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How to Modernize Professional Learning and Reduce Teacher Burnout

  • 5 MIN READ

As educators experience unprecedented burnout, how do we help make teacher professional learning a net-positive?

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We know that educators are experiencing significant burnout. From pandemic-related health stresses to supporting students’ interrupted learning and social emotional well-being, educators have found it difficult to make time for their own professional development (PD). How do we help make teacher professional learning (PL) a net-positive rather than yet another non-teaching task that contributes to their fatigue, frustration and turnover?

New research commissioned by D2L helps answer this question. During a recent D2L webinar, we sat down with a panel of teacher coaches to reflect on the survey findings and the implications for practice. Here are four areas our panelists—and our survey—identified as vital to improving the educator experience in 2022 and beyond:

Educators Seek Timely, Targeted Professional Learning

Teachers want more ongoing, on-demand and personalized PL, and their satisfaction is connected to its availability.

  • For example, 82% of survey respondents were satisfied with their PL if it was available frequently—on a regular, ongoing basis as needed—compared to 43% being satisfied if PL was available only once or twice each semester or less often.
  • For those who are strongly satisfied with their PL, 43% indicate the availability of targeted PL has increased since before the pandemic. For those who are not satisfied, only 9% report an increase in targeted PL.

Some school leaders may feel reluctant to deliver frequent PD given teacher workloads. The key is to shift in part from a push to a pull approach. “Teachers will make time for topics they need but don’t have time for topics they don’t need,” said Joseph South, chief learning officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “When the [digital] learning is effective and relevant, time is less of a barrier for them.”

Similarly, regular PL is beneficial when provided as needed both for relevance to current challenges as well as for scaffolding of reflection, application and deeper exploration. “Like their students, teachers must be intentionally engaged to find value in the learning. This is done by checking for their understanding and including time for their reflection and sharing,” said Tara Linney, founder of TL Specialists. “If you can email the training content, do so (or make it available on demand), and save the real time spent together for deeper learning.”

Teachers Lack Access to Ongoing Professional Learning

While 92% of surveyed educators agreed that ongoing PL is important to a teacher’s effectiveness, only 36% have regular access (i.e., more than about once a month). D2L Academic Affairs Director Kassia Gandhi noted that regular, ongoing access is needed to reflect the research-based best practice that PL be “active, authentic and tied directly to teaching.” Added Linney, “If you are introducing a concept and you have one PD session, there isn’t a continual sense of growth and learning [unless] … teachers can break into groups, access new materials and have regular check-ins so that the learning is ongoing.”

Teachers will generally recognize this best practice for their students’ learning, but we too often fall short of replicating it for our teachers’ learning. “Professional learning takes time and collaboration,” commented South. “Developing expertise requires peer and mentor engagement and an applied setting. You need feedback and opportunities for reflection. Learning on your own can work to acquire new knowledge, but expertise requires application, which requires it to be ongoing.”

Closing the Gap on Personalized Teacher Learning

On-demand modules, micro-credentialing and organic PL communities are among the ways to support ongoing, regular access. These methods also support personalization.

Of the five types or formats surveyed, educators expressed by far the most interest in PL that is targeted to their unique, specific needs. Yet, while 91% expressed interest in targeted PL, only 20% reported increased access since before the pandemic and 24% reported decreased or no access.

Targeted or personalized PL supports teachers in accessing the PL content and communities they need and, as importantly, when and how they need it. In general, teachers identified a preference for online PL that is on demand over that delivered live. Flexibility and engagement may be explanatory factors.

Our panel noted that all of this can sound daunting for districts stressed and stretched thin, but that they can start simply by:

  • creating a culture and mindset of continuous learning
  • enabling teachers to connect to PL content and communities—from both inside and outside the district—that best meet their needs
  • encouraging self-directedness to these outlets as opportunities to reduce burnout

“Research shows that feedback targeted to your specific weakness or area of growth is critical to building expertise,” said ISTE’s South. “Not surprisingly, the availability of this kind of feedback is low since everyone’s needs are different. ISTE U has found a lot of interest in micro courses because they are short and specific, which means they have the potential to be more relevant and certainly more flexible.”

D2L’s Ghandi added, “PL must be authentic, not just systemic, to teachers’ needs. Personalization comes through providing multiple opportunities, multiple modalities, collaboration between and across networks, and competency pathways mapped to individual needs.”

Building on Research to Improve Practice

Changes in practice during the pandemic have provided an opportunity to grow innovative methods and formats better aligned to research-based best practices. K–12 schools are redesigning PL to be increasingly online through district learning management systems and partnerships with providers such as ISTE U, Michigan Virtual and the Ohio Department of Education. The next steps to better supporting teachers is to further improve PL instructional design to be more relevant, engaging, ongoing and personalized.

How the Pandemic Has (Re)Shaped K–12 Teacher Professional Learning

Additional findings about educator interests and experiences, the contrast between teacher and administrator views, and further descriptions of the research alignment and practice recommendations are available in D2L’s research report, “How the Pandemic Has (Re)Shaped K–12 Teacher Professional Learning.”