What We're Learning: The Hidden Potential of Virtual Teacher Collaboration


Launched in 2011, Leading Educators is a national nonprofit that supports school systems to eradicate racial inequities in instruction and student outcomes by transforming teaching practice, leadership, and conditions at scale. With a specialty for curriculum-based professional learning, Leading Educators guides teachers and leaders at all levels to build capacity for standards-aligned teaching where it matters most: close to the classroom.

“When the crisis struck in March, we immediately thought: ‘Will we need to tap the brakes?’” Brielle Brewick, an Associate Director of Networks at Leading Educators, reflects. “We thought there would be no way teachers could keep up with a virtual professional learning cycle on top of so many new responsibilities.”

The COVID crisis was a wrench thrown into an ambitious professional learning partnership between Baltimore City Public Schools and Leading Educators. Launched in fall 2019 as part of the Gates Foundation’s Professional Learning Partnership (PLP) portfolio, the partnership was designed to expand curriculum-based professional learning support around middle school math teachers. At the heart is a unique strategy to leverage expert Academic Content Liaisons (ACLs) who coach teachers across multiple schools to facilitate recurring adult learning and planning tied to the Eureka curriculum. Simultaneously, they develop the capacity of school-based content leaders to eventually do the same. Teachers at three pilot schools were participating in sessions about upcoming curriculum topics until the pandemic forced a pause.

But when school closures pushed classrooms into lonely virtual spaces, City Schools teachers craved learning and collaboration with their peers more than ever. Recognizing the importance of the moment, an ACL and their teachers asked LE to finish their learning cycle virtually.

City Schools’ Director of K-12 STEM Mathematics Beth Sappe said, “It was vitally important to give teachers a space to learn and share practices around both content and virtual tools.”

“About three weeks into school closures, our cohort teachers were eager to re-engage in learning. We believed that the thriving learning cycle had to continue so we could support students academically and leverage strategies to address social and emotional aspects of learning. We had a lot to learn in a short amount of time, and we were confident this was the best way to move forward together.”

After reshuffling the content to respond to new time constraints and the unique aspects of online instruction, LE led teachers, ACLs, and Academic Planning Facilitators through an optional virtual cycle that wrapped just days before the school year ended. Even in such unfamiliar conditions, roughly 80 to 90 percent of teachers attended the sessions each week. Teachers gave the sessions positive feedback, a big win for the first-time process.

It’s difficult to work on the structural shifts that build a better school system while responding to urgent needs of the moment. By doubling down on professional learning, City Schools is seeing success with both. Here are key takeaways that are worth carrying forward.

  1. Virtual learning spaces break down walls and expand perspective. The virtual cycle has given teachers a rare opportunity to collaborate across schools. Principals in particular have participated in joint learning walks, where they might virtually observe a classroom, debrief as a group, and then hop to a classroom in a different school, repeating the process as many as ten times in an hour. That cross-school collaboration encourages innovation and alignment on what great teaching looks like–it’s a structure City Schools will carry forward from this year.
  2. Virtual learning spaces can shorten linear professional learning structures, change practices in classrooms faster. While time and space limitations previously meant that ACLs would collaborate closely with LE instructional coaches and then cascade that knowledge to their teacher teams, virtual spaces allowed interested teachers to learn alongside ACLs.
  3. A strong, shared curriculum anchors teachers when things get stormy. All City Schools math teachers use the Eureka curriculum, meaning less time was spent scrambling to adjust lesson plans and more time was spent co-learning and resource sharing. A shared curriculum creates alignment and opportunities for collaboration even when class goes digital.

Of course, there have been challenges along the way. While City Schools educators have owned their learning, even virtual structures can’t add more hours to a day. Mental and emotional capacity need to be balanced and assessed on a day-by-day basis. To build trust and connection, learning cycle sessions always start with an opening activity grounded in social-emotional learning principles, something teachers can also bring into their classrooms to use with students.

The classroom can feel isolating in the best of times, let alone in a pandemic. While some elements of collaboration and community can’t be recreated in virtual spaces, they can deprivatize teacher practice to get to a commonly held vision for excellence and equity. By leaning into the few opportunities virtual spaces offer teachers in the short-term, schools can make strides toward long-term transformation.

Jake Ramirez is the Coordinator of Communications at Leading Educators. He supports teachers and education leaders to tell their stories to inspire a new generation of educational progress in pursuit of equity.