We must invest in teachers now as students transition to distance learning

By Therapi Zaw-Kaplan, Special to CalMatters

Now, more than ever, teachers need to see what great remote instruction looks like. More and better professional development can show them powerful ways to be successful academically as they make the difficult transition to distance learning.

Teachers everywhere will do whatever it takes to be successful on behalf of our kids – but they also need to be given the tools to do it. 

Continued investment in teachers and students is not just a moral imperative, it’s a down payment on our economic future. Every dollar put into teacher training today will yield multiples in a post-COVID-19 world. The return on what is actually a relatively modest investment can be huge for California. 

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s an incredible weight being placed on teachers to maintain academic progress among our kids and support social-emotional growth in their school communities, and do it all virtually. 

As teachers across California are adapting to this new situation with incredible grace and professionalism, the COVID-19 crisis is spawning new economic challenges for our state. California is facing an unprecedented $54 billion budget deficit. Severe budget cuts are being imposed in cities and states nationwide. 

But in this moment, the pandemic is spotlighting for policymakers a simple, elegant way to move into the future: continued investment in teacher professional development. 

Now more than ever, our educators need top-notch professional development to continue moving our state’s students forward, through COVID-19 and beyond. Here’s why. 

As an elementary learning specialist supporting teachers at Westhoff Elementary School and throughout the Walnut Valley Unified School District, I know how much professional development matters to our educators. And when it comes to teaching English Language Arts, all of us in our district have set our sights on a simple strategic goal: to develop lifelong readers and writers who demonstrate a genuine joy for reading. 

More than 300 teachers in our district use a reading and writing curriculum called Units of Study, developed by Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In addition to curriculum, Teachers College offers hands-on professional development workshops to our educators.

When COVID-19 hit, I turned to Teachers College to armor myself with tactics to support our teachers as they made the difficult transition to distance learning. I’ve attended daily Zoom calls with their professional development experts, as well as a three-day virtual institute on literacy. Through this, I’ve learned invaluable strategies to keep our youngest learners engaged and connected that we have implemented in our virtual lessons.

We’ve seen our students light up as they work on projects that bring purpose and meaning to their lives right now, like writing letters to their local postal workers to thank them for continuing to work through the crisis or reading one of their favorite stories out loud to their classmates.

Another one of the most important takeaways for me has been that purpose should come before platform. Software like Google Classroom is a great tool to reach students – but you need a clear vision for your lessons first or it won’t be successful. Taking a step back and thinking through exactly what we wanted to accomplish has translated into better results for our teachers and students alike.  

But as we all socially distance, school districts across California and the nation face obstacles.

Just as children often experience summer learning loss, a new report released by The Northwest Evaluation Association shows that students may expect to achieve only 70 percent of their annual reading gains as compared to a normal year. 

California could indeed lose a generation of students unless we act now and protect education – and we can do just that by investing in our educators.  

This pandemic is presenting new and unique challenges for everyone, and things may get harder before they get easier. But just when we’re seeing budget pain, it’s more important than ever to empower our educators with the very best professional learning. 

Because our kids – whether in classrooms or at home – deserve no less. 

_____ 

Therapi Zaw-Kaplan is an Elementary Learning Specialist for Walnut Valley Unified School District in California, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for Calmatters.

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