Search form

The Pandemic Support Paradox - Rethinking Professional Development

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            When I’m not teaching the kids in my building, I help design professional development for the staff. Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern with how people are receiving support. On the one hand, teachers are begging for strategies or help with virtual or hybrid learning models. But then they also say they are too overwhelmed when I try and provide ideas or resources. It honestly feels as though I am not helping anyone at all. Should I just stop trying right now and let people alone?

                                                                                                                                    ~PD Problems

Dear PD,

Your question points to what I call the “pandemic support paradox.” We want to help, and people need help, but they are also drowning.

Years ago, I walked into a training room filled with round tables. At each table was the usual array of supplies, but among the Post-Its and highlighters were also small containers of Play-Doh. Throughout the morning, I waited for the Play-Doh to make its debut, but nothing happened. At the lunch break, one of the trainers walked by and asked how I was enjoying the experience. I told her it was great (though I was honestly bored, not having found much I could use in the morning session that would play out well in my classroom). Then, I asked what the Play-Doh was for.

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “It’s just there to keep your hands busy.”

I sat there, momentarily dumbfounded. Did I need to have my hands kept busy? That was a consideration for children, but for a room full of professionals? The trainer’s explanation changed my approach to the remainder of the day. If she wanted my hands kept busy, who was I to disappoint? Instead of engaging in the afternoon session, I grabbed a hot pink Play-Doh and made a flower, a braid, a sphere. To this day, I remember the Play-Doh, but not the training itself.

Now, as an instructional specialist who regularly designs trainings, I am aware that my success is measured by impact. When I deliver a professional development experience and school leaders or teachers do not benefit, I blame myself. Pre-pandemic, my mantra was to give all session participants a “deliverable” that they could use immediately. For teachers, that might be a lesson strategy, or a creative way to gather qualitative data. For administrators, I would create presentations on district initiatives that did not rely on stand-and-deliver methods. While my work was not always received the way I imagined it might be, I saw enough of a positive impact to dust myself off and move forward whenever I hit a wall.

During the pandemic, the wall has become a mountain. A majority of the support given to schools is reactive rather than proactive. At the start of Covid, the reactivity made sense; we could only respond to rapidly changing conditions as they swirled around us, drawing us into a new reality. Now, several months later, we continue to react, but this time the source of our seeming lack of preparedness is not rooted in unpredictability. Instead, it is grounded in the very real challenge that schools face: staggering responsibility with paltry resources.

The support paradox is created when people are so overwhelmed that the very help they crave is rejected as “one more thing” they have to do. Recently, I sat in virtual office hours with department chairs, inviting them to share job-like concerns. One of them began speaking of missing assignments. “Usually, I find kids in the hallway and bring them into my office to make up the work. Now, I don’t have any way to get to them.” As others chimed in with similar stories, my mind was working frantically to develop some kind of strategy that would help overtaxed teachers help students authentically. When I began to share an idea, one of the participants politely interrupted. “That sounds nice,” she said, “but I honestly don’t have time to do what you’re describing.”

Instead of getting offended or trying to push harder, I was immediately humbled. I could not offer help to anyone who was so far underwater that grasping at a life preserver was not an option. From where I sat, I did not have a clear sense of the demands on her time. I was simply staring at her from my isolated Zoom room, struggling in a virtual world to make real-life connections through a screen. What kind of impact could I have that would be meaningful?

So many of us have built our careers on the belief that we can all grow and empower others to do the same. It is still possible to believe that with all our hearts while also recognizing that there are times to push harder and times to pull back. Right now, we need to pause professional development that does not directly help schools in a way that is perceived as immediately valuable to those who are closest to the work. If a teacher comes to me directly and says, “I’m drowning,” I will do everything I can to help. If a school leader says, “Please help me organize my priorities,” I will likewise be there in a flash.

There is a difference, however, between making support available and pushing support onto a school that already has its hands full. When we do the latter, we make everything harder. Before the pandemic, schools had the luxury to be cerebral, to explore education theory and play with the transition of ideas to practice. Now we play a survival game, one in which every teacher is learning the art of teaching at least partially afresh, one in which we have one goal: arrive. Arrive at the end with kids intact, with their learning in a place we can be all right with because we fought to make sure that everyone got through.

Professional development simply does not look the same anymore. I spend my day answering questions about online extensions, thinking about new ways to bring students together when they often cannot see one another, offering a listening ear to anyone who needs one. I support schools so that they in turn can support students. During this time, it is our responsibility to redefine support structures so that we do not pile more onto anyone. People say they cannot learn one more thing, and that scholarly articles or webinars just are not helpful right now. When that happens, one question becomes paramount: “What do you need?” If we can ask that question and be ready for honest answers, we can have a much better chance of increasing the relevance of our support and the impact of our work.

So in essence, PD, try and frame the reaction you see from others right now as a direct result of how they are feeling, and remember that your challenge is to support them however they express that need (within reason, that is). None of us are doing the jobs we were hired to do right now, and this situation will not last forever. However, it is an opportunity to really pause in our own agendas as professional developers and listen to what people need. If we can do that, we will feel a little bit more of that positive impact, even if it only shows through a simple smile or a “thank you” from someone we support.

Have a question, comment, or helpful tip about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!

Read more tips and advice from Teacher's Lounge!

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

Copyright© 2020 Education World