created a virtual training toolbox for teachers—they pick tools that help them learn AI skills for their own subjects.
Feeney said they’ve relied on ed-tech tools like MagicSchool and generative AI platforms like Bard and ChatGPT to train teachers. “When teachers learn how to use AI to craft responses, write essays or argue a point, that trickles down to students,” said Feeney. In several classroom observations, Feeney said he had noticed teachers explain the use of AI tools for research projects to their students, an indication that the virtual trainings were hitting home.
The self-paced modules, said Feeney, are something that teachers can keep coming back to. But these must be paired with discussions, either online or in-person, and even then he thinks the in-person tend to be more successful. “We’ve done some of these discussions online on Zoom, but it doesn’t capture the power of in-person discussions,” Feeney said.
Clark County’s district leaders, despite their overwhelming support for virtual PD, said there are elements they can’t move online. “If teachers are learning to set up a collaborative teaching station, they need to do this person,” said Howard. A teaching station is a strategy where two teachers work with a single group of students in a classroom.
Just like teaching stations are a new way of teaching, Howard said the district is open to changing the way teachers learn new things.
“There is such a teacher shortage right now. The teachers we get may not be going through the usual trainings as before. Having online resources at hand can keep them intrinsically motivated to keep learning,” said Parish.