The Professional Development Teachers Need Now

Danielle Scorrano, Research & Development Director

Unprecedented may have been the word of 2020. The ongoing, devastating global pandemic has led to growing concerns about safety, has increased disparities across numerous sectors of society, and has raised questions about our children’s well-being continuously in our daily lives. This current time has never felt more uncertain. 

As educational leaders seek to tackle the most pressing issues in their field, supporting teachers must remain a top priority. It is well-documented that the quality of support for teachers matters. In a multi-method quantitative study of 9,000 teachers across a large urban school district, Kraft and Papay (2014) revealed variability across teacher effectiveness in relation to the quality of support teachers received in their environment. Factors such as safe working environments, collaboration, strong leadership, commitment to professional learning, positive school culture, and constructive feedback positively contributed to teacher growth (Kraft & Papay, 2014). Studies across research methodologies and paradigms maintained similar findings. 

The need for professional development and systemic support for teachers is far greater than it has ever been before, particularly as teachers shift between physical classrooms and remote learning environments. At a systemic level, we must deeply examine the ways in which professional development is offered and seek entrepreneurial solutions for future learning in an uncertain environment. Traditional models of professional development for teachers may have been limited to single workshops or presentation-based offerings. But current research instead promotes the multifaceted, interactive, individualized, and active models of professional development that integrate theory and practice (Desimone & Pak, 2017). Literacy coaching, for example, has been shown to be effective in facilitating learning and classroom application from theory to practice (Clark, Shoepf & Hatch, 2018; Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner, 2017). Still, coaching effectiveness has varied in scalability and sustainability, even in a pre-COVID-19 world (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow & LeMahieu, 2015; Kraft & Papay, 2017). 

The need for professional development and systemic support for teachers is far greater than it has ever been before, particularly as teachers shift between physical classrooms and remote learning environments.

This summer, experts in research and reading education, Margie Gillis, EdD, and Julie Washington, PhD, spoke on The Windward Institute’s Research Education ADvocacy (READ) podcast (full interviews can be accessed at readpodcast.org). The conversations with these experts on the podcast and related research provided the following key insights and considerations on how systems of education further facilitate high levels of teacher support. 

Our Changing World 

The needs for long-term planning and sustainable solutions in education are imperative in our current world. From an international perspective, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2019) outlines educational trends shaping our current and future society, including security, networked and global connections, health and well-being, and modernization. The current pandemic illuminates the need for modernization as it pertains to access and equity of technology systems. With the pressing need for virtual learning platforms, access to high-quality technology for educators and learners as well as investments in training have become increasingly essential for all. 

Beyond the need for technology, educators must consider the implications for educational access for diverse populations of students. During the August interview of the READ podcast, Margie Gillis, EdD, pointed to increased cultural and linguistic differences in student populations, calling for greater support for teachers to build their competencies to engage their students. In their discussion of multicultural education, Banks and colleagues (2001) similarly outline the need for schools to provide students with equity of access to a highly rigorous curriculum built within an empowering social school culture. In an August webinar and READ podcast interview, Julie Washington, PhD, called for increased understanding of cultural and linguistic differences, citing examples from her research on students using African-American Language in the classroom. Sustained professional development should facilitate learning for teachers to build upon their instructional pedagogy and create opportunities for educators to understand cultural and linguistic differences in a multicultural environment (Banks et al., 2001). 

Complete Systemic Involvement 

Effective professional development involves the complete commitment and participation within the organization (Jensen, Sonnema, Roberts-Hull & Hunter, 2016; Learning First Alliance, 2000). Systems-level involvement includes effective leadership as well as communities of practice that engage teachers in coherent and collaborative professional learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Griffith, Ruan, Stepp & Kimmell, 2014; Learning First Alliance, 2000). While discussing the systems of coaching and professional development in school districts on the READ podcast, Dr. Gillis explained the importance of analyzing existing systems in order to address and improve practices moving forward, particularly as it pertains to reading. During the interview, Dr. Gillis explained, “You’re going to be putting a Band-Aid on a huge problem if you don’t address how reading is being taught in the first place.” 

Relationship and Trust 

In an uncertain world, the delivery of professional development can continue to remain fluid and flexible. Whether taking place online in remote environments or physically within school buildings, professional training that prioritizes relationships and trust is key. Desimone and Pak (2017) assert that coaching and professional learning communities integrate social connections, relationships, and collective efficacy with coherence of learning. In their analysis of novice special education teachers, Jones, Youngs and Frank (2013) found that teacher perceptions of support from collegial relationships influenced their commitment and overall well-being. As Dr. Gillis explained the mechanisms of effective coaching on the READ Podcast, she emphasized trust as a key factor for teacher-coach relationships. 

Teacher Agency 

Effective professional development programs seek to engage teacher agency in enacting their learning. Calvert (2016) defines teacher agency as the potential for teachers to act with purpose to connect professional learning with their individual and collective growth. Integrating learning that tunes into agency facilitates intrinsic motivation and engagement. Guskey (1986), for example, maintains a link between self-efficacy and teacher change, and Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002) illustrate connections between teacher learning, classroom enactment, reflection, feedback, and teacher intrinsic beliefs. 

Mechanisms for Sustainability 

In any environment, professional development models will fail unless leaders deliberately consider mechanisms for programmatic sustainability. Desimone and Garet (2015) posit that leadership and funding structures act as current challenges for professional development programs. Furthermore, Desimone and Stuckey (2014) explain that fidelity of implementation may create barriers for continuous sustainability of professional development opportunities. 

In any environment, professional development models will fail unless leaders deliberately consider mechanisms for programmatic sustainability.

Considerations of sustainability and nimbleness during the pandemic offers leaders the opportunity to facilitate systemic change and improvement across networks. Through improvement science, for instance, leaders can enact change that is centered on the problem and its stakeholders, analyze variability through deliberate measurement and data collection, engage in systemic inquiry, and cultivate networks toward continuous improvement (Bryk et al., 2015). In this changing world, examining context-specific elements of systems such as governance, instruction, human capacity and resources, and data enables leaders to understand the factors that may promote or inhibit future growth (Bryk et al., 2015). 

2020 may have brought forth extraordinary challenges, but it may also offer unique opportunities to leverage growth toward a more equitable future. While maintaining a commitment to supporting teachers with existing research, educational leaders may devise innovative methods to address increasing demands and shifts within our current and future society.