“Urgent Need” – Deborah Ball on Transitioning to New Types of Teaching During Covid-19

  • Deborah Ball details how TeachingWorks aims to create a system of teacher professional learning that produces teachers who can disrupt cycles student inequity.

  • The importance of teachers building relationships with students—especially without the guarantee of constant face-to-face contact—should be a top priority this year.

  • Teachers need extra support as they transition from their preparation context into classrooms which may look very different this year.

Deborah Ball is a professor of education at the University of Michigan and the founder of TeachingWorks. She taught elementary school for more than 15 years and still teaches elementary mathematics every summer!

Deborah has authored or co-authored more than 150 publications. She has also developed a vast collection of video records of practice to study the work of teaching. Her research has been recognized with several awards and honors, and she has made major presentations around the world.

Deborah Ball was interviewed for the teacher professional development blog PLtogether. You can watch the segment of the interview above, and we’ve shared some of the highlights below.

Great teachers aren’t born, they’re taught

“There are so many teachers who are in their first couple of years of teaching in this country and depending on where they got prepared, it’s pretty likely that they lack skills or familiarity with children or communities,” Deborah Ball said.

This is why she helped found TeachingWorks, an organization that is devoted to improving the quality of beginning teachers. The organization aims to identify and learn practices of teaching that are particularly “high-leverage” for beginning and early career teachers. They then offer professional development and training to support teacher educators in learning these high leverage methods so that beginning teachers are adequately prepared.

“There is so much to learn in the first few years in the classroom,” she stated. Consequently, children are actually the ones who take most of the burden of the skillset deficiencies for beginning teachers. As a result, TeachingWorks is devoted to the improvement of beginning teachers and the support they receive when they begin to teach.

“In most professions, when a first-year professional is doing the work, the client deserves to have high-quality work, even from a beginner. And so we chose to take that as a very serious mandate to think more about what is the preparation that beginning teachers should need,” said Deborah.

Attention beginning teachers: commitment and dedication to your communities is paramount

Deborah Ball works with a number of future teachers who have inspired her during the coronavirus pandemic. The devotion to both their communities and their professional preparation are aspects that Deborah mentions as uplifting.

One particular story that resonates with Deborah is from a colleague who has been deliberately learning how to record accessible mathematical explanations for families to use. She mentioned that these videos were powerful not only because of their accessibility for families, but also because of the informality of the videos. This informality makes it easier for parents to understand and ultimately replicate the mathematics explanations for their students at home. As districts lean on parents to help facilitate learning from home, Deborah highlights the potential benefit of recording these short explanations for parents to use.

If critical change can happen this quickly, what does this mean for our ordinary practice?

Deborah Ball is also inspired by the pace at which teachers are able to adapt to the changes to distanced teaching.

“Because we so often see that change is slow, and things can easily go back to the way they were, it does feel inspiring that some of the systems we thought were rigid and impermeable to change, maybe aren’t that impermeable,” said Deborah.

The notion that positive change is possible at such a fast pace is something that Deborah feels entirely optimistic about.

Be a lifelong learner, there are always new things to learn as a teacher

According to Deborah, “the relationships between teachers and children, and between teachers and families among children are critically important in children’s development.” She stated that much of the time a fault of beginning teachers is a “function of the inattention to relationships.”

As a result, Deborah stresses the importance of building positive relationships even without the guarantee of face-to-face contact. She doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but she is starting to ask new types of questions.

  • What are the best ways to communicate with a child through video conferencing?
  • Are there other ways for teachers and children to feel a deeper connection when communicating through video?
  • How do we think about the differences in how we act and listen in a distance teaching world?

These are all questions that Deborah Ball focuses on as new ways to build relationships with students.

“I think some of the things that we’ll all learn will be things we can take with us as the world opens back up in whatever form it will look like post-COVID,” she stated.

Supporting teachers to transition to new types of classrooms

“I am concerned a bit about the fact that we will have a preponderance of new teachers entering the workforce over the summer and into the fall who didn’t actually get to complete their professional training,” Deborah said. “We cannot predict the conditions of these classrooms that teachers will be entering.”

Consequently, Deborah Ball is vehement about the urgency that districts and organizations need to create around supporting teachers.

“There will be an extreme learning curve for beginning teachers and so those of us who are in schools who have experienced learning across critical periods will have more responsibility in supporting the beginning teachers who enter the workforce this year,” she said.

Like what your reading? Watch more videos at PLtogether.org or read our related lounge interview with Elena Aguilar about how instructional coaches can be emotional support systems for teachers. 

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