Remote teacher professional development: six principles for effective programmes

Colin Penfold

Amid all the recent disruption faced by education systems worldwide, teachers have remained central to successful learning and will continue to have a critical role in mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on learners. However, given the new demands of the pandemic, focused support and professional development will be crucial. As social distancing and safety measures will preclude traditional, in-person training for the foreseeable future, remote professional development programmes will be needed to ensure teachers are supported, both now and in the post-Covid world. Drawing on our research and wealth of experience in developing teacher professional development programmes, in this article, we provide a breakdown of key principles for remote teacher professional development.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, teachers have had – and continue to have – a fundamentally important role in ensuring education continuity for their pupils. Where schools remain closed, many teachers have been responsible for setting (and, where possible, assessing) remote work and providing guidance for parents. Where schools are reopening, teachers remain on the front line, coping with the need to assess their students’ progress or lost learning during the period of school closure and working on catch-up programmes and other remedial initiatives. In some contexts, teachers may also be facing additional pressures of delivering multiple – and possibly simultaneous – models of provision, as some students remain learning at home, either by government mandate or parental choice, while others are attending school full- or part-time.

In the face of such demands, all teachers are likely to benefit from additional professional development and support, especially as it relates to the academic year ahead.

Where schools are reopening, teachers may have limited experience of assessing pupils’ progress after long periods outside the classroom, or of implementing catch-up initiatives or remedial education for whole cohorts of students. They are also likely to have additional pastoral duties or safeguarding concerns where children’s wellbeing has been negatively impacted by lockdown, economic insecurity, or the illness or loss of a loved one during the pandemic. In some contexts, schools will only partially reopen, and are likely to use a blended learning model, but relatively few teachers will have received specific coaching or training in blended pedagogies. Indeed, in the longer term, with the possibility of further disruption or new rounds of closures, most teachers are likely to benefit from guidance and professional development on remote pedagogies. Moreover, teachers should also be able to continue with pre-planned professional development to improve their practice and further their careers – especially newly qualified or trainee teachers who will have missed out on valuable classroom time in the first half of 2020.  

As social distancing measures designed to limit the spread of the pandemic are likely to preclude – or at least severely limit – in-person professional development activities for the foreseeable future, such programmes will need to be adapted or developed for remote delivery. Depending on national or local contexts, remote teacher professional development may be technology-dependent (e.g. online learning) or technology-light (e.g. using radio or mobile phones), but ultimately, the use of any given technology should be secondary to ensuring that the training has a relevant and appropriate focus and meets teachers’ actual needs. That said, there are practical elements of specifically remote teacher professional development programmes, which must be addressed to help ensure maximum benefit. Based on our expertise and wealth of experience of teacher professional development programmes, we have identified six key principles which should help.

Blended teacher professional development programmes should:

  1. Be informed by the latest evidence on adult learning.

Regardless of whether the programme is delivered in a face-to-face, remote or blended format, it should follow the same principles of effective professional development identified by rigorous research and systematic reviews of the latest evidence. For example, evidence in our own research suggests that such programmes should support teachers to embed new knowledge into their practice, provide opportunities for collaboration between teachers, and include subject-specific development.

  1. Blend synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (self-paced) lessons.

Teachers should be given the opportunity to participate in a blend of synchronous (accessed in real-time) and asynchronous (can be accessed at any time) professional development activities. Evidence shows that this helps to cater to individual teachers’ contexts, allowing them to work around other responsibilities and commitments, while also maintaining a higher level of motivation and building their knowledge base.

  1. Use video to demonstrate and share good practice.

Evidence shows that video – where available – is highly effective in supporting teachers to reflect on their practice, both with coaches and as part of teacher learning communities. For example, teachers may be given opportunities to observe ‘good practice’, either through live observations of others’ teaching, or through pre-recorded video examples.

  1. Ensure that teacher educators demonstrate a strong sense of ‘presence’.

Many teachers are likely to need extra support to stay engaged and motivated, especially when professional development is remote and there are many other demands on their time. Evidence shows that a strong sense of ‘teacher presence’ can help to increase learner engagement and motivation: consequently, remote teacher professional development needs to ensure that there is strong ‘teacher educator’ presence. Teacher educators should therefore receive professional development to ensure they can develop this attribute in remote programmes. Strong ‘teacher educator presence’ can be established through skilful instructing, prompting, questioning and encouraging of teachers, making smart use of technology using SMS, mobile phone apps (such as WhatsApp) and targeted telephone or video calls, where available.

  1. Establish familiar routines that can be sustained.

Regardless of whether schools are open or closed, and whether the programme is face-to-face, remote or blended, professional development programmes should be designed in such a way that teachers’ participation and engagement in them can be sustained, enabling them to continue learning and developing their skills – even in changing contexts.

  1. Offer a central repository of high-quality resources.

Consistent, high-quality resources should be available to both teachers and teacher educators. This can help to ensure greater consistency of message in professional development programmes, while also ensuring that teacher educators are able to spend the majority of their time using these resources to stimulate teacher growth, rather than creating disparate resources from scratch.

Employing these principles is likely to ensure a remote professional development programme is an effective, realistic and sustainable endeavour for education professionals, which can operate at scale without compromising on quality. These principles underpin our model for remote teacher PD at scale.

To find out more about our work on teacher development, please click here, or contact us to find out more about our delivery models.