In the midst of a global pandemic teachers are adapting in a multitude of ways. We have had to fundamentally change the way we teach, learn, and engage with each other. While feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for many of these challenges, I found that I was also able to slow down and reflect more deeply on my own teaching practice. And one of the greatest resources that I had at my disposal to do this was action-research oriented professional development. Two such opportunities that I found invaluable in the transition to teaching in a pandemic: Learning Lab VT and the Middle Grades Institute (MGI). Here’s what I’ve taken away from PD in a pandemic.
1. The ability to design my own learning
I signed up for Learning Lab and MGI because I knew that these programs would give me and my colleagues time to think big picture. They would give us space to create a common set of goals, conduct research, and create a plan that suited our needs. These PD experiences gave me a framework to work within that helped me identify and plan for my goals. And then they handed me the reins to direct my own learning.
2. The ability to connect with teachers from across the state
Powerful professional development emphasizes collaboration by asking teachers to share their ideas, practices, and results in a way that’s informative and low risk. For instance, Bright Spots and Belly Flops were a series of posts Learning Lab members shared with one another. The posts highlighted the successes and challenges of our projects. The Middle Grades Conference later this month is similar. It’s an opportunity for educators to share innovative teaching practices they’ve tried. And in the time of abundant stress and heightened responsibilities, crowdsourcing ideas and practices feels more important to me than ever.
3. Emphasizing student voice
Great professional development embeds the expectation that students’ voices are a part of our planning. This element feels even more necessary as the pandemic has turned how we “do school” on its head. My Learning Lab VT team of students was invaluable to my transition to remote learning. I met with my students and then adjusted my own teaching to be more responsive to their needs. I gave them the opportunity to share what was working and what wasn’t. At MGI this past summer when meeting with the student consultants, we, as teachers, were given feedback from students across 5-8th grades about how to structure our first weeks back in school.
4. Emphasis on equity
The most critical component of MGI is the requirement that educators construct action research projects. This year, the emphasis is on equity. The experience challenges teachers to analyze their projects through Gorski’s Equity Literacy framework (.pdf). Schools are not neutral spaces, nor have they ever been. The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities inside and outside of our school buildings. And this PD pushed my team to recognize inequities in our project plan. It gave us the opportunity to actively cultivate equitable opportunities for students.
There is no denying that taking on additional work, in the face of all we are experiencing right now, feels daunting. However, participating in professional development during this pandemic has given me the opportunity to take a step back, reflect, and move forward with an intention I would not have had on my own.