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Salem State School of Education Professors Conduct Study to Discover the Emerging Professional Learning Needs of Educators during Pandemic

Interview by the Center for Research and Creative Activities

Professors James Noonan, Megin Charner-Laird, and Jacy Ippolito are members of Salem State University’s School of Education. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they began a research project utilizing a nationwide survey and focus groups to learn about the emerging professional learning needs of educators.

“This project was born during the early days of COVID. We recognized that while usually, educators have a range of expertise, with the start of the pandemic everyone was taken to a level playing field,” Professor Charner-Laird said. “Everyone ended up at what we call ‘novice status.’”

The team of researchers wondered how professional development was meeting educators’ emergent needs during the virus. With an unprecedented pandemic happening around them, teachers had unique needs and had to find new ways to undertake teaching.

What the research team found was that while school districts around the country were generally responsive to teachers’ questions about utilizing new technologies, they were less adept at providing support for larger instructional dilemmas. Teachers struggled with how best to partner with families during distance education, how to meet the social-emotional needs of their students, and how to address the racial reckoning that exploded around the country during 2020. With a lack of support at the district level for these types of questions, the research team found that many teachers turned to peers and outside experts for help.

“The reach of teacher agency in the beginning of the pandemic was profound,” Professor Noonan said.

Teachers, during the pandemic, were suddenly more able to access materials online that were formerly behind paywalls or totally unavailable. By using social media, they could interact with other teachers who were going through the same pandemic teaching struggles. The mix of expert advice, supplied to them by educational groups like the International Literacy Association, and less formal help from fellow teachers actually allowed educators to better control their own personal development and focus on the learning that lined up with their needs.

“We heard from many teachers about how they tried to meet their own professional learning needs by reaching out to colleagues in their districts and beyond, through online communities, and by seeking out professional organizations that were providing free, online learning opportunities,” said Professor Ippolito. “Teachers were turning to that more than anything.”

An expanded menu of online professional learning activities was one of the positive aspects of the pandemic and may have changed how professional organizations operate. The International Literacy Association has even announced that after decades of providing teachers with primarily print materials they would be transitioning to providing mostly electronic resources moving forward

 “It will be interesting to see if other organizations follow suit,” said Ippolito.

The movement towards wider online professional learning offerings has also allowed teachers to feel less economic strain – for example, by attending virtual professional development as opposed to in-person conferences.

While many respondents in the study reached further afield, via technology, for professional learning resources, many also relied heavily on colleagues in their schools and districts to collaborate on creating the new approaches to instruction necessitated by the pandemic. For many in the study, colleagues and their expertise were more important than ever before.

This team’s research into teachers’ COVID-19 professional development experiences suggests that, while the pandemic has created new dilemmas for teachers, it has also increased their agency and the scope of their collaborative work with colleagues. Additionally, professional organizations have found new ways to share their materials widely and for free or reduced prices, which benefits educators across contexts. Even as districts have been somewhat slow to respond to teachers’ professional learning needs during a quickly changing situation, broad-reaching online tools and strong connections with colleagues have allowed educators to continue to solve their own emerging challenges.

Charner-Laird, Ippolito, and Noonan are currently writing up their findings, which they expect to share as conference presentations and publications. The CRCA wishes the entire research team continued success in their work.


Learn more about the Center for Research and Creative Activities. All Salem State University students, faculty, and staff are invited to email their research to be featured by the CRCA:

Tucker Worrall
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