Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the trends that will shape K-12 in 2021. You can find all the articles on our trendline.
Integrating technology into the classroom has been the overwhelming focus of teacher professional development in recent years. EAB K-12 Strategic Research Director Ben Court estimates nearly 70% of professional learning programs have centered around that topic, compared to 30% on instruction methods.
“Teachers still have a lot of opportunities to become more comfortable or use advanced methods, but other key areas are rising to the top for professional learning,” said Court, who specializes in K-12 leadership development, planning and strategy. “It’s time to flip the ratio to focus more on instruction.”
The coronavirus has required teachers, like their students, to shift how they receive training and support. Even when schools can return to “normal,” these forced changes are resulting in long-term benefits. These are four PD trends to watch in 2021 and beyond.
"PL in Pajamas"
In Texas’ Arlington Independent School District, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Connie Wallace has coined the phrase “PL in Pajamas.” Wallace recognized teachers no longer have the luxury of blocking out several hours, or a full day, to attend a PD workshop. Aside from time, teachers are learning as they go and need troubleshooting tips at a moment’s notice.
“When they are up at 2 a.m. putting together a video for a class, they don’t have time to wait,” Wallace said. “Having on-demand PD experiences has been enhanced by COVID and will likely be continuing well into the future.”
The time crunch being felt by all staff is also limiting teachers' access to other staff for help. Taking a similar approach to higher education, Wallace has introduced online office hours to ease that pain point.
“We put in place virtual office hours, so at any given time [educators can] log into a Zoom to link and engage with members of our department to get on-demand support,” she said.
Timeliness and flexibility are the buzzwords when it comes to designing PD for the COVID-19 era. Following retail’s trend of “pop-up” stores, impromptu PD opportunities have been another approach used by the Otsego Northern Catskills Board of Cooperative Educational Services in upstate New York.
These nimble, short sessions address immediate challenges teachers have asked for help with, as indicated through surveys. “This is a collaborative effort that can be used to address many topics in a short time,” said Stacy Ward, director of instructional support services for ONC BOCES.
Bite-sized and personalized
Pre-pandemic, 44% of professionals across industries cited time as a reason for not finishing talent development programs, according to LinkedIn's 2018 Workplace Learning Report. With time and energy stretched to a breaking point during the past year, that percentage is likely to now be higher.
Providing content in smaller nuggets increases engagement and participation by aligning staff needs and allowing them to fulfill PD goals with the time they have available. Sessions as short as 10 minutes that focus on a specific skill are the way of the future, experts says, as educators need in-the-moment solutions.
Tightly focused training in half- or hour-long segments will make the most of the time teachers have available for professional learning. Wallace, for instance, has created “choice boards” to allow users to pair the self-paced work with their level of expertise.
“It’s like a bingo board,” she said. “We put together small snipes on a topic that range from basic information to those that go deeper for someone established in the content area, so they are making the best use of their time.”
Wallace added that this approach has been particularly helpful in supporting staff in advancing beyond their knowledge base. For example, a new teacher may need more support around phonics, whereas a principal who was a former early childhood literacy teacher is familiar.
“Having them spend time in a session restating something they already know is not the best use of their time,” she said. “With choice boards, they can pick the content they need to propel themselves to the next level.”
Shifts in focus
Court’s call for flipping the focus of PD away from how to use technology is happening in districts around the country. In some cases, this is a matter of going from how to use the tool to how to teach with the tool: Student engagement in a virtual environment and school connectedness are among top-requested topics by teachers.
But the importance of training around social-emotional learning is also on the rise.
“We’ve seen some districts elevate wellness and sustainability topics to protect teacher well-being,” Court said. “We encourage school leaders to think about how to design PD that encourages teachers to focus on self-care.”
Last summer, the ONC BOCES instructional development staff used the “Take Time for You: Self-Care Action Plans for Educators” workbook. Their plan is to roll out the workbook and accompanying exercises on a wider scale.
“We had been bringing SEL to the district slowly, and this has to speed that up,” Ward said.
At the School District of Manatee County in Florida, Melinda Lundy, the district’s director of professional learning and leadership development, quickly realized redesigning PD extended beyond teachers to the business and operations side.
“That was a big ‘a-ha’ moment that we had, to look at how PD had to be changed for the workforce as a whole,” she said. “We had to deliver playlists based on our course libraries and develop courses for staff who are bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance and different operational staff.”
Breaking down silos
Teachers operate in a silo in the best of times, and the pandemic has deepened those divides for some, according to Court. Districts that are encouraging staff to share their knowledge and to leverage the power of a person’s expertise are finding greater success in shifting PD opportunities.
“The fact that we’re virtual means we can reach a wider audience,” Ward said. “There are four BOCES that work together to divide and deliver the work because there are different services we each do well.”
These changes to PD prove the importance of more focused and timely learning opportunities to support immediate needs. Much of the shift is positive, and Ward is hopeful that will continue. However, she is worried that as summer approaches, educators are going to need a break at a crucial time when learning standards are changing.
“We have brand new standards for 2021-2022 in New York, and we are going to have to help our teachers prepare while respecting the fatigue of the last year,” Ward said.