If it’s true that life is a test, then the COVID-19 pandemic represents the most challenging one education and everyone in the field has ever faced. The impacts are far and wide. Not a single person is unaffected, and everyone needs help in some form or another. However, one group, in particular, stands out as they are on the front lines every day working with kids – our teachers. I don’t have to go into specifics as they are well known, but many of the issues include quarantined students, skeleton classes, concurrent teaching, covering classes, abrupt shifts to remote or hybrid learning, increasing demands, and personal exposure to the virus. As a result, the workload and stress just keep piling up. If something is not done and soon, I fear, as many others do, that there will be a mass exodus from the profession.
As someone who is in schools on a weekly basis and working side by side with educators under these conditions, I always ask what could be done to make their professional lives a little bit easier. The response is always the same no matter where I am in the country, and that is time. Some might say that this is easier said than done. Still, districts across the country have made innovative changes to the school calendar and amended contracts to provide uninterrupted time to plan and collaborate. That means no meetings, phone calls, emails, or mandated professional development. However, professional learning support is also imperative, and there are other time-sensitive strategies that can be implemented. Below are some ideas broken up into two categories:
If we burn out teachers our education system will never meet the needs of learners. This, in turn, will dramatically impact society and not in a good way. They are people and have limits.— Eric Sheninger (@E_Sheninger) January 19, 2022
- One day per month for planning and collaboration (no kids in school): I have seen more and more school districts moving to this model, which has been celebrated by teachers, administrators, support staff, and students.
- Half-day per month for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs): We took this route in my former district, where I was a principal. We don’t want PLCs to become “just another thing” teachers have to do. By providing time, they inherently become more powerful and something that is valued. On a side note – administrators should be in their own functioning PLC as a way to model.
- Extend holiday breaks for mental health: I have seen a few superintendents across the country take this route resulting in a win-win scenario.
Time for Professional Learning
- Add professional learning days: My opinion is that it is best to frontload these at the beginning of the school year to alleviate distraction and pressure. Another idea is to build in back-to-back professional learning days during the school year so concepts and strategies can be explored in more detail.
- Job-embedded coaching: Teachers want to grow and improve but pulling them from their classes and trying to find subs or coverage creates additional headaches. Job-embedded and ongoing professional learning support uses the time that is already in the schedule to provide needed growth opportunities. This model uses staff meetings, team time, and non-instructional duty periods to facilitate targeted sessions on strategies that can be implemented immediately. Additionally, by observing classes and PLC meetings, valuable feedback can be provided either synchronously or asynchronously. All of my coaching cycles aligned to longitudinal work with schools worldwide involve this approach.
- Asynchronous modules: There is no better way, in my opinion, to align current context to sound pedagogy than developing personalized options for teachers to engage in at their own pace. Scaling professional learning is hard. It is even more challenging during a pandemic. I recently coached John Orcutt, the principal of Arlington High School in New York, on creating an asynchronous course on personalized learning in Google Classroom. It came out great! Now teachers and administrators can work through the activities at their own pace, apply them to their practice, and receive professional learning hours. Since I am in the district once a month supporting schools, I will be providing targeted coaching and feedback to everyone who has taken the course.
Please note that these are only suggestions, but each has been successfully implemented in a district or school. Changes to the school calendar and, in some cases, staff contracts have to be made. In collective bargaining situations, a compromise must be reached. Where there is a will, there is a way. Teachers have earned the attempt to at least try.