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Professional Learning in a Time of Pandemic

For the past few years, I have taught “Professional Learning: Perspectives and Practices” a doctoral seminar for CU Denver’s Leadership and Educational Equity program. The course is required for EdD students in our Professional Learning and Technology concentration, and often attracts a handful of PhD students, too. Many course participants – in addition to their responsibilities as doctoral students – are professional educators in various K12 and higher education settings; as leaders, teachers, and designers, my students care a lot about their own professional learning, and that of their colleagues, and they wrestle productively with our course content and processes as they seek to establish meaningful connections with practice, settings, and stakeholders.

This semester, of course, has been unlike any other. To echo Brandon Bayne’s Adjusted Syllabus, some assignments are no longer possible, some expectations are no longer reasonable, and some objectives are no longer valuable. Accordingly, and in light of our many crises and related implications for both K12 and higher education, I invited my doctoral students to write an alternative final paper.

The topic of this paper: Professional learning in a time of pandemic.

In offering this alternative assignment, I began with few details despite a strong sense from my students that this would be a useful alternative to a traditional summative paper (like a formal literature review). Here’s what I shared with my students about a month ago (slightly edited for clarity and brevity) when it became clear that a shift in tone, requirement, and activity was necessary:

For the remainder of the course, you can opt into a new writing opportunity for your final reflections and paper. Examine a self-identified topic, tension, or question that is emerging in your professional life as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – remote teaching and learning, home schooling, academic continuity, educators’ mental and physical health, educator teamwork and collaboration, the social, financial, and health-care needs of learners (including access to healthy food!), and much, much more. Especially for the final paper, you are welcome to author a more reflective, first-person essay that addresses the various ways in which your professional livelihood and learning has been impacted by this crisis. If you opt into this new writing pathway, both your reflections and final paper will include references to academic literature and also popular media (like news articles) to make your writing of-the-moment and relevant to the dramatic changes unfolding day-by-day. If you’re interested in this new writing opportunity, please note we’ll be making it up as we go along, so your questions are very welcome.

My back-of-the-napkin count is that about half of the students in my course have opted into this new writing pathway.

As for my own thoughts about educator professional learning in a time of pandemic, here are some of my early inclinations.

Business-as-usual educator professional development is now antiquated. Such approaches to pedagogical control are predicated upon a logic of accountability and compliance that cannot continue post-crisis. Such tips, tricks and technologies will harm our most vulnerable learners – and our most vulnerable teachers.

Educator professional learning needs a substantive rethink. Now, more so than ever, educators must be provided with options for their own learning; options to pursue learning opportunities driven by their interests and dilemmas, options to engage with learning opportunities that are open, critical, and creative.

Educator professional learning must wrestle with topics reflecting the accumulation of individual privilege (which has been readily on display as the crisis unfolds), while also questioning pervasive inequities of American schooling (and if this somehow comes as a surprise, read this and this).

Through new models of professional learning, educators must dialogue in community and critically about the various pedagogies and tensions exacerbated by this crisis. In my own work, public dialogue and these pedagogies and tensions was reflected in an open letter my colleagues and I wrote to our students.

If educators are to facilitate their students’ collaborative inquiry in digital spaces (given the shift to emergency remote learning that may likely stretch through most of 2020), then educators’ professional learning should also feature creative opportunities to collaborate, question, and collectively inquire in digital spaces. (And yeah, I’m biased, but the Marginal Syllabus project that I help to facilitate immediately comes to mind.)

If educators are to facilitate their students’ authorship of digital literacies, then educators’ professional learning should also feature authentic opportunities to read about, write amidst, and remark upon their own digital lives and literacies.

And if educators are to facilitate their students’ critical interrogation of systemic racism and social injustice (and now is the time to do so given the social inequities and health disparities made even more apparent by the pandemic, certainly in America), then educators’ professional learning should also feature supportive opportunities to read about, debate, and make sense of those very topics.

Finally, if educators are to facilitate their students’ online learning as an act of care and empathy (given our students’ trauma), then educators’ professional learning should also model such caring relationships and promote humane solutions to the messy work of teaching and learning.

Those are some of my initial thoughts about educator professional learning in a time of pandemic. If I were to write a paper in response to my course’s new final assignment, I’d start there. My students are certainly welcome to borrow, remix, and critique these ideas; and so, too, other educators who may be designing and facilitating such efforts over the many challenging months to come.

I anticipate this is a question I’ll be returning to often: What emerging models, networks, and practices can meaningfully transform educator professional learning in a time of pandemic so as to support the critical and creative learning of our students?

If you have some ideas, let me know.

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