An expert in educator PD shares insights on continuous, collaborative, and personalized professional learning supporting teachers amidst today’s challenges—and into the future.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
After leaving the classroom, Adam Geller joined the national strategy team of Teach For America where he helped design a technology platform to improve training new teachers, and later completed an Education Ventures fellowship at the Kauffman Foundation. In 2011, he founded Edthena, a video analysis and online collaboration platform for educators. The company was born from on-the-ground experience with challenges accessing and providing the right types of support at the right times. As an organization, they are rooted in the perspectives of being an educator. This informs everything they do, from feature design to client partnerships. “We fundamentally believe that technology can and should play a part in affecting positive change in the education system,” says Adam. Here, he expounds upon this and addresses our current times and the value of technology and professional development for teachers.
How is teacher professional development changing due to COVID-19?
Adam: This may be stating the obvious, but one of the biggest things that has changed is the way professional development is being delivered as teachers may no longer be able to gather for in-person learning. This means the typical professional development a district had on the schedule for this year may now be happening via video conferences or asynchronous chats.
Districts are really having to rethink how they offer the content and engage teachers in the professional learning process. We’re starting to see a lot of innovation in this respect with the districts we are talking to, especially when it comes to new teacher onboarding and teacher mentoring. District leaders remain committed to ensuring that teachers feel supported by their district such that they retain in their role.
‘Districts are really having to rethink how they offer the content and engage teachers in the professional learning process.’
Why is professional learning so important right now?
I think professional development is important all the time, but it’s especially important right now because so many things have changed for teachers.
From learning new technology to pivoting their instructional delivery, teachers in a hybrid or distance model particularly are dealing with a lot of new and different things this year. That said, beyond providing the pure technical support needed to get teachers up and running with the new technology and platforms being used, districts really need to look at how they can help ensure teachers are delivering quality and engaging instruction aligned to their district’s goals. In order to achieve that vision, just like during every school year, districts need to provide teachers with high-quality support.
Let’s assume for a moment that a teacher has all the technical pieces nailed down and is very tech-savvy. The reality is that tomorrow’s lesson is still going to be challenging. Facilitating a group discussion is suddenly very different than it was just a year ago. And, soliciting students’ thinking and encouraging student discussion during lessons likely looks and feels different. Professional learning is going to help teachers navigate these hurdles and define what hallmarks of good learning experiences look like in a modified learning environment.
What challenges do schools and districts face when it comes to delivering robust professional learning?
First and foremost, good professional learning experiences for teachers are personalized and relevant to their actual needs right now, meaning what’s good for one teacher may not be good for another. That being said, the needs of teachers exist in the context of the needs of the system in which they work. I think it’s really important to consider that context and how the system around the teacher is helping set an agenda. Schools and districts should be very clear with teachers about what should be prioritized – such as supporting ESL students, for example – so that teachers can prioritize their instructional support and own professional learning accordingly.
One of the things I feel schools and districts are wrestling with right now is figuring out what kind of content to have inside of their professional development experiences. I think the good news, though, is the things that were important last year or six months ago are still probably important right now. If using academic language in the content area, for example, was previously a priority, it is likely still a priority now. Districts can continue to deliver targeted training to help teachers with this skill, but adjust it so it includes strategies for facilitating conversations using academic language in a distanced teaching or hybrid teaching context.
‘…the good news, though, is the things that were important last year or six months ago are still probably important right now.’
Despite these challenges, how can school and district leaders best support teachers this school year and beyond?
The most important thing a school or district leader can do right now is be clear to their teachers that it’s okay to be struggling and making mistakes as everyone is figuring out how to adapt to teaching during COVID-19 together. This approach acknowledges that teachers are people who, aside from struggling to do well at work, may also be struggling to adapt to and cope with the pandemic in their personal lives.
The reality is teachers’ day-to-day routines are going to be much different – and likely much harder – than they were last year. Whether early or late into their careers, all teachers are experiencing the “first days of school” challenges all over again because everything is so different.
Continuous, collaborative, and personalized professional learning can go a long way in addressing these challenges and supporting teachers throughout the year.
What are some best practices you’ve seen in regards to using edtech and video observation to facilitate professional learning?
Observing teachers in action and giving them feedback on their actual teaching is always important. However, I would argue that it’s more important now for administrators and coaches to observe educators this year when it may not be physically possible to visit them and conduct an observation in person. Not only is there an urgent need to provide teachers feedback on how they’re doing, there’s an urgent need to continue to make the important professional connections that exist within a learning community inside of a school. Video observation and video feedback using videos of teaching can help facilitate both purposes.
I’ve been hearing about a lot of really innovative uses of video for the fall, one of which is using video to ensure a mentoring program continues to be able to operate. There’s a best-practice district I have in mind that obviously has an obligation to do mentoring according to their state requirements, but is taking its program further with video. The district leaders feel an urgency to ensure both their new and more experienced teachers continue to form the types of professional connections that we all know are an important benefit of a high-functioning mentoring program and are using video to facilitate this valuable professional learning.
Another interesting and notable practice we’ve been seeing across some districts is building a video library of representations of high-quality teaching using video segments of their own district teachers in action. This idea made a lot of sense a year ago when districts wanted to illustrate key practices from within their curriculum. But now with teaching looking so different, districts are finding a renewed urgency to collect and share examples of what good teaching means and looks like – whether it be in the classroom or remotely – for their teachers.
‘…now with teaching looking so different, districts are finding a renewed urgency to collect and share examples of what good teaching means and looks like…’
The good news is that districts don’t have to try and build the technology platforms to do this internally. They can partner with edtech organizations to help them achieve their vision for using video within professional learning.
What should schools and districts consider when looking to implement video-based professional learning?
Using video as part of the observation and feedback process is not just a good strategy for a time like right now when educators can’t be in person. It’s a research-proven strategy that truly is best-of-class for what’s possible for teacher learning.
So I think the critical question for a school or a district leader to ask themselves as they go to implement video-powered learning is ‘how will using video amplify the types of learning structures we already think are important?’ Take for example an instructional coaching conversation – even if a teacher has the best instructional coach in the world, he or she would still have a more powerful, detailed, and evidence-based conversation with their coach if there was a video representation of the teaching practices they were specifically talking about. They could pinpoint and rewatch specific parts of the given video as they discuss specific instructional strategies.
What advice would you give schools or districts using video?
One thing I think is always important to remember is to not “do video to teachers.” Let teachers record themselves. Let them watch themselves. And, let them talk about their own teaching with someone else. Video has the ability to finally make teachers an active participant in their own observation process.
It also has the power to be an impartial observer – it doesn’t have an opinion, it only represents the facts about what’s happening or, more importantly, not happening within a learning context. It can be really challenging as a teacher to step outside yourself and understand what’s going right or what could be better in your classroom. But, video provides a solution as it offers teachers a mirror to see themselves in action.
I think ultimately a school or district leader would want to ensure that video observation and video feedback is seen as “the way we learn here.” So if you’re a school leader that means recording yourself and allowing your teachers to see you reflecting on your own practice. The same goes for instructional coaches – they should record their conversations with teachers and get feedback from their colleagues on how they can better support those types of conversations.
When everybody is learning by using recordings of how they execute in their role, suddenly video becomes a more normalized and routine part of the professional learning culture.
Are there things happening right now in teacher professional learning that you hope will still be true in a few years?
So much of the weight of teaching has always been to be in-person with students. A lot of a teacher’s value was attributed to this idea of presence. And, there’s a bit of a compliance factor about it – you know, there’s that joke about how showing up was 90 percent of being successful. Unfortunately, that mindset also translated to professional learning opportunities.
But, with schools and districts now thinking more flexibly about how to bring people together in virtual ways, this is really paving the way for that type of flexibility to remain in the future. If learning and collaboration can occur without needing to be in person then I think that we could see this continue.
‘…I think we can get to the place where we start building new learning systems that are ultimately stronger and more resilient for teachers and students.’
In the past, if a district wanted all of its science teachers to meet and collaborate within the district, it was really expensive. An in-person meeting meant lost learning time with students, sub costs, and likely some costs related to the free lunch that was provided as an incentive to attend. Going forward, I hope we will think of it as completely normal that those same teachers could collaborate synchronously using video conferencing or asynchronously using [edtech] tools without needing to miss a day of teaching or having to drive half-way across the district.
What can you say about the near (2-3 month) and further-term (into 2021 and beyond) future?
As we start to learn more about COVID-19 and the science about how it spreads and how to treat people, I think it’s becoming clearer that it is likely to be with us for a while. As such, I think it’s really important that school and district leaders don’t continue putting themselves into some sort of holding pattern waiting for things to go back to the “normal times.”
If we as an educational community do more work to accept that this is likely going to be our reality for the near and medium-term, then I think we can get to the place where we start building new learning systems that are ultimately stronger and more resilient for teachers and students.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org