Prioritizing Professional Development, During and After the Pandemic (eSchool News Podcast)

In this conversation with eSchool News’ Kevin Hogan for the podcast Innovations in Education, Diane Lauer talks about how COVID couldn’t stop teacher training. In fact, her work as Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Academic Support at St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado became that much more important as professional development stayed a pandemic priority.

Diane breaks down her strategies for keeping educators engaged and enthusiastic around technology and instruction.

professional development quote- "We don't have to let distance, time or geography constrain our professional development."From “the 25-year chemistry teacher [to] the first-year kindergarten teacher, everybody wants to be great. Everybody wants to be able to connect with their kids” and Diane talks about how Edthena and other web platforms enhance professional development for all educators in ways that should continue during and post-pandemic.

Listen to the full interview above, and see below for a full transcript of the conversation.

Professional Development Should Stay a Pandemic Priority

Kevin Hogan:

Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Innovations in Education. I’m Kevin Hogan. I’m the editor-at-large at eSchool News, and I’m glad you found us for another great conversation I’m anticipating. With me today, Diane Lauer. Diane is the assistant superintendent of priority programs and academic support at St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado. Diane, how are you?

Diane Lauer:

I’m super great. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Kevin Hogan:

Absolutely. I appreciate you coming on and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. As we talked before the recording, we want to focus a little bit on professional development. Now, that’s one of those great education space phrases, right? Like, “Oh well, professional development,” and it’s kind of conceptual, it’s almost theoretical. It’s definitely vague. What does that mean? Is it teacher training or all the rest of it? I also think that we need to split this into two conversations, which is BP, before the pandemic, and then, DP and hopefully, what we’re looking at now, which is AP, which is after the pandemic and what that phrase means to educators. I suspect around this time last year, that phrase took on a much different meaning than it had before. Am I right?

Diane Lauer:

Yes, absolutely.

Kevin Hogan:

Let’s talk about it, but let’s get into it, the ‘where were you when’ question. We’re pretty much at that anniversary, right?

Diane Lauer:

I know exactly where I was. I was in the St. Vrain Valley School’s Innovation Center and we were hoping we would have another week before our spring break, but it was March 12th. It was a Thursday and we shut everything down. We knew it was coming, but that Friday, we sent everyone home and we lengthened our spring break by an extra week for the kids, but we did virtual training that entire week on our digital platform, on our learning management platform and just what does it mean to be a remote teacher? Thank goodness we have had one-to-one technology at the secondary level and classroom sets of devices, iPads and Google Chromebooks for years, so our teachers were very tech savvy, but it was just like, I just call it, going dark. We all went home to our homes and our caves and stayed there for two months. March 13th, that was it.

Kevin Hogan:

That was it. Friday the 13th, right?

Diane Lauer:

Yeah.

Kevin Hogan:

And Black Friday. So, gosh, I can’t wait to not talk about this anymore-

Diane Lauer:

I know.

Kevin Hogan:

… but I do think that we do need to talk about it so we can pull some of the best practices. Now, it sounds like your district was already pretty progressive when it came to the use of integrating technology. How much of that was focused on a remote setup or a hybrid setup, though?

Diane Lauer:

Yeah, very little. We did not have hybrid learning. We had one remote school up until that point, a virtual school and then we were really focused on blended learning. So, our goal has been to provide every one of our students a strong, competitive advantage so that they can be successful in a highly-complex global environment. We have 33,000 kids. We cover 411 square miles. We’re a high-achieving district and our community has invested heavily in our school district. Our families, our local government, our business partnerships value education and so we know, especially being in a highly tech-savvy area with lots of startups, lots of entrepreneurial tech companies, that our students needed those skills. So we invested about 10 years ago, started really providing 21st century classrooms for our students, but we never thought that we would be virtual teachers now we are and we’ll never go back. We will take everything we learned forward.

Kevin Hogan:

Now, I’ll go back to BP, before the pandemic and when I would write or talk with folks about various aspects of professional development, one aspect that was always pretty prominent was a resistance amongst teachers who would either be skeptical of the professional development. We had a phrase for a certain group of faculty that we’d call THWADI, “That’s the way we’ve always done it. I’ve taught chemistry for 25 years. I’ve laminated my chalkboard. This is how I’ve done it. My kids go on to great schools. There’s no reason to do these other things.” That was always kind of part of trying to break through to those folks to figure that out.

Kevin Hogan:

Now, we’ve got in a situation, whether you taught chemistry for 25 years, one way or the other, you now had to do it out of your living room. Talk a little bit about what you witnessed in terms of just the resilience that was necessary for everybody. There was no luxury to say, “Thank you for these new tools or techniques, but this is the way I do it and I want to keep it.” Everybody was thrown into the pool, right? So can you talk a little bit about watching or helping to influence that transition?

Diane Lauer:

Yeah. I have to tell you, you just put a spear through my heart and I was like, “I’m just holding on here, Kevin,” because you describe professional development hostages, and I hate those. I call it the haul everybody’s cookies down to the library syndrome and lock the door and feed them cake and tell them, “This is awesome,” and everybody’s got their chair and like, “That’s my chair,” and everybody knows where they’re at. They’re going to be there for 60 minutes or however long and then they finally get to leave. That is not professional development in St. Vrain and I am passionate about professional development. The first thing that you have to have is choice. You have to give people choice. You have to make a connection to the ‘why’ and you have to give people lots of opportunities.

Diane Lauer:

So, it can’t be like the choice between acuity, like a small orange and a big orange. You have to give people choice like, “Here’s the produce section,” and then you have to educate people and you have to understand and you have to ask questions like, “What are you noticing about your students? What are you noticing about learning? What are we trying to do together as a team?” So they can make the connections and it shouldn’t be top down. It shouldn’t be like someone is making decisions and you’re going to get the, I don’t know, the PDs, or they’re like, “Oh, I just cringe when we talk about the PDs. I had to go to the PDs.” Like, “No.” So that was really hard because when the pandemic hit, there was no choice.

Diane Lauer:

“You will learn how to use WebEx. You will learn how to use our learning platform school,” and many people are already using Edthena, our video platform, so we could coach and collaborate. They’re using WebEx, but like I mentioned, when we were chatting just a little bit before, the numbers of those were relatively small and this had to be the option. If we were going to collaborate, we had to get on virtual chats, whether it was Zoom or WebEx or Google Meet. So we had to do those things and you had to know how to do it. So that goes into another professional development strategy, which is just in time training, which is the best, right? “I have a purpose and then I’m going to get what I need.”

Diane Lauer:

So when there is purpose and I get proximity training, I get the skills I need for what I need to do immediately. Then, you don’t have as many of those feelings of, “Why do I have to do this? It doesn’t make sense to me,” so that I think is very important. Even for the 25-year chemistry teacher or the first-year kindergarten teacher, everybody wants to be great. Everybody wants to be able to connect with their kids and so you may never have thought that why would I need to do that when you know that your kids are in their house and you’re in your house the only way you can connect with them is through those tools, then you’re going to do it because you want to connect with your kids.

Kevin Hogan:

Right. One thing that I’ve heard through conversations talking about students, one of the, maybe, unintended consequences is that there’s a certain percentage of students who are like, “You know what? I really like learning via Zoom. I really like this remote setup,” and they’re actually thriving in this situation. Have you noticed that from a professional development level as well?

Diane Lauer:

Yeah. Absolutely. I would say about four years ago, we put together a task force because there were some people who really wanted online professional development. A lot of people said, “Oh, no, I want face-to-face. I want face-to- face.” Then we’d get the calls like, “Can you start that PD at 4:30 instead of 4:00 because I have to drive?” Blah, blah, blah, blah and it was sometimes really hard. There were people, call them the trailblazers, there were people that go right away and they’re like, “Oh, I want this. I need this.” Then, you got the pioneers and then you have the settlers that are like, “Hmm, I’m not sure. Why would I want to do that? I’m a people person. I want to be around people.”

Diane Lauer:

But once we started with the pandemic, and thank goodness we had that task force four years ago, because we researched, we designed what is best professional development online? We trained a lot of people to be able to provide online professional development, but still, this synchronous piece with the virtual WebEx or Zoom, that wasn’t so much. We were doing a lot more asynchronous learning and maybe some curated videos and things like that, but being able to have the technology with the breakout rooms, everything is so much more advanced than it was four years ago. Teachers, I know we’ll have face-to-face, but I bet post-pandemic will probably be 50/50 face-to-face, online blended. We may even be 60/40. I think the thing that we’re really thinking through now is what does being physically present give us? Do you know what I mean?

Kevin Hogan:

Yeah.

Diane Lauer:

How might we optimize our time through synchronous or asynchronous doing? Let’s do an example. We have a training right now that’s ongoing. We have a districtwide implementation of Wilson Fundations, which is an amazing program to help with reading foundations. Prior to the pandemic, we were doing it all face-to-face. So come in for a Saturday, a whole Saturday, and then you’d have that. Now we do an hour synchronous, three hours of asynchronous, go in and do your own, then we bring people back synchronous for question and answer and the feedback is tremendous. So I think his blended approach where people get choice, they get some autonomy, that get to work on their own and then, they still have that collaboration time. I think that when we’re allowed to congregate in larger numbers over 50, we will be able to bring in some additional face-to-face, but shouldn’t that personal time be in the classroom?

Diane Lauer:

I don’t know if we need pile everybody’s cookies to a big old room and have people sit around tables and feed them doughnuts and stuff. The face-to-face time can be in the classroom with another second grade peer or first grade peer or they could be capturing video while they’re in their class and then sharing it with other people across the district. That’s the other thing, our ability to collaborate with people outside of our schools. We have approximately 60 schools and school learning sites, so to be able to collaborate with people outside of your own school is, we’ll never go back to not being able to do that because we have the technology to do so.

Kevin Hogan:

It seems like the other behaviors, when you mentioned video, covering professional development tools over the past number of years, a lot of times, there were a lot of new product announcements where, “And we’re going to install a 360-degree camera in your classroom so we can help you with your teaching.” There are teacher unions, teachers themselves saying “No,” and because beyond privacy issues of students, but just maybe a hesitation for being on camera. Do you think that that’s something that will change now, that the teachers will be more comfortable?

Diane Lauer:

Well, I never liked being on camera, but I’ve done it for a year now and so now I’m like, “I know what my hair looks like and I know my face.” You don’t have that shock as much that I think that being on video and the people went for national board certification, they knew all the time. They have to go through that process of watching themselves to get that credential. But for most folks in a lot of colleges, when you talk to teachers who are fresh from college, they’re like, “Yeah, I used to video myself all the time and I would get feedback from my professors.” But when they got hired *the end, the school district didn’t continue doing that. Then they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do that again.” It was almost like we missed the chance. They had this practice. You need to sustain it. So I do think that people are much more comfortable with being on camera and have gotten past watching themselves.

Kevin Hogan:

Right. Right.

Diane Lauer:

Clearly. Clearly.

Kevin Hogan:

How about with the other aspect of professional development, BP, which was a lot and maybe even further going back, where a lot of time was spent learning how to use the technology itself. Now, you mentioned last spring about figuring out Zoom. I’m going to assume it had to be easier to get the ropes of just learning how to use this technology than, say, 10 years ago when you were trying to log somebody onto a learning management system. After just the basics of the first couple of weeks of getting people set up, was using technology part of your professional development strategy or had you already moved on to more sophisticated stuff like instructional strategies and other things?

Diane Lauer:

That is such a great question, Kevin. So, when we started implementing our learning technology plan, we began documenting our time, our coaches’ time, and what they did. You were talking about device operations, device operations is of the things. So when our coaches would do training or coaching one-on-one small group or a whole group, because when we put out 24,000 iPads or whatever, we have learning coaches who support teachers, they’re embedded in the classrooms and the schools and things like that. We had an instructional coaching log and we wanted this data because we wanted to see how much time we’re spending on device operations as opposed to instructional coaching. My hypothesis was totally wrong. I thought there would be a ton in the beginning and then it would just go away forever and it doesn’t because technology is always changing.

Diane Lauer:

There’s always going to be training specific to technology for a bit and that’s typically in the beginning. What we’ve seen, because we’ve done this all year, is we see it in the beginning of the year, because for some people like, “Oh, I just had an iPad. I never had an iPad before,” or, “Now I have this, that, or the other thing.” So there’s a spike and then the device operations goes down and instructional coaching goes up and sustained because now, I need to know how to use it. I’m going to talk about pedagogy. I want those things and then people go home for their two-week winter break and then teachers don’t stop working.

Diane Lauer:

They are like, “You know what? I’ve always wanted to try this thing,” or, “I’ve always wanted to try that tech thing.” So they get excited, they get encouraged and then January comes, boop, we get that spike again with device operations. People want to know, “OK, now I want to know how to use Paradox.” “OK. Now I want to know how to use Edthena.” “Now I want to use this.” Then, we see the tech device operations go down, the instructional plateau and then, we see the same thing over the summer because teachers don’t stop working. They go home over the summer and they’re like, “I want to try something new,” and then boop, the spike comes back up again in August. Isn’t that amazing?

Kevin Hogan:

That is interesting.

Diane Lauer:

We’ve seen that six years in a row now after we collected data.

Kevin Hogan:

That’s amazing. Let me ask you another question about this transition. Starting this time last year, you inherited an entire core of power professionals, of parents becoming teaching assistants, not only just in general, but also, through the use of technology. Now, I’ve heard some stories about the students being technical support for their parents more than the parents being technical support for the students, but talk about that. Did you have to adjust anything or did that become part of your mission in terms of going from professional development to something that I would have coined, maybe I won’t get the trademark on this, but parental development.

Diane Lauer:

Parental development, I love it. What I’ve seen the most of and what I’ve heard our teachers talk about is the feedback that they’ve gotten from parents and other caretakers about their instruction. I know this because my niece who lives in Chicago has been remote learning. She’s a sixth grader and my sister and my mom, so it’s my niece, her mom and her grandma, hide in the room and are so enthralled with learning and they’re at the end like, “That was so great. I never knew that about whatever, the Revolution before. That was great.” So I think the feedback that our teachers have been getting from parents like, “That was really engaging,” or, “That was really fun,” and, “Wow, I see my son’s struggling and he needed more time and when you explained it this way, that really helped him,” and blah, blah, blah. Teachers, we’re not used to getting that kind of parental feedback.

Diane Lauer:

It would be feedback from we’d see an assignment go home or we have always wanted to have a strengthening school-to-home partnership. That is so important, but nothing has been like this where parents who have the good fortune and opportunity to have been at home with their children to really engage in learning and see that, I think that has greatly benefited our profession because they see the complexity, they see the intentional scaffolding and I hear from parents all the time like, “That teacher has so much energy. She just must go home and sleep because she’s on. When she’s on camera, she is on.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s true.” So it was a little zippy in the beginning with the technology getting everybody, but that went pretty quickly and it’s the instruction, it’s the pedagogy that I think enthralled the families and the teachers because it was so new.

Kevin Hogan:

As a parent, I have never had more interaction with my kids’ teachers this year than in the 15 years they’ve been in between kindergarten and college. Another guilty pleasure, too, I realize the privilege that I have, but to be able to listen to them in class and to listen to my son in the kitchen and he’s taking Chinese language class and talking Chinese in the kitchen while he’s making a bagel. That’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool.

Diane Lauer:

It is so cool [crosstalk 00:24:03] Friendships and how your child is interacting and also when you see the children have these deep discussions and the turn-taking like, “Well, I disagree with what Kevin is saying. I think, my opinion, and here’s some of my reasoning why,” and it’s just awesome for families to see their children in that light.

Kevin Hogan:

One other aspect I want to ask you about is from the student perspective. I remember writing and editing a lot of stories about digital natives and about how this generation of student is already so much comfortable with technology that they don’t necessarily need any training or things are going to be different. Not necessarily true. Where they actually were adept at using the technology, they were not adept in terms of the behaviors of using the technology for either just social behaviors, but also in terms of learning. Has there been a leapfrog effect because of this forced beta test? Do you see us going back from that at all or is this something that is only going to accelerate in your opinion?

Diane Lauer:

Well, we’re already talking about maybe creating a school or a school within a school that’s hybrid. There are some students who found out they really like going to school two days a week and not going to school two days, that really works for them. We created a brand-new virtual school out of nothing overnight so that we could have a place for families who knew that they didn’t want to do whatever was going to happen with remoting and quarantining [crosstalk 00:25:59].

Kevin Hogan:

Right. Lock down, open up. Lock down, open up.

Diane Lauer:

We’re done. The great majority are coming back, but several hundred or more are like, “Wow, this works for our family. This works for my children.” We’re seeing families, and you probably know this too, who, “This didn’t work for my oldest child, but it was a score for my youngest child.” So families now having this knowledge that what works for their kids and the children who have the agency to be able to say, “I know what I like. I know what works for me. Yeah. I just want to be able to go in those folders and boom, boom, boom. I want to be able to do my stuff, check in with someone.” It’s just amazing to hear. Even primary school-age children have that level of self-knowledge, that [crosstalk 00:27:05]

Kevin Hogan:

Yeah, like a medal of recognition of their learning journey and they’re in third grade. I’m still looking for mine.

Diane Lauer:

They’re amazing. They amaze me, so …

Kevin Hogan:

Well, talk about going forward. I knew the toughest part of this conversation would be to end it, but we are starting to edge up on our time here. We’ve already identified a number of things that you think are going to stick around. Can you give us your, when it comes to professional development, maybe a short-term horizon for, say, next fall if we’re back to normal, then, maybe in three years when the dust is really settled, just a best-case scenario that you see going forward?

Diane Lauer:

Well, the most important part is making certain that for the new folks that we hire, especially who haven’t had a chance to teach like this, we’re going to have to make sure they have a chance to teach like this because this was a window in time that the current staff of 2,500 teachers in my district, they experienced and they know how to do this. So I’m thinking about how do we continue to do this, because we will use remote instruction for a lot of different things, even if it’s not whole class. But one of the things that our teachers love is one-on-one support and help, and being able to provide small group help and support and creating instructional videos and being able to collaborate. So I think that going forward, we will have some entry-level support to get people into using these tools, but all the energy and curating lessons, that shouldn’t stop.

Diane Lauer:

Whether that goes for us in Seesaw or in Schoology, that should be able to continue because I hate to say it, we live in Colorado. There’s always a kid who’s going to go skiing and break his arm and then he’s out for a week. Then we’ve always said, “Well, I’m going to make some makeup work.” Making up work, it’s like what?” Makeup work is never at the rigor or the intention that the real work is, so when you have everything curated for everybody all the time and you have the tools, then whether that child is out or on vacation, you have that ability, or you have students who need more time, right?

Kevin Hogan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Diane Lauer:

Just listening to you once explain it wasn’t enough before the pandemic. So now, having it curated in a video is going to be like they can go to a station and so they can hear it again. They can hear it again. They can take it home on their iPad and when they’re working with their caretaker or their mom or their dad, or whatever, they can say, “This is what I’m supposed to do,” and then everybody knows what they’re supposed to do.

Kevin Hogan:

Right. Right.

Diane Lauer:

I think that our teachers who are our mentor teachers, during quarantine, we weren’t allowed to mix people or, “You can’t go in that room.” Everybody loves to observe other teachers teach, but I can’t go into that room because I might contaminate, or if I’m in there more than 15 minutes and there is somebody with COVID, then I have to quarantine for 14 … all that crazy stuff. But now we can take a video of that class, just like we’ve done, and we can have people come in and watch that.

Diane Lauer:

We don’t have to be in the class and all that schedule changing like, “Hey, can you cover my class during my lit circles so I can go watch Kevin do his lit circles?” And so on and so on. With video, we don’t have to do that. Someone can snap capture some video, share it and then that person, whenever they’re free and available, they can watch it. So I think that I hope that we keep that mindset that we don’t have to let distance, time or geography constrain our professional development. We have the tools. We have the capacity, and I hope we continue to give folks choice to make those decisions on what’s going to be best for their personal practice to be the best professional they can be.

Kevin Hogan:

That’s really several powerful insights there. One, I want to ask real quick before we wrap up, what I think is really interesting when you say that basically, the current teaching core, they’re veterans of a war.

Diane Lauer:

That’s right.

Kevin Hogan:

When things go back to normal, whatever that is, other folks will be coming in and not having had shared at least the teaching experience of it. It’s pretty safe to say, I think we’ve all had the Zoom experience at a base level-

Diane Lauer:

You don’t have to take it that far.

Kevin Hogan:

Right. So, is that a responsibility of the education colleges? Is that a responsibility of you as a district both?

Diane Lauer:

Both. It’s a responsibility of us together. We all have to be thoughtful to make certain that this next generation of educators has the skills, has the resilience, has the independent mindset to be a self-learner, is able to take learning risks, is able to be vulnerable to learn, all those things in a very safe context.

Kevin Hogan:

That’s good stuff. Diane, thank you so much for your time. There’s a lot here to unpack, as they say, but I think folks who are watching and I, myself, we can use these for further conversations going forward, so I really appreciate your time and your innovations.

Diane Lauer:

It was great being with you, Kevin. Have a super day.

Kevin Hogan:

You too. Thanks, everybody, for watching. I hope you click around for another episode of Innovations in Education.

Diane Lauer:

Thank you.

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