Consider the following questions for a moment:
What if large-group professional development were a thing of the past?
What if most teacher professional development occurred in the classroom, with personalized guidance from a specially-selected professional collaborator?
What if great teacher professional development did not require finding and paying substitutes?
What if students did not have to be without their teacher every time he or she wanted to learn something?
What if all the things we know about great professional development – that it must be sustained over time, content-specific, context-considerate, collaborative, focused on student learning, etc. – could be done without overwhelming administrators and teachers?
What if all of this was available in schools everywhere at prices districts could afford?
In the past, educators might have answered the questions above with responses that began, “Yeah right…,” “It would be nice, but the reality is…,” “Maybe in _____ districts (fill in the blank with larger/smaller/wealthier/better supported/more rural), but not here.”
Where have we been? Where are we going?
In the last five years particularly, conversations around teacher professional development have shifted in focus. Educational leaders have broadened their scope to include new ways of engaging teachers in meaningful activities that are more likely to improve student learning. Some alternative forms of professional development include observation days in classrooms outside the home district and locally-developed conferences in which teachers have greater voice and choice in their own learning. Some districts have even found ways to award professional development points for education-relevant Twitter chat participation.
The shift toward personalizing PD content in a manner that will achieve measurable gains in student learning, however, has been slow to take hold. One-day or half-day sessions, sometimes referred to as “one-and-done” sessions, still largely populate the professional learning landscape for educators (The New Teacher Project, 2015). This occurs despite the growing body of evidence showing that lengthier, more personalized, more coherent and in-depth approaches to teacher learning are decidedly more effective for changing teachers’ instructional practices and improving student learning (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017).
Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, and Gallagher (2007) suggest that the following three features contribute to enhanced knowledge and changes in teaching practice:
(1) a focus on content knowledge,
(2) a high level of coherence, and
(3) inquiry-oriented learning approaches (p. 930).
Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos (2009) offer similar descriptors. Their research indicates that “effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content; is connected to other school initiatives; and builds strong working relationships among teachers” (p. 44).
Additionally, Fullan (2007) argued more than a decade ago that professional development models in which teachers are passive recipients of knowledge have “run their course” and must be reconceptualized. He describes a new model of teacher learning that is conducted in teachers’ classrooms, is continuous, is “deprivatized” in the sense that teachers are engaged in focused collaboration (including observations and meaningful feedback) with peers and colleagues, and that focuses on improved structures for teacher professional development.
So…how do we do this?
How do we take a well-established system and work together to make the fundamental shift that so many experts have long been calling for? How do we make information accessible to teachers, but focus our attention on building conditions and cultures that will encourage them to use their new knowledge, take informed risks in their classrooms, and conduct regular, “blameless autopsies” of their instructional practice, in pursuit of improved student learning? And how do we do this in a way that is fiscally manageable?
The answer: Virtual instructional coaching.
How is this different from on-ground instructional coaching?
On-ground instructional coaching models have been used successfully in schools across the U.S. However, findings indicate that even when instructional coaching is offered, it is extremely limited in scope. One instructional coach has a limited supply of time, energy, and although we would like to think our excellent instructional coaches are superhuman, they are – like the rest of us – limited in their knowledge and skills to some extent. On-ground instructional coaches often have impossible caseloads of teachers they are responsible for working with during regular one-on-one coaching sessions, and they are often tasked with many other duties as well.
The CRL virtual instructional coaching model allows us to select a coach for each teacher based on a teacher’s content area, instructional context, level of expertise, and individual needs. This might mean that rather than depending on one or two on-ground coaches to provide personalized coaching to a staff of 25 teachers, we could secure 25 different coaches to work one-on-one with individual teachers, and do so at the same cost (and in many cases, at a lower cost) than a school would pay in salary and benefits for a full time instructional coach stationed on site.
Isn’t in-person/on-ground coaching better than virtual coaching? Why would I settle for this?
Our coaches have experience with in-person and on-ground coaching as well as virtual coaching, and they report that through our virtual coaching model, they are more effective as coaches than they were as on-ground coaches. With set meeting times and no “other duties as assigned”, they are able to focus entirely on the needs of their teachers, and make more progress virtually than they ever were able to do in person. Likewise, they report that teachers see them as neutral parties, and therefore their work is not clouded by fear, anxiety, or local politics. Their motives are pure, focused, and undeterred by forces that often can derail teacher growth and development.
Relationships are so important for building trust, and doesn’t that only happen when a coach is part of my staff?
Relationships are key to the success of instructional coaching. That’s why our coaches are specially trained in how to build relationships and collaborative partnerships in a virtual environment. Likewise, because our coaches are able to meet more frequently with teachers than on-ground coaches, relationships are built in a natural, non-threatening manner and often are sustained even beyond the time the teacher and coach are actively working together.
This seems like it would be too expensive for my district.
Below is a side-by-side comparison showing how our model works, compared to a “traditional” on-ground coaching, all while not breaking the bank for school district:
Traditional Coaching Model
CRL Virtual Coaching Model
Administrators hire one or two coaches per school for the entire school year.
Teachers are matched with a coach who fits their learning needs, and works with that coach in 9-week cycles.
District pays coaches a full salary plus benefits for the entire school year.
District pays a flat per-teacher rate for each 9-week cycle.
Individual coaches are responsible for improving instruction across a multitude of content areas, grade levels, and working effectively with a diverse staff, in addition to performing many other duties within the school or district.
We pair teachers with coaches who are a match for their personalities, contexts, content, and experience level. Our coaches are solely focused on improving student learning through one-on-one teacher collaboration.
Figure 1. Side-by-side comparison of traditional vs. CRL virtual instructional coaching.
What we can do now
Clearly, changing the face of educator professional development will not happen overnight. It also will not happen if we cling to old models that have been proven to have no long-term positive impact on teacher or student learning. Therefore, we must begin by letting go.
As educators, we are used to tackling difficult questions. We are problem-solvers by nature. More importantly, we have a collective, noble mission to improve the lives of young people. Reputable educators and researchers have put forth guidance on how to do just that, but it is up to us to follow it.
The Center for Research on Learning collaborates with educators throughout the country to improve teaching and learning. Their coaches would love to work with you. Visit them online at kucrl.ku.edu.
Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Fullan, M. (2011). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning
Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B. J., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. P. (2007). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921-958.
TNTP (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development.Washington, DC.
Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and teacher education, 24(1), 80-91.
Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., Andree, A., Richardson, N., Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Dallas, TX. National Staff Development Council.