Educator professional development is a longstanding strategy to improve teaching and learning practices (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). According to Wayne et al. (2008), “it is generally accepted that intensive, sustained, job-embedded [educator professional development] focused on the content of the subject that teachers teach is more likely to improve [educator] knowledge, classroom instruction, and student achievement” (p. 470). However, exploring impactful elements of online professional development for educators during the pandemic is a new area of inquiry. As a research-based and data-informed designer of online professional development for educators, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation (FI) has a fervent interest in understanding the contemporary needs of educators. Researchers from the FI conducted the Insight into Contemporary Professional Growth Needs for North Carolina Educators, an exploratory qualitative study, to better understand the classroom-, school- and district-level challenges North Carolina educators were facing one year into the pandemic.
Three research questions guided this work:
• RQ1a: What are the current areas of growth for North Carolina educators?
• RQ1b: In what ways does the political landscape impact current areas of growth for North Carolina educators?
• RQ2: What online professional development design features are most impactful for North Carolina educators?
A total of 18 educators participated in the study, including classroom educators across nine disciplines; instructional coaches supporting all disciplines; two administrators with experience supervising grades K-6; and two administrators with experience supervising K-12. Participants hailed from seven of the eight educational districts in North Carolina. Data were collected from 60-minute semi-structured individual interviews and focus groups facilitated virtually via Zoom during fall 2021.
Current Areas of Growth
Overwhelmingly, educators in the sample wanted more support for themselves and their colleagues concerning engaging with their students given their “new normal” of COVID-19. Participants specifically discussed three areas they would like to better engage students: (1) integrating technology to foster student learning, (2) supporting student and educator social-emotional learning needs and (3) establishing and nurturing inclusive learning communities.
Impact of Political Landscape
Educators in the sample agreed that the political climate could be a barrier to their professional development, particularly if they wanted to learn about topics deemed as “politically charged” such as social-emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion-related concepts. However, their instructional leader moderated how political tension increased or decreased in their school or district. Moreover, these educators reported a desire to educate their entire school communities about such “politically charged” concepts, including caregivers and community members.
Impactful Online Professional Development Design Features
Educators in the sample affirmed that online professional learning opportunities were most impactful for them if they were (1) integrated into their broader professional growth strategy, (2) provided opportunities for intentional reflection with their peers and (3) offered multiple types of content to maximize engagement. These design features are well supported in the literature and demonstrate how some best practices of online professional development for educators are consistent even during unprecedented times.
This research report closes with several poignant recommendations for instructional designers, instructional leaders and educational researchers.
This research was made possible through generous support from Oak Foundation. Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. More information about the Foundation may be found at https://oakfnd.org.