Sustainable Teacher Development in the Age of Technology

We live in exciting times. The advent of AI and its integration into nearly every corner of educational technology means automation of simple tasks so I can be free to do the work that matters to me the most. Now I have a built-in thought partner and a place to brainstorm ideas and fine-tune implementation strategies. I can worry more about content and skills, and less about formatting and refining.

We live in terrifying times. The advent of AI and its integration into nearly every corner of educational technology means that people think a robot can do my work. Now students and teachers can take shortcuts, cheating the system and getting away with doing even less than they were before. I have to worry about my job security and redesign every lesson so that they’re all on paper and in class.

We live at a crucial turning point in education. AI is just getting started, and as educational leaders, we can be either Netflix or Blockbuster. We can take a measured approach to innovation, scaling our growth through sustained, incremental change, or we can dig our heels in and march our own way into irrelevance. There’s a lot of information on the internet about the best ways to approach AI in the classroom, and much of it is flashy but shallow. AI is really just the latest, though arguably most disruptive, example of technology that is impacting classroom instruction. What we really need to think about is how we build teacher capacity and openness to new technologies in a sustainable way.


Teaching Teachers A New Tech

One of the greatest paradoxes in education lies in the stark contrast between the commitment to rigorous, sustained learning for students and the resistance, at times bordering on hostility, toward the same learning for teachers. Teachers are often hesitant to adopt new initiatives, skeptical of new technologies and unenthusiastic about new pedagogies. And their concerns are not unfounded. 

Professional development around technology is often focused on particular tools, delivered in one-off sessions that try to generalize to all subject areas. Presenters navigate dense slides laden with countless bullet points or screenshots as they attempt to hurriedly address every aspect of the website or app.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that teachers find it challenging to translate such experiences into meaningful, student-centered, interactive learning strategies. When this inertia collides with a constant stream of new initiatives, often introduced with minimal transparency and communication, it creates a breeding ground for frustration and disengagement.

This is not a problem of the post-AI world. In 2017, Digital Promise, a global nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for learners, launched a three-year pilot of the Dynamic Learning Project. Their initiative aimed to support meaningful use of instructional technology by collaborating with coaches and principals in over 100 schools across the United States. The outcome was striking: Not only did teachers become more confident and capable in integrating technology to enhance student learning, but over 90% of educators reported substantial growth in core instructional areas, spanning classroom management, pedagogy, assessment and differentiation. Following the pilot, Google launched its Certified Coach program based on the DLP’s approach. 

These findings point toward the power of embedding technology integration into a broader coaching model. By moving away from singular tech sessions and embedding impactful technology use into the context of professional growth, technology becomes the process through which students develop 21st century skills in the support of other learning outcomes.

To be sure, there are a number of Jewish organizations doing important work in this field. Touro University ran two cohorts of a Certificate of Educational Technology Coaching program; Lomdei coaches teachers and trains coaches in blended and personalized learning. Though they don’t focus specifically on technology, Jewish New Teacher Project has a well-deserved reputation in the area of instructional coaching and new teacher support. (I personally have learned from or worked for all of these programs.) Each of these organizations, in its own way, trains teachers and administrators and then sends them back into their own buildings equipped with skills, protocols and systems. But somewhere along the way, something is still falling through the cracks. 

Digital Promise’s five-step Coaching Cycle is similar to Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey’s approach to teacher inquiry and Jim Knight’s Impact Cycle, and it even overlaps in some meaningful ways with design thinking. In all the approaches, teachers select an area of focus, either a problem or passion, and work with a coach to select strategies to implement in the classroom and then measure their impact. Successful strategies and process reflections are then shared with the rest of the school community, creating an atmosphere of learning and growth in the building. The primary innovation of the DLP model is the focus on using tech-based or tech-supported learning strategies. For schools with a limited budget, the additional benefit of the Google Certified Coach program is that it is free for teachers who are already Google Certified Educators.


Choosing the Right Goal

In my experience, the most challenging stage in a coaching cycle is choosing the right focus for growth. Despite our assumptions, teachers are not any better at crafting meaningful goals than students are. This step, which is often glossed over or assigned as “homework,” is crucial to a successful program. Without robust, personally meaningful goals, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to fully commit themselves to the work of personal and professional growth. 

A meaningful approach to better goal selection is the development of teacher competencies. Instead of creating another evaluation tool, a competency framework is developed for self-assessment, goal-setting, coaching and feedback. It gives the entire faculty shared language to talk about and measure growth. Building21, a leader in competency-based education, has a set of five teacher competencies that can function as an excellent jumping-off point. For schools leaning toward more traditional goals, any of the well-known teacher evaluation frameworks, like Danielson or Marshall, can be adapted into a teacher-friendly framework. 

In the work of personalizing the framework for their schools, administrators need to ask themselves, What do we need teachers to focus on in their own personal and professional growth and development to support the changes we want them to make in teaching and learning for our students? Once they’ve answered the question, they can work backward to develop the competencies that will set their faculty up for success.

I used this process a short time ago to develop the Barkai Yeshivah High School Teacher Competencies. I began with Building21’s framework and adapted it using the Danielson and Marshall rubrics, our student competencies and our mission-driven priorities. The language is teacher-facing, action-oriented and specific. The work of the teacher then focuses on the “how” rather than the “what.”

After a teacher selects a goal, they work with a coach or supervisor to research and select a technology-supported strategy to implement in the classroom that will allow them to make progress toward that goal. Then, observations become specifically about monitoring and refining that one specific strategy. The teacher gathers evidence in a portfolio—anecdotes, assessment data, photos of students working, personal reflections—which becomes the primary means of tracking growth. 

At key points in the year, teachers share their progress with their peers, crowdsourcing support, encouragement and advice. Teachers learn to analyze their data, to draw more formalized conclusions from their work. At this stage, the integration of tech tools becomes extra powerful, as most have advanced data reporting features. In this way, we transform the teacher into a tech-savvy, professional practitioner whose expertise is valued and respected. At the end of a school year, the outcomes of these studies can be published or shared into the community. 

School leaders might be tempted to have teachers choose multiple goals or to assess teacher growth and development along their goal and other objectives. However, both of these approaches diminish teacher agency and make the tracking of growth and progress much more difficult. Teachers are already juggling so many things, and nearly all are committed to doing their best work every day. Professional growth needs to be approached in a sustainable manner that can be meaningfully integrated into their already heavy workload.


Cultivating Motivation and Efficacy

A coaching model grounded by internally developed teacher competencies meets all three criteria for intrinsic motivation. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that people do their best work when they have autonomy, control over what and how they complete a task; mastery, confidence that they can improve; and purpose, belief that the work is meaningful. In this vision of professional development, teachers are given choice over their area of growth. They get to decide what they will work on and which strategies to implement. Regular meetings with a coach and meaningful self-assessment give the teacher the feedback and focus to hone their craft. Finally, when the halls of the school building resonate with learning and growth, teachers are empowered to develop collective teacher efficacy. 

Identified by John Hattie as the single most significant factor in student achievement and growth, collective teacher efficacy refers to the extent to which the whole faculty believes in their capacity to positively impact students. The most inspiring and hopeful finding in education, collective teacher efficacy is not a particular classroom practice or technology. It’s not a few master teachers or specific student interventions. Rather, it is the generalized belief among all the teachers in the school that they have the tools, capacity and support to improve student outcomes. Multiple studies have shown that improving teacher confidence has the most potential to drive student growth. 

We may not all have budgets for external presenters or expensive professional development courses. But we all have the power to inspire our teachers. We need to believe in them so that they can believe in themselves. We need to support their growth with empathy and understanding so that they can do the same with students.

We cannot achieve this collaborative transformation through top-down, information-heavy meetings alone. It must unfold within the intimate dynamics of coaching relationships and through the gradual, incremental progress of growth.

In these revolutionary times where technology’s role in education is evolving at an unprecedented pace, we stand at a crossroads. The choices we make today will determine whether our institutions thrive as centers of learning or risk becoming relics of a bygone era. While we understand that time is a precious commodity in Jewish day schools, it cannot be an excuse. Committing to the professional development of our staff is essential to shaping our students’ futures. Ultimately, this transformative approach isn’t just about technology; it’s about embracing lifelong learning, improving our craft and believing in our ability to positively impact our students. It’s about creating a culture of growth that permeates our institutions.


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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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