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Professional Opinion

Moving teachers from isolation to elevation

Advancing the profession through wider access to high-quality learning tools
Sarah Brown Wessling is an author and laureate emeritus for the nonprofit Teaching Channel.
Sarah Brown Wessling is an author and laureate emeritus for the nonprofit Teaching Channel.

Like many teachers, I’ve been grateful throughout my life for the professionals I’ve called upon for vital services and expert guidance. Similarly, students and parents rely on me every day.

Yet many teachers find themselves isolated in classrooms without the right training or support. Others receive only one or two afternoons of PD per year.

The need for more practical and effective professional development for teachers is especially important right now, with new academic standards being introduced and adapted in schools across the country.

Providing space to innovate

As a teacher leader who has had this conversation with teachers, administrators, policymakers and parents, I recognize an important distinction to which we must pay attention. That is, people outside the profession often want to see a greater sense of urgency about our work.

They want to see immediate action that can be measured and evaluated. Oftentimes the result is a call for more evaluations, ranking and sorting. As a teacher, this only makes me scared.

When we’re treated as professionals, with time and space and resources to imagine, to innovate and to practice our craft with precision, together we feel the urgency to improve our teaching.

Seeing the power of video

To truly foster urgency, PD should be inclusive, active and embedded into every educator’s daily life. It works best as a personalized experience that allows teachers to pick and choose elements that are most valuable to their students.

More importantly, teachers should be able to see proven teaching methods in action, with students, in the context of their curriculum requirements and academic standards. But we’re not there yet.

Teachers say that PD doesn’t help educators prepare for the rapidly changing nature of certain aspects of their jobs, like using technology and digital learning tools. That’s an important insight, given that the adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development can be a major source of stress.

Video case studies are one example of next-generation tools to expand access to what accomplished teaching looks like. Through in-depth cases and instructional videos—paired with written annotations of the lessons—educators at any stage of their career can study exemplary practice and the decision-making behind it in a dynamic and engaging way.

Instilling urgency and confidence

Having the opportunity to analyze and reflect on what constitutes accomplished practice is why the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards process was key in my growth as a teacher. The Board’s ATLAS (Accomplished Teaching, Learning and Schools) program showed me the power of video and digital resources to help me improve.

When educators can see first-hand how to implement a teaching method that is, for example, aligned with a specific framework—such as edTPA, Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards—they can more effectively translate that knowledge into accomplished practice.

ESSA provides a clear definition of high-quality PD and will create new opportunities for states and local districts to improve resources and programs.

The new federal legislation clearly defines effective professional development as “sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom focused”—rather than stand-alone, one-day or short-term workshops.

We’re in a moment when the policy, the need and the demand are aligned, so it’s time to take action to improve learning opportunities for teachers at every stage of their careers. But it’s up to district administrators and school leaders to implement real change.

When we provide engaging and inclusive PD aligned to new and changing academic standards, we can ensure our teachers are prepared to step confidently and urgently into their classrooms to improve student outcomes. DA

Sarah Brown Wessling is laureate emeritus for the nonprofit Teaching Channel and is coauthor of Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards.