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Designing impactful professional development for teachers of ELLs

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The number of English learners continues to rise in schools across the country, yet teachers report that they are not adequately prepared to support their students. As educators give their all to address pandemic-related learning loss, districts must move swiftly to implement high-quality professional development programs that ensure multilingual learners have an equitable chance of catching up to grade level. 

According to research conducted by Linda Darling-Hammond and The Learning Policy Institute, there are several elements necessary for professional development to be effective. It must be sustained, content-focused, and job-embedded. It must also provide participants with opportunities for feedback and reflection. Research aside, teachers immediately recognize when PD is valuable and when it is not. But the true impact of professional learning is measured by student progress, which must also be tracked. 

After speaking with a number of multilingual experts, we have identified three essential steps to designing and implementing impactful professional development programs.

1. Professional development must be job-embedded and aligned with existing instructional practices

Building relationships with students sets the foundation for learning. When working with multilingual learners, it is essential to know who your students are and what they need to succeed. Teachers must not only understand the differences between EL subgroups like LTELs and Newcomers, but they also need the training and tools to implement instructional strategies to support them. Only then can teachers begin to effectively scaffold and differentiate instruction for the students in their classrooms. This means professional development must be directly connected to the students that teachers are serving and the instruction they are delivering.

Silvia Romero-Johnson and Mariana Castro, authors of the book, Advancing Equity in Dual Language Education: A Guide for Leaders, advocate for making clear connections between professional learning opportunities and the classrooms in which educators are working. 

“If we focus on the goals of the program and we are very mindful about providing our teachers time during the day to be able to come together, form a community and work around each other's strengths, as well as aligning the work with the standards that they're working with, all of that goes a long way to make it doable, to make it time feasible so they can move directly from professional learning situations into the classroom and it's applicable the next day.” - Silvia Romero-Johnson

In this way, professional development complements the work educators are doing in their classrooms and builds upon resources they already have available. This increases buy-in and makes PD more sustainable and easier to implement without adding excessive work to busy educators’ plates.

2. Connect professional learning to English Learner student data 

Having the right tools to access and make sense of student data is essential when it comes to measuring student progress, particularly for multilingual learners. Doesn’t it make sense then to use that same data in conjunction with professional learning? 

While consultants and other PD providers play an important role in providing educators with new approaches to instruction, it can be challenging for them to make meaningful connections with key student data. For PD to be effective, educators must not only understand the strategies to support multilingual learners but also be able to connect them to clear, actionable insights.

“Data literacy is looking at different types of data, really allowing leadership and educators to start creating their own data and understanding that data can be an observation, can be qualitative information, but then you can transform into different representations so that…you can look for patterns.” Mariana Castro

Simply having student data isn’t enough; it is essential to build in intentional time for educators to analyze that data together as part of PD. Professional learning is embedded in the process of dissecting the data and implementing instructional strategies that are informed by it. The effectiveness of that PD can be measured in the data thereafter.

Data and Professional Development

3. Make professional learning flexible to accommodate teachers’ schedules

The traditional practice of gathering teachers at a district office or school auditorium creates logistical challenges that surface before the session even begins. The pandemic disrupted this practice and forced us to think differently about how to provide teachers with the support they needed during an extremely challenging time. Districts like Saddleback Valley USD in Southern California found success in implementing remote professional development that allowed their teachers to access the resources they needed in a more flexible way. 

"In the past, teachers would have to rely on site-specific or district-specific one size fits all professional development. Whereas these days we’re able to customize that and be more flexible. We’ve actually been able to do more professional development and teachers have been able to access more this time around than in the last three months compared to what we’ve been able to do for the last three years." -Rowena Mak - District Coordinator, Services for English Learners, Saddleback Valley USD, CA

Designing this kind of system requires a delicate balance between structure and agency and freedom and accountability. Not surprisingly, districts that had these types of programs in place before the pandemic performed best. Others will need to evolve quickly, but it seems clear that there is no going back, and school districts must be prepared to adapt their programs. 

“When you’re sitting there going ‘How come they’re (teachers) not using all these tech-tools we’ve trained them on?’ - there’s a reason for that. Teachers are very busy, they have a lot on their plate….So we need to build systems that can fit into their schedules.” - Carol Salva

There is no doubt that designing and implementing professional development programs that are flexible, sustained, job-embedded, and research-based takes time and resources. Interested in learning more about how Ellevation Strategies can equip your teachers with the PD they need to support English learners?