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Professional development strategies to support teachers during the shift to remote learning

Juliana Finegan

Juliana Finegan

The Learning Accelerator

Teachers across the country have shifted quickly to remote teaching and learning. To support them, leaders are trying to figure out ways to provide effective professional development (PD) remotely as well. To be successful, systems leaders need to:

  • Clearly communicate a vision for remote learning to their teaching teams;
  • Identify and articulate new competencies teachers need to have to be successful in remote environments; and,
  • Build effective online professional learning opportunities that support educators in mastering these new skills.

This Insight will explore each of these tasks and provide one example of a district that has taken significant steps to offer teachers the learning opportunities they need to put new models into practice.

Align around a common vision

As systems move away from a “triage model” focused on short-term fixes and towards a longer-term approach, they must define a clear vision for what remote learning should look like for their students, teachers, and families. Once this vision and related expectations are clear, then PD can be backward-designed to support educators to get there. Here are some examples from districts that have clearly shared their approach and vision of remote/online learning to ensure teachers, students, and families alike understand the expectations of this new approach to learning.

As you can see, visions and expectations vary, but they all include what it will ideally look like in practice (e.g., how students will engage, learn, and/or show mastery), expectations around connections (e.g., timing, how to connect, and what tech tools will be used), and resources to support families in implementation.

Content: What new competencies and skills do educators need support around within this new space?

In many cases, educators have been trying to “build the plane and fly it, too.” Similarly, districts are building content around a wide variety of subject areas (e.g., mastery of tech tools, support around virtual classrooms, and webinars focused on building connections virtually) to meet the tactical needs of educators. As is the case in student learning, it is critically important to “zoom out” to understand – and design for – the full range of skills and knowledge needed to be successful.

The important thing to think about when mapping out this content design is to ensure you:

  • Clearly identify and articulate the competencies and skills educators need to be successful in this new space.
  • Build the content to match those needs, while also providing flexibility to ensure a personalized approach (i.e., teachers have access to content around their specific needs).

Dallas ISD’s PL Toolbox maps out various competencies needed within a “normal” innovative space. Each competency has multiple phases/levels, which allows educators to find an entry point that works for them. Some key competencies that are vital in this “new” remote world include:

  • Student Agency: How are you building a student-centered learning environment where students can own and drive their learning?
  • Assessment and Data: How can you leverage technology to monitor, assess, and build data-driven instruction?
  • Instructional Rigor: How can you offer personalized pathways, varied learning experiences, and differentiated supports in the remote space?

For additional educator competencies around blended and online learning, explore the following resources:

Understanding the andragogy of online PD: What is effective research-based online learning?

Last year, TLA reviewed the research base on adult learning in online environments. We identified six key quality drivers from the literature that enable and support effective adult learning within the online space. Each quality driver is described below alongside example ways you can bring these components into your online PD. As you read about each driver, think about how your existing strategies incorporate them. You can find examples throughout linked from some of the great work Dallas ISD is doing to support their educators within this new space.

Baseline Engagement

Platform Quality: Too often, teachers learning online have to devote too much cognitive energy to figuring out how to access and engage with the content. Teacher PD should be provided in a consistent format on a well-designed platform. Try to build your online PD in a simple, intuitive way that enables educators to navigate with ease. This could mean selecting a learning management system (LMS) just for PD, but it could also mean leveraging something you are already using such as:

  • Content platforms (e.g., Canvas, Bloomboard)
  • Google Classroom
  • Edmodo

Using something teachers already feel comfortable with will ease their initial anxiety and allow for greater engagement with the actual content early on.

Essential for High-Quality Learning to Translate to Change

Rigorous Content Focus: Content must be both contextually relevant and rigorous. This means the content can be applied meaningfully to specific contexts – content areas and grade levels – so educators can put it into action immediately.

  • Examples in action:
    • Have smaller breakout groups via video calls to focus on application to a specific content area and/or lesson.
    • Offer multiple pieces of work or sample lessons with varied content focuses so that educators can analyze and translate material that is pertinent to their context.
  • Highlight from Dallas ISD: Dallas ISD offers various moments within their PD sessions for teachers to reflect and apply the material to their instruction immediately. Here is a slidedeck that shows how a virtual PD session on “Self-Paced Learning with Google Slides” can be engaging, rigorous, and immediately translatable. Here is a recording of the live session as well

Active Learning: When learning online, educators can take an active or a passive role (i.e., “sit and get” vs. engage and apply). In order to ensure educators are truly digesting the content, it is important to build in opportunities to engage directly and actively with the learning materials.

  • Examples in action:
    • When asking educators to participate in a webinar, make sure you are taking small breaks for processing, making connections, and brainstorming ideas (e.g., via chat) so that participants are able to ask questions, reflect, and design ways to apply their knowledge in the moment.
    • Offer opportunities for educators to take what they are learning online and apply it to their work (e.g., scripted remote lesson, example video lesson).
  • Highlight from Dallas ISD: Dallas ISD encourages active learning by formating their webinars in a three-part progression:
    • Introduction to a strategy or tool
    • Spotlight on an elementary and secondary teacher using the tool/strategy
    • Live question-and-answer session with hosts and spotlight teacher
    • Here is a recorded webinar and slidedeck that showcases this structure in a session titled “Using Google Forms Branching to Support At-Home Learning.”

Mastery Learning: It is rare for someone to learn something new and master it immediately. Most learners need multiple exposures to a new idea and opportunities to practice to fully master a complex task or concept. For this reason, online professional learning should include ways educators can receive feedback, act on that feedback, and assess their mastery in meaningful ways.

  • Examples in action:
    • Create opportunities for educators to share their remote lessons, content, and activities to receive targeted feedback from their peers and coaches. (e.g., via Google Doc comments, by presenting their during a video call)
    • Offer multiple opportunities for educators to learn and/or demonstrate mastery through various learning experiences and sharing mechanisms.
  • Dallas ISD Highlight: In Dallas ISD’s PL Toolbox, the Personalized Learning Coaching and Development Tool defines five domains and 20 high-leverage teacher and student actions. The tool scaffolds across four levels of proficiency for each action and maps out specific ways to assess mastery, receive feedback, and then revisit specific competencies to ensure mastery. It enables educators to master content at the right speed, with the support they need, and to develop their understanding in a scaffolded manner. The video below explains the rubric and how it is structured to ensure mastery-based learning.

Motivating Factors that Deepen Commitment


Especially now, offering opportunities for educators to connect with their peers, coaches, and leaders is vital to ensuring they stay engaged, inspired, and confident. These connection points can vary from “face-to-face” video calls all the way to a friendly text or chat message. It is crucial to ensure educators know someone is there for support, guidance, and assurance.

  • Examples in action:
    • Start a discussion/sharing space (e.g., forum, slack channel) aligned to a content strand so educators can share resources, ideas, and instructional practices while also connecting with each other.
    • Virtual professional learning communities can use video calls to allow educators with similar challenges, content focuses, and interests to connect, push each other's thinking, and learn together.
  • Dallas ISD Highlight: Dallas ISD has done significant work to shift adult learning online to ensure educators are still able to connect, learn, and feel supported. During the first three weeks of at-home learning, the district hosted webinars focused on supporting educators in reestablishing classroom rituals and procedures and building two-way communication channels with students and families. Now, webinars have pivoted to support educators in designing synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities and differentiation. Attendance has been high (one webinar even hosted 600 teachers from around the district!), further supporting the need for this type of “live” PD. The constant connection to experts, teacher leaders, and their colleagues has enabled Dallas ISD teachers to feel supported during this transition.


Just as educators personalize learning for students based on interest, personal goals, and needs, we too should be applying the same strategies with our educators. Ensuring the content presented both online and “in-person” is not only relevant but truly matches an individual's personal needs and goals is what deepens engagement, investment, and dedication to the learning experience and content at hand.

  • Examples in action:
    • Have educators reflect on their current goals and needs and select online supports around those specific needs.
    • Offer multiple levels of a webinar (i.e., beginner, intermediate, advanced) to ensure educators are being given tools they are both ready for and challenged by.
  • Dallas ISD Highlight: The Dallas ISD team offers a wide variety of topics so that educators can get what they need, when they need it. Each week, they send out a full week's worth of webinars so that educators can choose sessions that resonate with them and are directly related to their current needs. The district collaborates across departments to provide these PD resources, providing several access points to content for educators without overstressing any one team at a time. The district has shared its schedules for the weeks of March 30 and April 20 (also shared in the graphic below). Notice that there are options around mastery level, content, and time of day to ensure all educators are given access to what they need.

As you can see, by building content that is both relevant and research-based, you are not only offering a stronger learning environment for your educators but also for their students by providing their teachers the tools they need to be successful in the remote space. If you have any questions, feedback, or comments, please reach out at juliana.finegan@learningaccelerator.org. Stay safe!

Juliana Finegan

Juliana Finegan

The Learning Accelerator

Juilana Finegan is a Managing Partner at The Learning Accelerator, leading their practitioner learning work. As an expert in blended and personalized learning and Title 1 educator for almost a decade, Juliana specializes in adult learning, designing tangible resources for practitioners, and engaging partnerships and networks to build strategic support throughout the ecosystem.