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BY ERIC HAND

My commute is different than it used to be. Before the pandemic, I would go to schools all over the five boroughs to lead teacher professional development. Some days I would drive to Staten Island, other days I would take the subway to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. Wherever my teachers were, that’s where I went.

But now, my commute doesn’t change.

The pandemic has turned every aspect of education — including professional development — on its head.

What hasn’t changed is the importance of investing in our teachers so they can develop rich, challenging lesson plans that engage and inspire students.

And as New York faces steep cuts to education, we cannot afford to put professional development on the chopping block. With remote learning extended through the fall, we must double down to give our teachers — and in turn, our students — the tools they need to succeed in remote learning.

My job as a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University has transformed over the course of the pandemic. Whereas before, my role was primarily to help elementary school teachers engage young students in reading and writing in the classroom, my work has now taken on an unexpected dimension: tech support.

When I say tech support, I don’t mean that teachers need me to show them how to share a GoogleDoc. I mean they need help thinking through how to provide literacy instruction in a way that they never have before.

The instruction I plan draws on the collective knowledge of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the result of almost 40 years of leading professional development, conducting research in classrooms, and developing curriculum. Before coronavirus, the group of staff developers I work with would meet weekly at Teacher College to learn from one another. Now, we reach across the internet to become smarter about education by combining our knowledge with first-hand teaching experiences.

Our goal has always been to help our teachers provide outstanding literacy instruction. But through all of this, our work has evolved. In addition to tech support, we are also a support system.

And in this world where isolation and social distancing are part of our everyday vocabulary, teachers need community and connection more than ever before.

Every time I meet with my teachers I ask them, “What have you learned?” I leave it purposefully vague and open-ended.

Their responses are insightful:

“I’ve learned that I have to step away from the computer.”

“I have to let go.”

“I have to be more proactive about connecting.”

My teachers know that I’m there for them. I’ve worked hard for almost seven years now to build relationships where they feel safe being honest and getting messy.

This connection feels more important than ever today. When I log into a Zoom meeting with my teachers I check in on them first; Are you okay? Is your family okay? How have you been taking care of yourself? What are you binging on Netflix?

One day the other week, I was discussing guided reading with a teacher and she ended by asking, “Am I doing enough?” At that moment, I knew that it wasn’t pedagogy she needed, it wasn’t educational research, but rather a simple answer, “Yes. You ARE doing enough.”

Teachers need professional development now more than ever because they need support navigating digital literacy. Teachers need professional development now more than ever before because they must support not only children but their families. Teachers need professional development now more than ever because they need to collaborate with a community of educators that are in this with them.

With education budgets in New York and across the country on the line, we must take a step back and think about what this will really mean for a generation of students. As remote learning stretches into the fall, now is the time to double down on resources for our teachers, not take them away.

I couldn’t imagine abandoning my teachers now. New York shouldn’t either.

Eric Hand is a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. 

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