How districts can make the transition to blended teaching easier

This blog post was co-written with my former Evergreen colleague, Stacy Hawthorne of Hawthorne Education. The previous blog post (The J curve describes why the transition to blended teaching is hard) generated some conversations about what schools that are implementing blended learning can do to help teachers with the transition. A participant at the Idaho conference that spurred my thinking on this topic raised a similar point when she tweeted “Teachers who engage are the key! How to do this with online options is the question.”

One approach that some successful districts have taken to working with teachers undergoing the transition is to emphasize coaching and mentoring as opposed to relying solely on traditional professional development. These districts have come to recognize that effective professional development is a mindset and not an event. Most traditional professional development involves a course of study that teachers go through. Often, the PD reviews the technology tools; the better PD options help teachers with online or blended learning pedagogy. But in either case, the PD course often ends before teachers have truly become comfortable teaching in the blended environment.

To address this issue, some schools and districts have a formal coaching program for teachers, so that as they are teaching they have somewhere to turn for help with everything from simple technology questions to complex issues regarding how best to change their instructional approach. Some districts have created a blended learning instructional position, and this person became the expert who worked directly with teachers throughout their learning process. In some cases, such as in Crown Point, Indiana, the online and blended learning specialist did not have much previous digital learning experience and went through the PD with other teachers, but was given additional dedicated time to become the expert in the district. In other cases, such as Tift County Schools in Georgia, the district brought in someone from the outside to coach teachers. Professional coaches are able to bring in experience and resources from outside of the district and are often able to have more honest conversations with teachers because the coaches are not a part of the district hierarchy. We’ve seen districts where administrators try to work as coaches and there is often fear in the minds of some teachers wondering if their evaluation will be impacted if they struggle. Dana Spurlin, Tift County Schools Instructional Technology Director, says “having professional blended learning coaches has helped our teachers try new ideas and become better advocates for themselves as learners.”

Regardless of whether a district uses professional coaches or creates an in-house position, the key is for the coach to build a relationship with the teacher. The transformation to digital learning is a change for most teachers. Many pre-service teacher preparation programs haven’t adjusted to reflect blended and online pedagogies that schools are using. This means that both experienced and new teachers are likely to be experiencing blended learning for the first time. Change is messy, and the transition to digital learning is no exception. Having a coach that you can trust is a huge asset in the change process. The J-curve reminds us that things may get tougher before the digital transformation is complete. Ongoing coaching instead of, or along with, professional development gives teachers the support and resources that they need to navigate the change process and become successful online and blended teachers. NFL coach Pete Carroll once said “each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.” This same view holds true for teachers.