The last 15 months of COVID-19 disruption has put the professional skills of even veteran educators to the test.
Countless teachers who haven’t passed through the doors of their school buildings since March 2020 report being more exhausted than ever. Not seeing students has, in many instances, exposed teachers to these children’s vulnerabilities. And, despite concern of the pandemic’s adverse impact on students’ academic achievement, many educators report being far more concerned with its effects on children’s mental health.
That’s where professional development comes in.
As the K-12 world heads into the summer months—typically a time when educators take a break before preparing for the year ahead—Education Week talked to school and classroom leaders about where schools should focus their PD priorities to meet these pandemic-era challenges head on. Their observations range from the practical to the philosophical, with an eye for what’s changed over the course of the past year and an awareness of the connection between focused professional development and student success.
PD on students’ social-emotional learning needs
David Finkle is no stranger to professional development. A veteran language arts teacher in Florida’s Volusia County Schools, Finkle has been exposed to plenty in his 30-year career at the large district that serves more than 61,000 students. And he continues to believe in improving his skills as a teacher. “There’s a hunger out there for PD that’s good and fresh,” said Finkle, who teaches at DeLand High School, in DeLand, Fla.
But Finkle feels that most PD is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to the strategies and instructional approaches that teachers are being trained on, something that became increasingly clear during the pandemic’s disruption.
“We just keep plowing ahead with this whole assess and test [model]. The kids really don’t care about any of it,” Finkle said. “I think it needs to be a much more humanistic approach.”
What he’s witnessed over the past several months has him more convinced of this than ever. “We have kids who just don’t show up. That used to happen, but I think it’s happening at like twice or three times the rate since the pandemic,” Finkle said.
Given this spike in student disengagement, Finkle suggests PD that can offer concrete ideas on how teachers can incorporate social-emotional learning into their content areas.
“The pandemic has made me realize that unless we find ways to focus on students as people and engage them as people and make the work we’re doing important to them where they are now, everything is for nothing,” Finkle said. “We have to start with them as people.”
Put teachers in charge of professional development
Asked about his priorities for teachers taking part in this coming summer’s professional development, Jim Wichman says he has to turn back in order to look ahead.
“I would actually scaffold it back to April 2020, when we didn’t know what we needed to learn,” said the principal of Prairie Ridge Middle School in Iowa’s Ankeny Community School District.
When it became apparent that the coronavirus was more than a fleeting distraction, he says the school recognized the need to provide regular support to teachers. The school began designating time on Wednesday mornings for PD. “We gave teachers the gift of time to learn without distractions,” Wichman said.
The school also gave teachers a choice of what to learn. “It was the first time we really listened to the teachers’ voices,” Wichman said. “We started by asking teachers: ‘What do you need?’”
Wichman believes the approach is unusual. “A lot of times it’s the administrators who say: ‘This is what you’re going to learn, this is how we’re going to do it,’ which is anti what we tell them to do in the classroom,” he said.
One immediate and obvious need rose to the forefront: learning how to effectively use technology to deliver instruction. Prior to the sudden shift to remote learning last spring, says Wichman, technology platforms like Zoom seemed to many like something out of the futuristic TV show “The Jetsons.” This, despite warnings dating to the 1990s about preparing for the 21st century.
“Here we are, 21 years into it, and we’re just now making that leap,” said Wichman.
Although delivering instruction via technology became second nature to most teachers at Prairie Ridge during the pandemic, Wichman says summer PD opportunities will allow them to sharpen their skills on Canvas, the school’s recently adopted learning management platform.
Summer Academy, the district’s traditional week-long PD offering, will remain intact this year. The content, chosen with teacher input, will be delivered primarily by district employees—including teachers, administrators, and counselors.
Empowering employees in these ways reflects a philosophy Wichman says has become more critical than ever during the pandemic: “Take care of the adults so they can best take care of the kids.”
Draw on teachers’ own personal reflections
While on sabbatical from her job as a 2nd-grade teacher and teacher leader at Bahrain Elementary School in Manama, Bahrain—a perk that came with being named 2021 Teacher of the Year Award by the Department of Defense Education Activity—Lachanda Garrison has had time to reflect on the professional learning she feels teachers need after the year they and their students have been through.
“I think we need to do an honest reflection on where we’re at—socially, emotionally, academically, culturally … and then think about the professional learning that we think we may need to support our students,” she said.
Garrison’s own reflections convince her of the pressing need for students to be taught by educators who are trauma-informed and “resilient-focused.” These terms roll off her tongue easily, but she does not take them lightly.
“I’m just finding that it’s easy to say things like, ‘Oh, I’m trauma-informed’” or ‘Oh, I’m culturally responsive’ … Or, ‘I’m an anti-racist teacher,’” Garrison said. But, she says, that’s not enough.
In order to adopt these labels, Garrison says, educators need to closely evaluate and perhaps make shifts in their mindsets. “It’s more about professional learning for that accountability piece versus just slapping on a label and saying, ‘This is what I am,’” she said.
While Garrison says that there are ample opportunities to engage in PD, particularly given the rise of virtual options, she advises teachers to carve out time to reflect on the year they’ve had. Those reflections should drive their choices for summer learning opportunities that address their needs as teachers. She’s already given it some thought.
“I want something that’s going to address our humanity, so that we can continue providing learning experiences that are rigorous, that elicit high expectations for all learners, because our students and educators will have been seen, they will have been heard, and they will have been valued,” Garrison said.
Academics still have their place in the mix
Adam Clemons knows first-hand how the pandemic has burdened families. This April, the principal of Piedmont High School, in Alabama’s Piedmont City School District, had to juggle responsibilities to his staff and students while caring for his five young children as his wife quarantined with COVID-19.
“I don’t see how a lot of parents who have children at home are doing it, to be honest with you,” he said.
But while Clemons empathizes with pandemic-related hardships, his school district has maintained a schedule more normal than many throughout the country. Since the start of the 2021–22 academic year, most students have attended in-person full-time, although about 30 percent of families have opted for remote learning.
That normalcy extends to Piedmont High School’s summer plans for professional development, which Clemons says remain on track, though he recognizes there will be a need for flexibility toward staff members participating in those programs.
Piedmont will prioritize academic content areas in its professional development, such as instruction on newly implemented statewide math and language-arts curricula. Other topics include how best to prepare students for the ACT, with an emphasis on effective test-taking strategies and ways to incorporate test content, like high-level vocabulary, into routine classroom learning.
Clemons also said the pandemic experience has highlighted the need to train teachers in identifying and supporting students who are struggling with mental health issues. He noted that funding for mental health resources in schools is being discussed by the state legislature, and the issue is included in The Road to Recovery, a statewide COVID-19 plan from the Alabama Department of Education.
In considering this summer’s PD activities, he’s also conscious of the mental health of his teachers: “All of us, including myself, want a break this summer,” Clemons said. “If anyone is like, ‘I just need a break,’ we are totally understanding of that.”
Source List: Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order they are: Adam Clemons, principal, Piedmont High School, Piedmont, Ala.; David Finkle language arts teacher, DeLand High School, DeLand, Fla.; Lachandra Garrison, 2nd-grade teacher and teacher leader, Bahrain Elementary School, Manama, Bahrain; Jim Wichman, principal, Prairie Ridge Middle School, Ankeny Community School District, Ankeny, Iowa.
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.