COVID-19 Challenges Catalyze Promising Shifts in Professional Learning
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, and administrators in the Petaluma City Elementary School District in Petaluma, CA, pivoted to distance learning and did what they could to guide their students through the remainder of the 2019–20 school year. But Petaluma’s teachers—like so many of their colleagues around the country—faced an unprecedented set of challenges in delivering remote instruction, for which they had little to no preparation. “Everyone was just thrown into … this new style of learning,” remembers Jason Sutter, at the time the district’s Director of Educational Services. “It was like the Wild West.”
After those first tumultuous months, the district took advantage of the summer of 2020 to reflect on its initial foray into distance learning and to identify and plan ahead for potential challenges in the coming year. This thoughtful planning process yielded both short- and long-term benefits for educators and students in the San Francisco Bay Area school district.
At the top of Petaluma’s to-do list for 2020–21 was a commitment to improving coherence in math instruction. This priority addressed anticipated logistical and curricular challenges associated with Petaluma’s planned approach to instruction for students whose families elected to keep them in distance learning once school buildings reopened. This approach would necessitate students changing teachers, or even schools, if students switched back and forth between distance and in-person learning. District staff realized that they needed to improve grade-level consistency in the sequencing of their math curriculum so that students could switch modes of instruction—and therefore classrooms or schools—without disrupting their learning.
To improve grade-level coherence, the district began monthly districtwide grade-level meetings for elementary teachers to align the scope and sequence of their math instruction. After initially experimenting with an administrator-led approach, the district quickly switched to teacher-led meetings to foster teacher ownership of and investment in the decision-making process. For each grade level, two teachers from different schools co-led the districtwide meetings. These pairs of teacher leaders collaborated with district administrators to set the monthly meeting agendas, develop communication strategies, and identify any potential sticking points that might come up based on planned topics of discussion. An elementary school principal attended each meeting to provide support, but the teacher leaders were really running the show. Whereas prior professional development had largely been limited to what Sutter describes as a “choose your own adventure” menu of one-off workshops a few times a year, these monthly districtwide grade-level meetings created space for teachers to collectively share ideas and come to mutual agreements about what would be taught and when.
This collaborative, content-based, sustained, and job-embedded approach to teacher learning is consistent with the type of high-quality professional development that can significantly impact teacher practice and student learning, as established in a Learning Policy Institute meta-analysis of effective professional development practices. But what is especially compelling about Petaluma’s experience is that the work did not stop once elementary teachers got on the same page about the sequencing of math curriculum. Instead, teachers extended their efforts to make other high-quality, research-validated shifts in how they collaborate around math instruction.
Within the first few months of these meetings, teachers began to have rich discussions about best practices for instruction and strategies for most effectively assessing student learning. They discussed how and when instructional practices and assessment strategies would need to be modified to be effective for students learning remotely, and they dug into how to improve student engagement in the context of both remote and in-person learning. They began bringing student work to the meetings, which deepened and focused these discussions. Cohorts of teachers were also able to interact with colleagues in the grade levels above and below their own to give and receive feedback on what students should know and be able to do at the start of a school year.
Teacher surveys revealed that the meetings provided proof of concept of the value of authentic collaboration and learning. According to Sutter, by the third meeting, teachers were almost universally giving the new professional development format high marks on every metric—from clarity of purpose to usefulness of the conversations. Teacher comments were also overwhelmingly positive. This focus on collaboration was a substantial change from a culture in which teachers were seen as consistently dedicated but highly individualized in their instruction. More broadly, Sutter believes that the pandemic “pushed people out of their comfort zone and routine and made them question a lot of things that we took for granted.” Those questions, including increased curiosity among teachers about how they might change their own practices, created the conditions for a new approach to teacher collaboration, among other changes.
By the third meeting, teachers were almost universally giving the new professional development format high marks on every metric—from clarity of purpose to usefulness of the conversations.
Petaluma administrators expect these innovations and cultural shifts to endure, due to their reception among teachers, and plan to continue providing the structure and support to extend and deepen this work. Of particular note, district administrators are training principals to translate and extend the district-level work to site-level professional learning communities—yet another research-validated strategy for improving professional practice. Sutter describes the continuing value of being able to “shift from what’s urgent to what’s important as the urgent demands [presented by the pandemic] kind of subside. If we’re not solving crises, then we can talk about how to go deeper with our math instruction and have some really rich conversations about what students are doing in the classroom and how we’re asking them to engage with their learning.”
In the short to medium term, administrators are confident that Petaluma’s instructional shifts will continue to better support students participating in distance learning, whose numbers are expected to increase once unvaccinated students are required by the state of California to shift to remote instruction. But the changes to professional development and teaching practice that Petaluma’s elementary school teachers made are directly relevant to in-person instruction as well. Indeed, Petaluma’s experience can be highly instructive for other districts looking to make instructional and cultural shifts, demonstrating how the conditions of the pandemic can be a catalyst for change, rather than an impediment to it.