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“Can you please be my coach?”

With tears rolling down her cheeks, this was what a young, second-year teacher asked me in the middle of a professional development session in 2018.

I was sitting at a table with new faces, in a new state, in a new role as a multi-classroom leader (MCL) in Vance County, North Carolina. The session presenter had asked us to role-play a guided-reading lesson, and this young woman had bravely volunteered to play the role of teacher. As the others played the students, I played the teacher’s coach. Although I had some administrative experience helping teachers, I had not yet gone through MCL training to learn how to appropriately coach the teaching team I would lead.

However, I did the best I could, providing the teacher with feedback before, during, and after her pretend lesson. As her face turned to mine after we finished, I first noticed the tears, and then heard those words: “Can you please be my coach?” 

At that moment, I knew that my role as an MCL would benefit the educators I worked with, especially through professional development. All I could think about was how this educator was begging for me to be her “coach” in real life, so that she would have support in implementing guided reading. She did not want to do this alone.

My view of professional development changed that day, and I knew I could now also change educators’ perspectives on professional learning.

Ask most educators about their overall experience with professional development and you might get an eye roll or hear a faint sigh, or even some negative comments. But educators really do want to continue growing professionally. They thrive on learning new ideas, strategies, and concepts to implement in the classroom to enhance student learning, as we saw even in a year as challenging as 2020.

But all too often, professional development sessions for educators lack teacher input and purpose. Often, they are simply irrelevant. 

After this wrenching year, we hear calls to rethink all aspects of education. Rethinking professional development for educators could help students receive the great teaching they need now more than ever. Knowing the positive impact that growing a teacher can have on student achievement, why would we not begin to personalize professional learning for our teachers, just as we expect them to personalize learning for our students? We must meet teachers where they are.

In my 16 years as a teacher, administrator, and multi-classroom leader, I have attended and delivered numerous professional development sessions. I have also now had the training to effectively support the teaching team I lead.

So I’m always reflecting on what makes effective professional development, and I believe personalized professional development is crucial for teacher and student success. Thankfully, the structure of an Opportunity Culture school allows me to do so in my MCL role, through which I provide intensive, job-embedded professional development and guidance to my team. I give teachers what they need as continuous learners through:

Relationships

My first goal is always to build a positive, working relationship with each teacher on my team. They know that I am a support system, and that I want what is best for them personally and professionally. My personal, frequent contact as an MCL with each teacher allows me to know and use their voice, ideas, passions, and interests to grab their attention through professional development tailored to their teaching styles. Last year, I saw just how crucial those relationships are, when teachers were asked to pivot overnight to remote teaching — and my team trusted my guidance to get us there.

Time

Teachers are always short on time. However, as an MCL, I can use our weekly team meetings to deliver mini professional development sessions. These short bursts of learning have had a huge impact on teacher practice, just as mini lessons are proven to be effective for students. 

Data

We look at student data as a team, but as the MCL, I also analyze teacher data. I use formal and informal data to determine teachers’ strengths and areas for improvement so I can pinpoint the most effective professional development. When our data showed students needed new reading strategies, that meant our teachers needed to learn new teaching strategies. I invited other MCLs in the district to work with me to design a fun professional development that resulted in feedback from teachers such as “Such a fantastic format,” “It was awesome. I learned several new things,” “I really hope you will do this again for those who could not attend,” and “The session was very informative and relevant.”

Aren’t these the words we want to hear from teachers after a professional development session? And it wasn’t just fun — the new strategies led to an uptick in student learning.

Implementation

Effective professional learning requires follow-through. Teachers may leave professional development sessions fired up and ready to implement the new learning. But faced with reality, it moves to the back burner—forgotten, or, even worse, implemented incorrectly. This is where an MCL can help the teacher go from the planning stages to correct, consistent implementation.

Next steps

After determining that new learning has become an embedded practice for the teacher, the MCL can continue the cycle by determining next steps for professional development for a teacher or teaching team. Learning does not stop and should not stop. As educators love to say, we are lifelong learners.

COVID-19 showed us that instruction can, and must, adapt to meet students’ needs regardless of location or learning mode. With personalized, embedded professional development, teachers can receive just what they need to enhance student learning, no matter the conditions.

Casey Jackson

Casey Jackson is a multi-classroom leader at Aycock Elementary in Vance County Schools.