How Can Schools Provide Quality Professional Learning Remotely?

Staffing Preparing  Training Retaining  - Strengthening Teacher Quality

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our education system, changing what classrooms and learning look like on a day-to-day basis. Educators are navigating a constantly shifting landscape, with the health of students, teachers, and the community at large at stake. In this series, AIR experts provide their insight into evidence-based practices and approaches for facilitating high-quality instruction—from attracting, preparing, and retaining teachers to providing them with professional learning opportunities—even during uncertain times.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged teachers to shift instruction to distance learning platforms, it also has exposed the need for professional learning opportunities to help teachers adapt to this “new normal.” With schools facing the prospect of continued remote schooling, professional learning will have to migrate to online platforms as well.

Research shows that sustained, job-embedded professional learning and teacher collaboration result in improved teacher practice and student learning. High-quality professional learning is connected to specific content and aligned to academic standards, and it incorporates active learning, modeling, coaching, and feedback, according to research.

Lynn Holdheide, a managing technical assistance consultant for AIR, has more than 10 years of experience working with state education agencies and regional comprehensive centers to design and deliver high-quality professional learning experiences in face-to-face interactions and on web platforms. She answered a few questions about how districts and schools can turn this crisis into an opportunity for robust professional learning.

Q: What does high-quality professional learning usually look like?

Holdheide: High-quality professional learning requires sustained engagement and coaching over a period of time. Teachers have the opportunity to learn the content, develop knowledge, and then apply what they’ve learned paired with coaching, feedback, and reflection time. They have opportunities to practice in different contexts and learning experiences that are scaffolded to increase mastery and independence. That’s the ideal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Coaches aren’t always available, and teachers often have little time in their day to learn and collaborate. That’s always tough, and the pandemic situation makes it even tougher.

Q: What professional learning needs to do teachers have now?

Holdheide: Teachers have been thrust into online learning. Some have had very little or no training to support remote learning, others might have some limited experiences or a vast amount of experiences. Across the country, training has probably been less than ideal. Based on the research, we know it takes considerable time, organization, and planning to provide high-quality distance and virtual learning. In the best interest of teachers, many organizations have put together a litany of resources to help teachers. But in actuality, it’s probably been detrimental. I hear from teachers frequently that they’re overwhelmed. They don’t have time to process these lists or incorporate the strategies provided into their practice. They need support.

Q: What can schools do to address this challenge?

Holdheide: Moving forward, states and districts can use CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding to provide real-time professional learning opportunities over the summer and into the next school year to help teachers learn to use the online applications, strategies, and resources available to them more effectively. Teachers would benefit from coaching by experienced and expert teachers to identify the most appropriate strategy and/or resource and how to employ it. This would be the ideal world.

Q: What would this look like in practice?

Holdheide: Districts or schools could create a community of practice of sorts where there are frequent virtual connections with groups of teachers who collaborate and problem-solve together. District or school leaders could ask, “What are you experiencing right now? What's your biggest challenge?” And the experts—such as technology specialists, university faculty, or information technology teams—could point them to a particular resource and walk teachers through how it could be used to address emerging challenges. And then maybe two or three days later, hold a virtual check-in and ask, “How did it go? What challenges did you have?” This could be repeated regularly to explore various challenges and strategies—essentially a continuous learning cycle for teachers.

Teachers are likely becoming more comfortable with virtual collaboration. There are Zoom meetings, breakout rooms, and opportunities for teachers to come together even if they’re not physically together. These can be used to facilitate collaboration. Instructional coaches and technology experts could monitor online instruction and provide feedback and support to teachers during and after the sessions.

Q: There’s a lot of concern about the “COVID-19 slide,” meaning that the pandemic will contribute to wide variations in student readiness to learn during the next school year. What are the implications for professional learning?

Holdheide: There will have to be formative assessments at the beginning of the school year to assess potential learning losses. Formative assessments should not be new to teachers, but there may be some challenges conducting formative assessments online that would point to the need for professional learning.

Formative assessments also raise the opportunity for flexible grouping of students not by age, but by skill. In blended learning environments where students aren’t all coming to school at the same time, and teachers are teaching some students virtually and others in the classroom, flexible grouping is possible. Driven by formative assessment, teachers can group students intentionally. A blended learning environment offers fluidity in how students are grouped. Some teachers are using differentiated instruction and universal design for learning very well—leveraging students’ prior knowledge and skills, helping them demonstrate mastery of content in different ways, providing resources and accommodations for their students to excel. Others would benefit from professional learning and coaching to strengthen these practices.  

Q: What are practical ways for schools to address this?

Holdheide: If I were a district or school administrator, I would leverage the specialists in my buildings—those who teach students with disabilities or English language learners or any struggling student population. They have a lot of strategies in their toolbox already. This would be a great way to start a collaborative model where the specialists serve as the experts, help teachers set up both virtual and blended curriculum that can meet all students’ needs, and differentiate instruction like never before. Specialists are ready, they’re poised, they’ve been trained to do such things. They are always waiting for a window of opportunity to facilitate the use of practices shown to support all students’ learning.

Specialists are skilled at supporting students in a separate group or in general education classrooms. But I think their desire is for general education teachers to use these strategies no matter what, because they help all kids, not just those who struggle. This will help the highest learners too, because when you differentiate instruction and group students flexibly, you’re helping the highest learners learn and tax themselves even more.

Three Ways for New Teachers to Gain Professional Learning Experiences

Many new teachers who are recent graduates and teacher candidates in pre-service preparation programs had their classroom teaching experiences cut short last spring. Holdheide offered three ways in which they could gain professional learning experiences, help districts and schools address educational challenges, and stay connected to the profession:
  1. Helping reshape curriculum and plan lessons for online or blended learning delivery. Teachers scrambled to adapt their curriculum and instruction to virtual learning environments last spring—and they’ll have a heavier load on this front for the coming school year. New teachers and teacher candidates may be experienced and comfortable with virtual learning and could provide valuable assistance in reshaping curriculum and developing lesson plans. 
  2. Providing differentiated and personalized instruction. Many virtual learning platforms feature breakout rooms for small group collaboration. New teachers and teacher candidates could work with small groups of students or individual students on specific learning needs—and help students make up learning losses from the COVID-19 slide.
  3. Reaching out to families. Some students disengaged in learning before virtual schooling ended in the spring. Some may be experiencing hardship or trauma. If schools remain closed or operate in a blended learning environment, new teachers and teacher candidates could stay in contact with families and students, identify any barriers to participating in virtual learning, and offer social and emotional support.
Learn more about preparing new teachers in a COVID-19 world.