Because Everything is a Priority…

Two railroad tracks intersecting one another. They are overgrown with green grass. An abandoned railcar is in the distance.

My job for the last six years years has been to identify and provide professional development for staff. We set goals, looked at upcoming challenges, and worked toward meeting the needs on the horizon. In that, the team I was on worked hard to infuse practice into the skills we were teaching. It was a different paradigm and we made some huge progress in a short amount of time.

Then COVID-19 raged across the planet and threw us into a spin. Given all the unknowns, one thing was very clear: we had to train staff and build skill. Fast.

And we did.

Time was given by the district to focus on staff development. They realized that staff would need much more support in the new, online environment. My partner and I worked hours and hours, alongside the teaching staff, to provide helpful materials, workshops, templates, and resources. Teachers had time and space to learn and grow even though things were upside down.

Time and space.

Time and space were given for those shifts to take place. It was a deliberate choice to make room for those things to happen. And because we had time and space, we came out of our 18 months online in much better shape that we would have otherwise.

Now, we’re back in school full time.

Coming back to school, we made the deliberate decision to remove that time and space. Our schedule lacks any time for teachers to work together. We have a rigid structure of required work (I don’t want to dignify it as "professional development") that amounts to checkboxes on a form. Back to business as usual.

I feel like I’ve been shifted over into accounting. Time spent doing professional learning is finally paid (thanks ESSER) and instead of setting a high bar and making it relevant, we’re reading prompts and watching videos. "Answering" questions and verifying that people have clicked submit. Head knowledge is provided, but there is no expectation or mechanism to work on practice. There is no support or system to make sure what we’re taking time to do is being used.


Because those things don’t require time and space.

Not at school, at least.

On the face, our core departments are doing slightly better at communicating, but we have different groups prioritizing different things all in the same timeline. We’re lacking cohesive leadership and vision setting. And because everything is a priority, nothing gets our full attention.

Instead of diving in and exploring meaningful, powerful change and merging what we learned while remote with our excitement about actually being with students, we said, "nah."

So, what’s there to be done?

On one hand, I can put my head down and do the work given, trusting that people up higher have a better vision for what’s needed. I can also listen to the staff I’ve built relationships with, remembering that the time and space they get is sucked up by other things. Even if we had time and space, then PD probably still wouldn’t be at the forefront.

On the other hand, I could do more and think outside the box.

We are still in an emergency, without a doubt. But I’m tired of letting the emergency dictate what we do.

  • Long-term alignment. Instead of looking at the near term goals, we can reframe any work we do with staff in view of long-term programs. Adopt the same language, make a point of drawing attention to overlap and showing where theory meets implementation.
  • Immediate payoff. Finding friction points and creating resources that take no effort from staff to use to smooth those out. Things like templates or sample lessons that can be taken off the shelf. Along with those are guides (print and media rich) explaining how we got to that sample, why it matters, and what they can refer to in training for more background.
  • Instructional leadership at the admin level. I can’t get into staff meetings. But I can provide prompts, discussions, and items for principals – arguably the foremost instructional leader in the bulding – to do that for me. Equipping building leadership to carry those supports forward pushes the touchpoints down a level and helps build the building leadership up as a resource.
  • Clear direction. Even if I’m not setting the long-term agenda, I can provide insight and a commentary on how to reach goals set by the people who do. I’m subordinate to the same system, so insetead of being a policymaker, a policy interpreter and guide is more important.

I still don’t know what this looks like day to day, but it’s more interesting that what I’m doing day to day now. Even though everything is a priority and we’re lacking the traditional time and space, there is room for good work to be done.

And I’m planning on trying to do it.

Shatura narrow gauge railway, Misheronskiy by trolleway is licensed under CC BY

Supporting Hybrid and Online Learning

My district is entering a phase where students are in one of two situations: fully online or a hybrid with two days in person and three days online. The goal of this structure is to provide a safe space for students who need it without mandating that all students come back to the building and create a new unsafe space.

I’ve been thinking hard about how to support this new structure. Trying to work the old school model into a new structure is going to cause headaches. The lowest bar is often one of the worst, even though it’s an attractive option when you’re under time constraints and high stress in new situations. To that end, I’ve been trying to pare down what I would suggest if I were teaching classes of my own this fall.

Simplicity First

Complex systems which evolve from simple systems often work well. Complex systems developed without simple implimentations often run into the ground, hard. Starting simple and choosing two or three solid instructional methods will help teachers make connections and teach new material.

There will be a time when you need to figure out how to accomplish tasks X and Y without letting A, B, and C fall apart, but it isn’t at the start of the semester. Those acrobatics come later. For now, consider how you’re going to introduce concepts, close gaps in understanding, and then build on those ideas.

In Education and Experience, John Dewey (yep, I just pulled that card out) argues that experiences should build on one another and drive students to want to know more. This is critical in building self-regulation habits, espeically at the high school level.

Well Defined Material

You are not going to be able to "cover" or "hit" the same amount of content you did before March. It just isn’t feasible given the time delays and other constraints of teaching fully (or even partially) online.

Deep breaths.

You should start by identifying the absolute essentials for your content. If you would typically explore 15 content standards in an in-person semester, cut that down by two thirds. You might be at a good starting point.

Not only should content be pared down to essentials, it should be explicitely and repeatedely shown and explained to students. This opens up a number of opportunities from direct discussions of material with students (imagine no more, "what are we learning today?" It can be your reality.) to fully-fledged standards-based grading.

As a fringe benefit, reducing your scoped material gives you a soild guaranteed curriculum which can be expanded based on student interest. Your time is more flexible to follow lines of inquiry and delve into topics or ideas you would normally gloss over for the sake of "covering more material."

Cycles of Learning

Ramsey Musallam uses this term a lot (it’s his blog title, after all) and I really like his approach to flipped learning. Instead of preteaching with a video and assuming you know what students need to know, be patient and wait for those misconceptions to expose themselves. Then you can make a short, targeted video to close those gaps.

When you’re fully online, it’s easy to make assumptions about where students are before you actually know…where they are. The easy button solution is to make a ton of videos up front only to find later that they don’t target specific misconceptions well, which leaves you feeling stressed and rushed to make more videos.

Rather than jump to video as a go-to, invest time in finding other ways to engage students in their learning. Set explorations first which challenge them to think through ideas or topics and express their own understanding before you swoop in with instruction.

Adjust on the Fly

I student taught twelve years ago and I still remember my mentor teacher’s response to my very first solo attempt. She observed the class and then brought me a small notepad and said, "Write down three things you’re proud of and two things you want to improve." Shen the proceeded to coach me through the first item on my "to improve" list until I felt proud of it and we moved on through the semester.

This changed my life.

It’s easy to focus on the terrible lessons. It will be even easier now that many teachers are sitting alone at home or in classrooms. Develop a habit of constant reflection, but start with proud moments and move on to one or two items to improve. Take advantage of any instructional coaches in your district. Reach out to colleagues also teaching online and ask for advice or if they’ve had the same experience. Ask the students what they think. Find that feedback and take time to adjust as necessary.

There is no top-three list I can give teachers. There is no combination of YouTube channels or websites that will help you teach better. There are chances to move away from time-based, self-contained, content-overloaded courses. Focusing on simple systems which support learning and allow for changes in what "normal" used to be is the best advice I can give heading into the new semester. It’s trite, but this really is a chance to rewrite the book on what school could look like.

I hope we take it.

The featured image is solar system by carolinamadruga is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Considering PD Structures

I’m in the midst of an action research course and my topic is evaluating and reflecting on our systems of PD in the district. This post is the literature review I did as part of the research process. This is similar to some of the work I did last year on leadership development and PD and those links to related items are at the bottom of this post.

“Professional development” as a catch-all for staff training has a degree of uncertainty associated which clouds our ability to critically discuss and reflect on programming. As an instructional team, we have not taken time to critically assess and address our effectiveness in presentation or facilitation nor have we done any work to gauge the effectiveness of professional development in changing teacher practice.

In Elkhart, we have worked mainly with self-selected groups of teachers as technical coaches according to the definition provided by Hargreaves & Dawe (1990). Though our sessions contained collaborative elements, they were singularly focused on developing discrete skills to meet an immediate need. As a team, these have been effective in closing a significant digital teaching and learning skill gap present in the teaching staff. We have not, to date, considered specific models of professional development as a mechanism for planning or evaluating the effectiveness of workshops offered in a given school year.

According to Kennedy (2005), comparative research exploring models of professional development is lacking. Her analysis and resulting framework provides helpful questions when assessing and determining the type of offerings for staff. Reflective questions range from the type of accountability organizers want from teachers to determining whether the professional development will focus on transformative practice or serve as a method of skill transmission. It is tempting to always reach for models which support transformative practice, but there are considerations which need to be made for those structures to be truly transformative.

As a district, our efforts have centered on active processes with teachers, but this has been done without an objective measure of what those types of programs actually look like in practice. Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin (1995) summarize our working goal succinctly: “Effective professional development involves teachers both as learners and as teachers and allows them to struggle with the uncertainties that accompany each role,” (emphasis mine). Struggling with uncertainties requires some measure of collaboration, but collaboration alone does not necessarily lead toward transformative ends and can even drive top-down mandates to improve palatability (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990).

To structure collaborative development opportunities, Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin (1995) make a case for policies which “allow [collaborative] structures and extra-school arrangements to come and go and change and evolve as necessary, rather than insist on permanent plans or promises.” This counters many district-driven professional development programs which require stated goals, minutes, and outcomes as “proof” of the event’s efficacy and resultant implementation. The problem with these expectations is that truly collaborative groups are constantly changing their goals or foci to meet changing conditions identified by the group (Burbank & Kauchak, 2003).

In response, a “Transformative Model” (Kennedy, 2005) attempts to move beyond a simple “collaboration” label and build a professional development regimen which pulls the best from skills-based training to into truly collaborative pairs or small groups attempting to make changes in practice. She argues that transformative development must consist of a multi-faceted approach: training where training is needed to open spaces when groups need time to discuss. All work falls under the fold of reflection and evaluation of practice in the classroom. Burbank & Kauchak (2003) modeled a collaborative structure with pre-service and practicing teachers taking part in self-defined action research programs. At the end of the study, there were qualitative differences in the teachers’ responses to the particulars of the study, but most groups agreed that it was a beneficial process and they would consider participating in a similar structure in the future. Hargreaves & Dawe (1990) alluded to the efficacy of truly collaborative research as a way to combat what they termed “contrived collegiality,” where outcomes were predetermined and presented through a “collaborative” session.

Collaboration as a means alone will not change practices. Hargreaves and Dawe’s (1990) warning against contrived collegiality is characterized by collaborative environments with limited scope “to such a degree that true collaboration becomes impossible”. Groups working toward a shared goal of transformative practices is undercut when the professional development structures disallow questioning of classroom, building, or district status quos. If collaborative professional development groups are allowed to “struggle with the uncertainties” (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995) present in education both in and beyond the classroom, the group will be more effective in reaching and implementing strategies to improve practice. This view subtly reinforces Hargreaves & Dawe’s (1990) perspective that collaboration must tackle the hard problems in order to have a lasting impact.

There are several other factors identified which contribute to the strength and efficacy of professional development. These range from continuous, long-term commitments (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990; Richardson, 1990), work that is immediately connected to classroom practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Richardson, 1990; Burbank & Kauchak, 2003), and a group dynamic which recognizes the variety of perspectives which inform teaching habits across a wide spectrum of participants (Kennedy, 2005).

As an instructional coach, one of my core responsibilities is to help create a culture of learning amongst members to mitigate division or power dynamics based on experience (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Burbank & Kauchak, 2003), which is particularly evident in mixed-experience groups. In addition to fostering a strong group dynamic, the instructional coaching role becomes facilitative rather than instructive to help teachers address problems of practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995). It is easy to fall into an technical coaching position in collaborative groups, but such a role reduces the chances for transformative work to emerge as teachers become trainees rather than practitioners (Kennedy, 2005). This becomes more apparent as districts add instructional coaching positions, but limit the scope of the role to training sessions under the guise of “encouraging teachers to collaborate more…when there is less for them to collaborate about” (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990). Ultimately, the coaching role is most effective when it is used to support teachers through “personal, moral, and socio-political” choices (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990) rather than technical skill and competence.

In order to fully reflect upon and evaluate our programming, Kennedy’s (2005) framework for professional development will serve as a spectrum on which to categorize our professional development workshops and courses. Hargreaves & Dawe (1990) also provide helpful reflective questions (ie, are teachers equal partners in experimentation and problem solving?) to evaluate just how collaborative our “collaborative” groups are in practice. Once our habits of working are established on the framework, we can address shortcomings in order to build toward more effective coaching with the teachers in the district.


Burbank, M. D., & Kauchak, D. (2003). An alternative model for professional development: Investigations into effective collaboration. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(5), 499-514. doi:10.1016/S0742-051X(03)00048-9

Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Milbrey W. McLaughlin. “Policies that support professional development in an era of reform.” Phi Delta Kappan, Apr. 1995, p. 597+. Biography In Context, Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.

Hargreaves, A., & Dawe, R. (1990). Paths of professional development: Contrived collegiality, collaborative culture, and the case of peer coaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6(3), 227-241.

Kennedy, A. (2005). Models of continuing professional development: A framework for analysis. Journal of in-service education, 31(2), 235-250.

Richardson, V. (1990). Significant and worthwhile change in teaching practice. Educational Researcher, 19(7), 10-18. doi:10.2307/1176411

Here’s a presentation I did for a class about a year ago over similar themes, but with a leadership spin.

The featured image is by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash.