NTC and ED Trusts’ newest series topic: (R)evolutionizing Professional Learning

At NTC and Ed Trust, we initiated the (R)evolution learning journey as a means of deepening the conversations on equity, and supporting the broader field to translate a commitment to equity into action. This is quite a moment for our country. We have continued to witness unjust and racist violence being inflicted upon Black people and communities of color, ongoing COVID-19 challenges related to job losses, housing, and schools reopening—all while families and kids looking for a better future remain locked up in cages across the country, hurricanes strike, and fires burn. In spite of all of this, we see educators showing up every day, online or in person, connecting kids to a safe learning environment because they understand that a good education is one way to disrupt inequitable power structures. As educators navigate these unprecedented times, they need support – which is why we’re turning our learning journey to revolutionizing professional learning. In a time of heightened need and constrained resources, we have an obligation to ensure that professional learning actually supports teachers with what they need. We collectively believe that disrupting educational inequities means disrupting professional learning as we know it.  

Not Meeting the Need

“Drive-by professional learning” has been a criticism of educators—what is being taught may sound great, but many teachers share they do not get the type of support they need to improve their practice. Too often support is disconnected, fragmented, and fails to address the complex needs of what it takes to support systemically underserved students and deliver anti-racist teaching practices. Moreover, there is too often a “rugged individualism” perspective where teachers too often go-it-alone, often by necessity, but we miss opportunities for peer learning and growth with systematic support. While many of the research-based best practices that will significantly improve student learning are known, new challenges in virtual and hybrid settings require us to rethink how we build educator capacity at all levels of the system in new and innovative ways, while staying grounded in what works.

The truth is, there is no one size fits all model to meet teachers’ needs, and far too often professional learning still takes a one size fits all approach. Consider a classroom that includes 50% english language learners, 20% of students who are reading at two-grade levels behind, and 5% of students who have learning differences; there is no standard script for quality teaching practice for this classroom. In addition to high quality instructional materials, a teacher needs to have a toolkit of moves to plan lessons for diverse learner needs, support for how to ensure classroom practices and content are culturally relevant, and means of knowing when to scaffold and when to not over-scaffold. This is where effective professional learning systems can act as a fulcrum, a pivot point from generic support to support that is competency-based and tailored to the students that are unique to each classroom. 

Compounded By The Moment

Amid COVID-19 we have to ensure that the learning of systemically underserved students – those living in poverty, black, brown, english language learners (ELL), immigrants, and students with disabilities – are not disproportionately impacted.  The pandemic is not just impacting how we learn, but where we learn. Take for example, a teacher in Arkansas, where the population of ELL students is rapidly growing. Does this teacher have the support in place to advance learning this year? Will all students’ needs be met? With over ⅓ of ELL students’ parents not having an email address, are effective communication structures established to support family engagement? As a nation, we are also reckoning with our country’s culture of white supremacy. To respond to all of this, teachers are now being asked to address unfinished learning, understand and implement trauma-sensitive, social and emotional practices, while maintaining rigorous standards, tending to assessment needs, and maintaining relationships with students and families. 

Professional learning has long been intended to support teacher effectiveness, however, we do not responsibly serve students when we do not address the role of equity in professional learning and teaching practice. Coaches need to be prepared to address and support teachers who are at different levels of understanding and embodying equity. If we are going to develop anti-bias, anti-racist educators that feel prepared to respond to the needs of all of their students (in-person and online), then we must be intentional in our approach. In doing this, the needs of underserved student populations must be at the front and center not only of professional learning content, but also structures and implementation. All professional learning must ground teachers, school and district leaders to start with who a student is, what a teacher knows about them and their needs, and then use that data to drive an informed approach. 

A Systems-Level Approach: A Call for Collective Action

One of the biggest challenges to effective professional learning is lack of alignment across district, school, and classroom efforts with too many well-intended leaders not rowing in the same direction. We need collective action to enact a culture shift, where leaders at all levels take a hard look at what’s not working and align their efforts. The connective tissue must be data, academic and non-academic, qualitative and quantitative – centered in systemically underserved students’ needs – with professional learning systems putting the pieces together to tailor learning. 

The field has brightspot examples of ambitious, successful professional learning strategies— where a district-wide professional learning approach integrates growth-oriented, content-specific coaching, and collaborative professional learning for teachers. Prioritizing and bringing coherence to an anti-bias and anti-racist professional learning strategy across a district can reform education for students, and help develop highly effective teachers within schools. A robust professional learning system that engages educators and administrators across the system is essential for transformative change. 

As providers, we can shape how we deliver instructional support and professional learning; now is the time to revolutionize our efforts and provide teachers with an unprecedented level of support to dismantle educational inequities for underserved students. This is a marathon, running often at a sprinter’s pace – and we can do it better together. We hope you’ll join us at our next webinar session “(R)evolutionizing Professional Learning,” September 16th at 1pm PST / 4pm EST;  you can register here. Please join as we continue this learning journey together!

About the Author: Atyani Howard is NTC’s Chief Program Officer; her wealth of experience from both the nonprofit and education sectors are strengthening NTC’s ability to expand work and deliver high-quality programming. Atyani comes to NTC after having served as the Vice President of Academics on the Client Team for TNTP, where she led on business development, program delivery, and ELL program development. Prior to joining TNTP, Atyani served as the Chief Academic Officer for Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, California. 

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