Professional Learning: the Importance of Empathy and Environment

How do adults learn according to neurological research? How then should professional learning be designed and implemented? How does facilitating active learning and providing feedback lead to building the capacity of educators? ISTE Coaching Standard 5B. These questions drove the research bus this week, leading to some intriguing information and important components to consider with professional learning in 2021.

Coaching Conversations

Coaching or mentoring conversations are becoming an increasingly important component in education. More research is demonstrating that educational coaches are an important factor in educator support, efficacy, and professional learning — and not just for first year teachers! On going conversations with a coaches, according to Eisenberg, provides essential feedback in four areas and five points to ponder about coaching as a professional learning model:

  • Helped both teachers identify their goals, select appropriate materials, and use a variety of literacy strategies to engage their students 
  • Encouraged both teachers to give students a voice so they could collectively problem-solve and talk about their learning with their peers 
  • Planned with both teachers to provide frequent opportunities for students to read, write, listen, and think about their work 
  • Scheduled deliberate time for teachers to collaborate

Coaching conversations meet key needs of instructors and these conversations offer an opportunity for feedback within professional learning environments. In addition, the emphasis on a non-evaluative ear for collaboration is an important mindset with feedback that needs to be established and developed through the relationships and language. And providing clarity to the purpose and intention of the coach is important for staff to be encouraged and supported. Meaningful conversations will not occur if staff feel judged or shamed (check out Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead” on the importance of vulnerable leadership). Rather an empathetic ear is essential for educators and continuing their professional learning and development.

“Effective coaching is neither a deficit model nor a fix-it model— teachers do not need to be fixed. They need an experienced, non-evaluative ear so that they can share their ideas about practice. Teachers need their voices heard and their expertise validated.”

Eisenberg, E. (2016). The Path to Progress. Literacy Today

A trained, quality coach provides an opportunity in a variety of ways. Educators are able to voice their concerns, issues, or ideas to an empathetic, non-evaluative manner where they feel heard, valued, and supported in their expertise. This also applies to professional learning opportunities provided by the coach but also by the district. The importance of being able to discuss, apply, reflect, and receive feedback on instructional strategies or practices implemented by a district is an essential part of the learning process– one that is often skipped with the time constraints and demands on educators and districts. Intentionally providing coaching conversations allows this learning process to grow and bloom by providing a supportive environment.

Supportive Environment

Creating a building culture of learning that supports staff efforts to incorporate learning strategies to overcome significant systematic inequities and irregularities is not an easy task. A coach supporting staff is an important component to help support this culture, but the environmental conditions and behaviors of the staff also need to be considered. Based upon research conducted by Treff and Earnest:

“Deliberately creating an environment and activities for learners to identify and deconstruct their values, emotions, and opinions, and the connections between those and their conscious behaviors, we make clearer the ways in which learners can intentionally and consciously drive their individual developmental processes.”

Treff, M. E., & Earnest, S. E. (2016). Intentionally Developmental Teaching. Adult Learning, 27(1), 16–22.

Taking the time for coaches, teacher leaders, and admin teams to discuss the overall culture of a building and create a plan of action is a critical role for all aspects of the building to align towards the larger vision and purpose of the school building (or district). Especially in larger building, having timely conversations about how behaviors enable or prohibit meaningful discussions can then be helpful in creating meaningful professional learning opportunities for staff. In the study by Treff and Earnest, they cite research conducted by Gibbs on how language and communicative patterns influences the group dynamic and its functionality:

“Behaviors at one end of the continua tend to promote trust and help people feel less defensive and more supported; behaviors on the other end tend to diminish trust and increase defensiveness. Gibb’s research found increased trust positively influences the effectiveness of small groups. These six distinctions are very useful in helping learners develop trust within a new group.”

Taking time to understand the individual role within the group dynamic, evaluating the language used by group members, and working on creating group norms and structures to encourage each individual to feel supported, heard, understood yet keeping the focus of the group on the larger vision and purpose is not an easy task. Providing opportunities for teams to communicate and understanding the importance of working together through this process as well as individually reflecting empathetically can lead to stronger teams who are willing to dive into very difficult conversations and tasks in education.

“Communicating and negotiating with others about what we feel, observe, and think we learn allows us to revisit our meaning making and ourselves. We draw new insights and make new connections between ideas as we bring new experiences to bear on past learning.”

Treff, M. E., & Earnest, S. E. (2016). Intentionally Developmental Teaching. Adult Learning, 27(1), 16–22.

While the research bus went an interesting route this week, this detour led to valuable insight on the importance of coaching conversations and also considering the environment (and the influence of language and behaviors in creating a culture) for these difficult conversations. Educators need opportunities to continue to grow where there is support, encouragement, and opportunities for empathetic, non-evaluative feedback about their own learning and the learning of their students.

How does your staff create a culture of learning? What strategies have you successfully seen employed or used to encourage teams to dive into tough pedagogical conversations?

References & Resources

Bliss, A. C. (2019). Adult Science-Based Learning: The Intersection of Digital, Science, and Information Literacies. Adult Learning, 30(3), 128–137.

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Vermilion.

Carey, J., & Society for Neuroscience. (1990). Brain facts: A primer on the brain and nervous system. Washington, D.C: Society for Neuroscience.

Eisenberg, E. (2016). The Path to Progress. Literacy Today (2411-7862), 34(1), 10–11.

“How teachers are learning: Professional development remix.” EdSurge, 2014. Viewed Jan 2021.

“How teachers are learning: Professional development remix – an in-depth report on the tools advancing teacher training.” EdSurge, 2014. Viewed Jan 2021.

“It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development” by Mike Schmoker Education Week, 2015 LINK

ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). Nov 2020

Lang-Raad, Nathan, Dr. “Creating Authentic Professional Learning Experiences in a Distance/Blended Learning Environment” Webinar 02 Feb 2021.

Lipton, L., Wellman, B. M., & Humbard, C. (2003). Mentoring matters: A practical guide to learning-focused relationships. Sherman, CT: MiraVia, LCC.

National Education Technology Plan: Introduction and Learning and Assessment sections

“Professional development for personalized learning practices.” Hanover Research, 2013.

Treff, M. E., & Earnest, S. E. (2016). Intentionally Developmental Teaching. Adult Learning, 27(1), 16–22.

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