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Rethinking Teacher Training During COVID-19: Bite-Sized Digital Lessons

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Schools have been trying valiantly since March to get teachers up to speed on effective techniques for teaching remotely. Professional development has been a big part of that effort—but it's often difficult to get busy teachers to participate.

Casey Rimmer, director of innovation and edtech for Union County Public Schools in North Carolina, has developed a model she thinks is working during COVID-19 and could be replicated elsewhere. It's reminiscent in some ways of a less formal version of the phenomenon of professional development "microcredentials," in which teachers earn credit and even extra pay upon demonstrating mastery of discrete teaching skills.

Prior to COVID-19, professional development sessions in the Union County district happened periodically throughout the year on days when students weren't in school buildings. Some were teacher-led, and some involved breakout sessions with small groups

Rimmer's district is currently offering in-person instruction to a rotation of small groups of students Monday through Thursday, and virtual instruction for all students on Fridays. Some students have also opted for full-time virtual instruction.

Here's how PD works now.

Weekly, Optional Modules Build In Flexibility

In an effort to give teachers some "grace and flexibility," all professional development opportunities are now virtual, asynchronous, brief, and optional. Rimmer's team builds four new modules each week and releases them on Thursdays, often providing guidance for techniques and concepts teachers say they recently struggled to master.

Rimmer leads the PD efforts, along with a colleague, and a rotating group of guest contributors. On one recent week, math instructional coaches added a module on using math tools in the learning management system. Sometimes, teachers propose a module and end up offering to create it themselves, for a small stipend.

How the Modules Are Structured

Each module has four sections: "Introduction," "Learn," "Practice," and "Assess." Each item fits into at least one of four categories: building community, monitoring progress, providing feedback, and delivering content. All elementary school modules are in one Canvas course all district teachers can access, and all middle and high school modules are in another. 

In recent weeks, Rimmer has tried to move beyond the basics of online learning tools and begin to focus on enriching instruction, with guidance on giving students opportunities to respond in virtual environments, or using the district's "smart learning suite" to allow students learning in school to interact seamlessly with students learning at home.

How Teachers Are Evaluated, Rewarded

As of now, Fridays are remote learning days in the district. Some principals have encouraged teachers to use some of that time to complete at least one module. Others have pinpointed specific modules that might complement what teachers have been doing in their departments.

Both the elementary and secondary course pages have about 11,000 pageviews per week, Rimmer said, which makes her think some of the district's 2,000 teachers are visiting more than once. "I probably answer 500 questions a week with, 'There's a module on that, let me get you the URL,'" Rimmer said.

Rimmer's team provides grades and feedback on teachers' submitted final products, and completing the courses results in credit for teachers' mandatory continuing education requirements. Teachers are also encouraged to use the modules as opportunities to develop content they'll end up using in their classrooms. 

"Our goal is that the practice is relevant practice," Rimmer said. "We don't want them to make a quiz nobody ever takes." 

Principals have access to Rimmer's team's grading sheets so they can determine which teachers have expertise on specific subjects. When a particular topic comes up, "they know who that go-to person is. That person is way more beneficial to a teacher down the hall than somebody like me," Rimmer said.

Lessons Learned and Future Goals

Asynchronous options make perfect sense for teachers who are already overcommitted, but it does mean they miss out on some benefits of the pre-COVID-19 approach, like the value of spontaneous interactions. Rimmer has tried recently to add discussion boards to mimic that experience, but she's still looking for more ways to encourage meaningful interaction between teachers.

The biggest success of this PD approach so far? Teachers get to see a concrete model for how they can structure their own online classes, instead of having to make it up as they go. "The teachers not only learn the content, they see how the flow and the motions go," Rimmer said.

Photo: iStock/Getty


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