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Why digital PD needs an urgent overhaul

Sarah Brown Wessling
May 31st, 2016

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Technology, collaboration, and new standards are changing the classroom at a rapid pace. Every teacher’s professional development must keep up

Like so many of us, I have been grateful throughout my life for the professionals I’ve needed to call upon for vital services and expert guidance. The surgeon who had years of residency and practice before treating me on her own. Or the lawyer, who was constantly staying abreast of federal and state regulations in order to offer me sound advice.

Similarly, students and parents rely on me every day. As teachers, we are entrusted with our nation’s children, and their futures, yet many of us find ourselves isolated in classrooms without the right training or support. Others find ourselves supported by just one or two afternoons of professional development per year. As we collectively elevate teaching so that it may sit comfortably alongside other highly respected and important professions, we must think carefully about how to provide higher-quality, effective continuing education for teaching.

The need for more practical and effective professional learning opportunities for teachers is especially important right now, with new academic standards being introduced and adapted in schools across the country. As a teacher leader who has had this conversation with teachers, administrators, policy makers, and parents, I recognize an important distinction to which we must pay attention. People outside the profession often want to see a greater sense of urgency about our work. Oftentimes, the desire for urgency looks more like drawing small circles around teachers through evaluations, ranking, and sorting. For a classroom teacher, though, this has the opposite effect. When I feel small, I don’t feel urgent. I feel scared and uncertain.

If we want a teaching force that is bold and innovative, then we must fight isolation, because when we’re working together, we’re sharing the responsibility to do better for our students. I am urgent when I see what my colleague down the hall is doing and I want to get better. I am urgent when I watch videos or read about other teachers doing amazing work.

In an increasingly connected world, educators need access to on-demand, online resources, with tools and platforms that facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing. More importantly, teachers should be able to see proven teaching methods in action, with students, in the context of their curriculum requirements and academic standards.

But we’re not there yet.

Teachers say that professional development doesn’t help educators prepare for the rapidly changing nature of certain aspects of their jobs, like using technology and digital learning tools. That’s important insight, given that the adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development can be a major source of stress for teachers in the workplace.

There’s little question a change is in order. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a clear definition of high-quality professional development and will create new opportunities for states and local districts to improve resources and programs. Not to mention, the new federal legislation clearly defines effective professional development as “sustained” (not stand-alone, one-day, or short-term workshops), but rather “intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused.”

We’re in a moment when the policy, the need, and the demand are aligned, so it’s time to take action to improve learning opportunities for teachers at every stage of their careers. But it’s up to district administrators and school leaders to implement real change.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has a vision for how that can happen. As a natural extension of its mission to maintain high and rigorous standards for what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do, it is expanding access to what accomplished teaching looks like in practice. In 2015, the Board introduced ATLAS — an online platform that gives educators at every level the ability to study the practice of National Board-certified teachers through in-depth case studies and instructional videos. Each teacher featured in a video case study provides a written annotation of his or her lesson, allowing users to see the thinking behind each decision and reflection on what worked or didn’t work. Though it is just one example of what next-generation professional development resources look like, it’s a step in the right direction.

Having the opportunity to analyze and reflect on what constitutes accomplished practice is why the National Board process was instrumental in my growth as a teacher. It’s why I have understood the power of video and digital resources to help me get better. It’s why I know that making visual cases of exemplary instruction available to teachers through resources like ATLAS will help overcome feelings of isolation and foster an elevated teaching profession. When educators can see first-hand how to implement a teaching method that’s, for example, aligned with a specific framework, such as the National Board, edTPA, Common Core, or the Next Generation Science Standards, they can more effectively translate that knowledge into accomplished teaching practice.

Regardless of how we get there, America’s teachers deserve a chance to strive for greatness. They deserve every opportunity to excel and grow. And they deserve access to high-quality professional learning resources. When we provide engaging and inclusive professional development aligned to new and changing academic standards, we can ensure our teachers are prepared to step confidently, and urgently, into their classrooms and improve student outcomes.

[image via AP]

About the Author:

Sarah Brown Wessling is a 17-year veteran of the high school English classroom, a National Board Certified Teacher, and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. While a member of the faculty at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa she has taught courses ranging from at-risk to Advanced Placement and has served the department and district in a variety of leadership roles. Sarah is Laureate Emeritus for the non-profit Teaching Channel and an author of “Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards.”