2016 – Improving Professional Development for Teachers – A Grassroots Solution
Margaret Dupuis – Director of e-Learning Services, LEARN
I said "Leave it alone"

Since 2000, LEARN has offered an online solution for courses to many of the English Secondary schools in the Province of Quebec. It is a model that includes 85% synchronous and 15% asynchronous delivery, all online. One of our main concerns with the online solution from the start was to assure that students were engaged and that teachers used the appropriate strategies to achieve this. In the beginning the personnel hired were established brick and mortar classroom teachers who took on the challenge of teaching in an environment which they were unfamiliar with. For many of our courses, the use of video for instruction was limited due to bandwidth issues and audio instruction with whiteboard and presentation facilitation became the norm. However, teachers struggled to find solutions that would help them better engage their students. They were using the same strategies used in the regular classroom, which was mostly teacher led instruction, even though our educational reform encouraged otherwise. The new online learning environment posed many challenges and changing strategies made many of the staff uncomfortable. In Quebec it has been a challenge for teachers to adapt to the new educational reform and its constructivist trend because of limited training, resources and an inadequate understanding of social constructivism. The need clearly was to make this trend a part of our team’s educational culture.

Over the last seven years LEARN has developed a professional development model that assists our online teachers to understand how teaching with a constructivist approach can assist their learners to become independent and active participants in relation to their own learning. There are many elements that could make the online learning environment an exciting place to teach and learn. For example, the designing of classroom material, learning considerations, connecting with students learning styles and their prior knowledge. Further, the defining engaging guiding questions and questioning techniques, flipping classes, implementing the use of Web 2.0 tools (blogs, Google Docs, Twitter, etc.), concentrating on the importance of reflecting on one’s work and tasks, and the importance of peer work and collaborative activities. We believe that all of these items are all key elements that we realized would make the online learning environment an exciting place to teach and learn. It has taken a lot of planning combined with the willingness of the teachers to want to be better practitioners and the proper training to accomplish this. Our efforts have been very rewarding. Due to the implementation of these strategies, two of our Math teachers won the iNACOL Innovative Online Learning Practice Award in October 2012, and many of our teachers now present at conferences across Canada and abroad.

The reason why we were successful was because from the very beginning the teachers were part of the professional development planning process. It was a grassroots approach. We began by assuring that everyone had a common understanding of what social constructivism was, and how embracing this instructional method would yield the results desired. The teachers also embraced the need to change through their research and reflection. They chose to work together as a team, helping and mentoring one another. They began with growth plans which involved a pacing approach for each individual. The virtual campus principal and teachers were also tasked with finding new innovative strategies that they would be willing to implement. All professional development in relation to these topics was set up so that the actual experience involved the strategy. This way, teachers could see and experience the practicality of the instructional method. Each week, team professional development was set up in place of a staff meeting. To supplement, VoiceThreads were used to cover the standard housekeeping information teachers would need to know, so that time would be available for professional learning and growth.

We used the expression “the good, the bad and the ugly” because with each meeting, teachers could discuss what strategies they had discovered and used. When strategies worked well they were good, even great, but when strategies did not work, they were considered bad or even ugly. As you can see humor was often a big part of the process which helped teachers feel comfortable about their experiences. Their candidness definitely helped them grow. They shared and mentored one another. They planned professional development together and as each teacher felt comfortable with a strategy, it was implemented. The mentoring, coaching and support was there during the process and teachers knew that collaboratively, solutions would be found that would make the new instructional approach effective and engaging for their students. Since the whole professional development concept was built around a learning community methodology, teachers implemented new solutions when they felt ready. Some jumped in with both feet while others took their time. After each success there was a celebration, which helped to motivate and encourage teachers to continue their professional growth.

Because of our success, LEARN feels confident that this strategy could provide a model for all educators who strive to make their learning environment a great place to discover what learning is all about. We chose these approaches and implemented a training progression to support our teachers who wanted a new educational culture. The implementation of well-planned professional development has assisted our online teachers in becoming world class online educators, of which we are very proud. Their efforts have changed the whole atmosphere of their online classes and students rave about how they love the experience, even though they also admit that they most likely work harder in their online classes than they do in their regular classes. We encourage educators and administrators to look at how grassroots solutions can make a big difference in professional growth. Team practices certainly provide the support needed in the beginning, and certainly encourage the continuation of effective professional learning.