As heroically as schools have risen to the challenge of continuing to deliver and foster academic excellence during a global pandemic, now more than ever, we must not drop the ball when it comes to continuing staff professional development (PD).

Maintaining a focus on PD goes beyond enhancing the quality of teaching and bolstering the quality of education for students. It’s also a massive opportunity to address staff turnover and burnout, enhance collaboration and teamwork between colleagues, and continue to address gaps in teaching methods. The radically changed education environment in which we currently find ourselves only makes it more pronounced.

Why is PD so important?

Professional development (PD) is significant because becoming a good teacher is no accident. PD is one of many elements that need to be present to develop teachers to the best of their capabilities, similar to other careers such as accountants, doctors, legal professionals, tradespeople and workers in industries like hospitality and leisure.

Far from being seen as an inconvenience or a hurdle in the day-to-day operation of a learning institution, Stephanie Hirsh of Learning Forward says that PD days should:

1

 

The case for PD extends beyond developing higher teaching standards. The 2010 publication by Hayes Mizell, Why Professional Development Matters, is an excellent starting point for a holistic understanding of the importance of PD.

Once again, like the professions mentioned above, new teaching graduates are often overwhelmed when commencing their career. As Mizell writes:
 

The most effective professional development engages teams of teachers to focus on the needs of their students. They learn, and problem solve together to ensure all students achieve success. (3)-1

 

PD also has a profound impact on staff wellbeing and positive mental health. The challenges educators face when stepping into a teaching role is so great that 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within three years and 50 percent leave within five years.

“Even experienced teachers confront great challenges each year,” adds Mizell. “[This includes] changes in subject content, new instructional methods, advances in technology, changed laws and procedures, and student learning needs.”

Yes, PD indeed drives teacher competencies that in turn drive student performance and achievement but PD’s importance as a tool for retaining staff – as well as attracting outstanding teachers from outside your school when the opportunity to recruit externally presents itself – cannot be understated. 

How did PD change in 2020?

Traditionally, PD has involved conferences, seminars and workshops. These have been conducted on school grounds or have been held off-site. Not surprisingly, 2020 has seen a considerable change in how PD is handled to meet social distancing and health requirements.

At the time of writing, COVID19 restrictions across the world vary. While it’s still possible to continue holding PD days, the closure of schools – or limitations on the number of people permitted per square metre of floor space in buildings – has made participating in face-to-face PD almost impossible. Travel and other restrictions have also seen a sharp drop in the use of external facilitators and consultants, which means, for many schools, group meeting technology (i.e. Zoom or Microsoft Teams) has played a massive role in facilitating PD commitments.

Such abrupt changes haven’t been all bad for all schools. As Andy Muller, Principal at Scotch Oakburn College in Tasmania, Australia, says of his experiences in 2020: 

3

 

As well as the practicalities of delivering PD, there are many ways in which professional development has changed in recent times. That technology has been one of the major factors should come as no surprise.

PD has always been about learning, bettering students, aligning staff with the core values of their schools and dealing with unprecedented speeds of change – both in and out of the classroom. In the last decade, PD has grown to include questions around improving change and getting the teachers with the appropriate skills required to facilitate that change. In 2020, developing strategies within a school that strengthen education and performance, and that address teacher wellbeing, is the niche within which COVID-19 fits.

How can schools ensure continuity in PD?

COVID-19 has impacted hugely on the day-to-day operations of everyone in school communities. Not only is PD now being performed in the context of a staff member’s daily life, there is also a need to master online teaching. This presents a real issue now being faced by increasing numbers of staff who are understandably fatigued and lacking confidence.

In the same way that many professional sports have transitioned from lengthy training sessions on multiple days-per-week to shorter, more intense and skill-based training programs, the same applies to teaching. Teachers have improved their technical attention; they’ve improved their teamwork, and they’ve worked hard to adapt to the demands of a changing professional environment to make themselves more effective professionals and personnel.

What worked in the 1990s is unlikely to pass muster in 2020.

PD in teaching is no different from developing athletes. We're now skilling up educators with so many various aspects of the role that it makes sense not to neglect their wellbeing. That way, we can ensure they feel good about the teaching methods they're choosing to pursue, as we become more and more reliant on online learning practices.

How can we capitalise on PD online?

There are a number of areas that professional development should encompass in the immediate future. However, one of the most significant, for both students and teachers, is what we’re learning from (and about) the field of neuroscience. As Dr Judy Willis writes:

 

The most effective professional development engages teams of teachers to focus on the needs of their students. They learn, and problem solve together to ensure all students achieve success. (3)

There’s also value in moving away from the concept of future-proofing. We talk about future-proofing in many aspects of life but, if you really think about it, it is an impossible undertaking – the whole idea of the future is that we cannot stop it. Instead, staff members need to think about creating their preferred future. Additionally, areas that PD could address are wellbeing for students and staff, emotional intelligence, and understanding digital platforms and technology.

Historically, we’ve predominantly learnt in a physical classroom environment. And, while distance or online learning existed pre-COVID, this method of teaching was seen as complementary – not the ‘norm’ – for delivering a syllabus. Because of this, we need to continue learning as a community online. Understanding digital is how teachers and school communities absorb the technical information and develop the competencies they need. 

Some final points to consider

Just as an alchemist blends different elements to create new compounds, PD should be considered part of the alchemy of developing outstanding teaching professionals. Focusing on continuing PD can only help provide the necessary level of teamwork that supports education professionals, enhances the quality of their teaching and bolsters the quality of education available to students.

As Andy Muller from Scotch Oakburn College in Tasmania, Australia, concludes:

5

 

This is a time when our best professional development may come from keeping our eyes and ears open and learning from those around us.

Would you prefer to read this article in PDF form?

Download it here