Human Capital Management

How Professional Learning for Teachers Has Changed During the Pandemic

9 min. read

What happened to professional learning during the pandemic?

The country has been rightly concerned about how much the pandemic has impacted student learning. As schools closed and classes went online, the effects were felt nationwide. Failure rates and dropout rates rose while standardized test scores and attendance and graduation rates fell, despite the remarkable efforts of committed and talented teachers and administrators.

Interrupted student learning has been thoroughly explored, but what about teachers? They depend on professional learning to adapt and refine their craft to meet their students’ ever-changing needs, and yet looking at school closures and conference cancellations, it seems that COVID-19 also impacted teachers’ learning opportunities.

But how? While the most intense focus has been on student learning, it’s worth asking, “What happened to professional learning during the pandemic?” More specifically:

  • How much time did teachers spend on professional learning?
  • What were teachers learning, and how?
  • What can professional learning trends during the pandemic teach us?

Teachers spent more time learning

When schools across the country shut down in March 2020 and it soon became clear that any learning for the foreseeable future would take place online, teachers began to prepare themselves to succeed at remote teaching. For many, this shift changed the very nature of their occupations, requiring them to perform in ways in which they had not been trained. Teachers flocked to internet support sites and social media and scrambled to learn new methods and tools. One study which analyzed the amount of content views on an education support website found a stark contrast in users’ engagement before and after the shutdown. While site usage grew steadily prior to March 2020, from 200,000 views in January 2018 to 600,000 views in February 2020, the number surged to over 4 million in March 20201.

The same trend is visible in the Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s data, which shows a drastic increase in completed professional learning activities around the same time. In the two months prior to the shutdown, Frontline Professional Growth users completed, on average, nine professional learning activities, totaling 51 hours. That number skyrocketed to an average of 24 activities lasting nearly 77 hours in the two months following the shutdown.

The need for new learning was felt by novice and veteran teachers alike. Rather than prescribing professional learning activities, many administrators instead gave teachers the freedom to seek out the learning that they needed most to help their students at that time.

Claire, a fifth-grade teacher, retired in June 2020, punctuating her 20-year career with three months of unparalleled challenge. She recalls,

“It was survival mode. It was helter-skelter. We were scrambling. You had to find your own resources online. It definitely didn’t fall under the traditional definition of professional development. It’s what good teachers do during the year anyways — always searching for something to provide students with new learning — but was needed much more so at that time.”

Ashley, a secondary art teacher, began her teaching career in August 2020, just five months after schools started to close. She remembers that year as one of maximum freedom as far as professional learning went. She explains that with only two mandated trainings, teachers in her district were given the agency to seek out their own learning opportunities.

New learning for a new job

Faced with a school year unlike any other, administrators and teachers acted fast to support students.

So what were educators learning about in the early weeks of the shutdown? How do those topics compare to their learning prior to the pandemic?

A quick glance at the titles of learning activities that Frontline Professional Growth users engaged in around that time reveals a major shift in topics of interest right after schools shut down in March 2020. Leading up to that time, the most popular activities were about content-area topics like literacy, mathematics, science, and English language arts.

In the two months that followed the shutdown, it became clear that professional learning goals shifted. The term “Google” appears in the titles of more than half of the most frequently completed professional learning activities in Frontline Professional Growth. Users logged hours learning how to use Google Drive, Classroom, and other web-based tools.

The most popular activities were about content-area topics like literacy, mathematics, science, and English language arts.

Both Claire and Ashley’s experiences align with the data. Like many schools nationwide, theirs both chose Google Classroom as a remote learning host. Claire remembers,

“To prepare for remote learning they divided us into two groups: those familiar with Google Classroom and those who weren’t. I joined the group of teachers who had some familiarity and they led us through about an hour-long training on how to use video.”

Having just finished her teacher preparation program which emphasized integrating new technologies, Ashley felt confident in the switch to remote teaching. However, the pandemic shifted her district’s professional learning focus to Google Classroom. While that focus was essential for many teachers at her school, it didn’t match her immediate need. She explains,

For me, it was an easier transition. What I needed instead was a meet and greet or new teacher support. But it was all about Google Classroom.”

Teachers teaching teachers, teachers teaching themselves

Interestingly, both schools relied on members of their faculty to deliver Google training and provide teachers with ongoing support. Claire remembers,

“One teacher, a fourth-grade teacher, who had some expertise, led a group through some functions of Google Classroom.”

After that initial training, she recalls experimenting with the new online tool herself, eventually developing her own expertise. She explains,

“Anytime you’re learning how to do something with technology, you have to do it yourself, multiple times. You can’t just listen to people. After a few days at home, they brought us back for one day before shutting down for good. People were coming into my classroom all day, asking me questions about Google.”

Ashley’s school responded to teachers’ needs and provided them with a platform to encourage teachers to learn from each other. She explains,

“At first, the school only provided us with two official PDs. I was pretty comfortable with it, but some weren’t. So we also used Microsoft Teams. There were five women, all were slightly younger and pretty tech-savvy. They were using Google Classroom well before the pandemic. I think the school paid them to basically provide coaching to teachers who needed it. It was really just teachers teaching teachers.”

Teachers learned a Lot

Though highly stressful, the pandemic was also a time of exceptional growth for many teachers. In just three months, Claire became proficient with Google Classroom, Google Slides, Screencastify, and other online learning software. She also learned to model strategies in real time and to record her modeling with a document camera. She feels as though these are all gains that could be transferred to the traditional classroom setting.

Learning from teachers’ professional learning during the pandemic

For many teachers, professional learning during the pandemic was highly effective, yielding new learning just in time. While no one wishes for a resurgence of COVID-19 or another shutdown, the conditions that it brought may have increased teachers’ motivation to learn and heightened their engagement with learning. In fact, except for one, the seven characteristics of effective teacher professional development as outlined by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner were present in the kinds of learning activities many teachers completed during the shutdown.

Teachers were engaged in professional learning during COVID-19 because learning activities:

  • Incorporated active learning. Rather than passively listening to lectures about topics that may not fit the immediate goals or needs of every teacher, teachers were given the green light to seek out relevant skills and methods with which they experimented daily.
  • Encouraged collaboration and in some cases provided coaching and expert support. Teachers relied on each other for technology training, curriculum adaptation, and resources. Those with expert knowledge stepped up to support tech novices. Collaboration often happened within schools and districts, but teachers also turned to social media sites like Twitter and Instagram for guidance.2
  • Used models of effective practice. In addition to showing each other new and useful tricks, teachers watched online video tutorials which taught them to navigate their new web-based classrooms.
  • Offered feedback and reflection. Teachers had to learn quickly, implement their new learning, and adjust based on the feedback they received from their students.
  • Were of sustained duration. Remote teaching will continue to be an option for students in many districts during the 2021-22 school year. Teachers will continue to seek out strategies, implement them, reflect upon their efficacy, and adjust learning goals as they grapple with its challenges to improve student learning outcomes.

The final characteristic of effective professional development activities3 is that they are content focused, meaning that they train teachers to deliver discipline-specific strategy instruction, such as text annotation in English language arts.

This is the one area in which learning activities during COVID-19 were lacking. Although teachers’ learning seemed to have flourished during the pandemic, most gains were made in their technical knowledge which immediately supported their transition to remote teaching. However, in doing so, disciplinary strategy instruction took a back seat.

What can we learn from these observations?

Perhaps the simplest (though not necessarily the easiest) step to take would be to work with your staff to incorporate these seven elements into professional development activities to maintain the teacher learning momentum of COVID-19, while also promoting greater student learning outcomes.

1 Cavanaugh, C., & Deweese, A. (2020). Understanding the professional learning and support needs of educators during the initial weeks of pandemic school closures through search terms and content use. Journal of technology and teacher education, 28(2), 233-238.

2 Carpenter, J. P., Krutka, D. G., & Kimmons, R. (2020). # RemoteTeaching &# RemoteLearning: Educator tweeting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 151-159.

3 Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute.

Ellen Agnello

Ellen is a graduate assistant at the University of Connecticut. She is a former high school English language arts teacher and holds a Master’s Degree in literacy education. She is working on a dissertation toward a Ph.D. in Educational Curriculum and Instruction.