Focusing on Teacher Engagement to Improve Professional Development
Teachers all over the world have quickly learned how to implement distance learning over the course of the past few months. Just as quickly, we moved from thinking about this need as a stopgap solution, or what A.J. Juliani refers to as “emergency remote learning,” to thinking more about best practises and the need to develop a muscle memory of good distance learning pedagogy—a model that we’re likely to use for a long period of time.
Not only have we adopted tools to assist our students in learning remotely, but we have also adapted to the onslaught of professional development designed to teach us how to be flexible, engaging, and standards-based while teaching students at a distance.
RETHINKING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Everyone has found themselves stuck in stale professional development sessions, sitting in a sit-and-get and checking our emails over and over again. We have an opportunity to rethink PD at this time because we are rethinking so many other things at the same time. Learning is hampered by a lack of engagement, whether we’re talking about students or teachers alike. Moreover, when we learn online, the need to pay attention to engagement is even greater than when we are face to face with a teacher.
Following up on the results of a teacher engagement survey that I conducted earlier in the school year, I decided to take another look at the results of the survey. For quite some time, I’ve been intrigued by the impact of student engagement on learning outcomes. As a former disengaged student who went on to become an educator, I’ve made it a point to consider student engagement when developing curriculum, implementing it, and providing professional development. Earlier this year, I conducted a nationwide survey of students in sixth through twelfth grades to learn more about the strategies that students find most engaging. The results of this survey were published in the book Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement. In 2018–19, I conducted a survey of teachers to find out which strategies piqued their interest and helped them learn more effectively.
I’d like to share some of the most important findings from this survey of teacher engagement, as seen through the lens of our current reality. In hopes of assisting school districts in developing more engaging learning opportunities for teachers, administrators, and staff, both online and off-campus, I have created this resource.
Respondents to my survey represent a diverse range of educational settings, including traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and home schools, among other options. They work in a variety of settings, from pre-K to 12th grade, with a few working in higher education. I focused my survey questions on when, where, and how educators like to learn in order to better understand their own learning styles.
Some of the findings were as follows:
When asked where they preferred to learn, more than a quarter stated that they preferred to learn at home, and more than a third stated that they preferred to attend a seminar. Another third stated that they preferred traditional professional development sessions, either off-site or at their place of employment.
When asked when they preferred to learn, approximately 75% of students stated that they preferred times other than during the school day.
When asked how they preferred to learn, more than a third of those who responded said they preferred asynchronous methods such as webinars, independent reading, and social media.
Taken together, these findings indicate that most current professional development does not take teachers’ preferences into consideration. The practise of sending teachers to conferences is widespread, but many prefer to learn in other settings. Similar to this, professional development offered during school hours ignores those who wish to learn at other times.
CONNECTIONS TO STUDENT ENGAGEMENT
It’s important to note that teachers don’t have to guess about what motivates students to learn because both groups have preferred learning strategies in common, resulting in a direct alignment between them. In both of my surveys, groups agreed on a number of strategies that had previously been discussed.
Here are three of the most effective engagement strategies for both teachers and students, in order of importance:
Ensure easy access to technology and the visual presentation of information
Make it meaningful, and it will be remembered.
Allow us to converse and work together.
Keep in mind that even though our preferred engagement strategies are similar to those of students, we must consider our differences when planning lessons. This is especially true when it comes to differences in our developmental maturity and literacy levels. You may have a high tolerance for text on a slide deck, but to a student, that text may appear as a wall of text that becomes an impediment to their ability to learn. And while you may be able to concentrate on online content for 45 minutes, keep in mind that even high school students enrolled in AP courses may lose concentration after 20 minutes.
When it comes to pursuing depth of learning, engagement strategies are just as important as content standards, if not more so, than content standards.
HOW CAN WE IMPROVE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT?
The responses to my teacher engagement survey have provided me with some suggestions for how to improve professional development. Considering that respondents were evenly divided between preferring to attend conferences and preferring to learn from their peers at home, we can draw conclusions about what they like about conferences even in times when travel is not an option.
Observe the formal conference structure by scheduling sessions and workshops using class codes and video conferencing links that are focused on a variety of subjects.
A brief keynote speech to unify participants around a fundamental concept should be included, as well as a space for teachers to engage in informal conversations.
Keep your professional development focused on what is most impactful and meaningful by providing only what is absolutely necessary and boiled down to the essence of the matter. There is a limit to how much time teachers can devote to their students.
Make sure to leave enough time for teachers to collaborate and talk with one another. Divide the class into breakout rooms and set up collaboration tools such as collaborative documents, slide decks, and platforms so that all teachers can work together, both synchronously and asynchronously.
Make sure that your slide decks are more image-based than they are textual. A page of nothing but bullet points or sentences is about as interesting as a five-paragraph essay in terms of readability and interest.
Provide opportunities for hands-on learning and learning-by-doing through the use of tools such as Nearpod, Pear Deck, and Edpuzzle.
Takeaway: This list can be used not only with adult learners, but also with our students, which is a valuable lesson to remember. Consider what motivates you as a learner—the chances are good that it will motivate your students as well.