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Professional Development vs. “Just-in-Time” Training for Educators

On asking the difficult questions, leading with empathy, and imagining how things might be otherwise.

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As signs of spring emerge and we enter our final trimester of the 2020–2021 school year, it’s natural to begin looking forward in anticipation of what the next year will bring. There have been many significant lessons along the way (I’ve written about these lessons here), but in our state of perpetual change and transition, we haven’t had the chance to pinpoint these lessons and codify our learning.

Perspectives on Teacher Professional Development

Typically, teacher training and ongoing professional development (both formal and informal) are how we grow teaching practice. Ideas around effective, job-embedded professional development for teachers are nothing new, and preeminent authors such as Linda Darling-Hammond and David Cohen have written extensively on this topic. Despite the knowledge that we have about what quality, sustainable professional development for educators looks like, the circumstances of this past year have thrown us for a loop, as teachers have had to flex and flex again, with many long-term priorities set aside. Our systems are overloaded, and it’s time to catch our breath.

A year ago, when schools across the nation transitioned to a fully online format (and subsequent shifts back into various hybrid models), emergency training for school systems replaced recursive, job-embedded professional development aimed at improving pedagogical practice that otherwise would have occurred in many systems. While our mission remained the same, the means to get there shifted dramatically.

Of course, it isn’t just remote teaching that is responsible for these shifts — it is the fact that educators have been stretched thin. No matter how experienced the teacher, this past year has felt like a first for many. Competing priorities and stakeholders have added to the complexities that teachers have been asked to navigate while continuing to show up for their students. Many are at their limit with increased class sizes and teaching across a screen, or conversely, teaching to both remote and in-person students simultaneously. Unlike other industries, teachers have adapted to these changes with their communities actively scrutinizing.

To accommodate these shifts, professional development has taken a backseat in favor of what I call “just-in-time” training.

What is the Difference?

“Just-in-time” training is a term that I use to designate targeted training and support in regards to a specific tool or strategy, often to fill an immediate need. This concept is vastly different from critical professional development aimed at shifting paradigms, rethinking systems, and improving practice for our students.

This type of training might involve the nuts and bolts of a tool (i.e. a “how-to” training). Anything that can be found by watching brief tutorials, reading support documents, or with a simple internet search I would categorize as “just-in-time.” While important at specific moments in time, this type of work does not have the capacity to affect significant change, nor does it seek to.

In contrast, professional development is aimed at thinking deeply, asking critical questions, and improving teacher practice. It is grounded in standards and has a clear rationale that is mission-aligned. While this may involve a new tool or strategy, these new ideas are situated within larger practices, such as equity and inclusion. In educational technology, that’s why we often focus on the TPACK Framework, developed by Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler (2006), when discussing effective professional development. This framework integrates technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge (leading to the acronym), and highlights the multifaceted nature of teacher learning. Whereas the goal of “just-in-time” is to fill an immediate need, professional development — whether situated within the TPACK Framework or not — asks us to have a growth mindset and to look strategically to the future.

In essence, “just-in-time” training seeks to answer questions, whereas purposeful professional development seeks to ask them.

In addition, effective professional development helps educators see connections across different subjects and sets of standards. It codifies the essential skills and knowledge that we want students to acquire while in our system, such as the ability to critically consume information, to reason with multiple perspectives, and to debate with empathy and understanding. In other words, it helps us to break down silos and maximize the time that we have with our students.

There is a place for both professional development and “just-in-time” training, but we must be deliberate about seeking this balance.

Eyes on the Prize

While “just-in-time” training has been essential over this past year, we can’t lose sight of the deeper, more system-changing conversations — especially now. Critical, thought-provoking work will simply not survive in a “just-in-time” training environment. Now is the time to reevaluate how we structure schools, streamline our objectives, and lean into the talent of our educators while pushing forward, rather than reverting to past practices because it has historically been so (a perpetual problem in our educational systems).

Working across content areas, teaching students to ask tough questions and interrogate information, and to debate issues that they care about with empathy will not occur without meaningful professional development that is both prioritized and sustained throughout our systems. It will also not occur by sporadically introducing new teaching strategies or instructional tools. Rather, it will require us to think across a system rather than just within one area of content or expertise. It will require a grounding in empathy and an understanding for what each educator has gone through over the past year. Above all, it demands the bravery needed to ask the difficult questions, imagine how things might be otherwise, and to see beyond our immediate next steps into the future.

Ultimately, we must keep our eyes on the prize and maintain our commitments to authentic, recursive professional development despite the many obstacles that are at work to prevent this. It is only by doing so that our systems will develop the capacity for change.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.