Educating educators in the middle of a pandemic

“Had there not been a pandemic, would we have experimented with things that felt innovative? I don’t know,” Rebecca Lebowitz says of how City Connects has spent the last months coming up with new ways to provide professional development for educators both inside and outside our network. 

Lebowitz is City Connects’ Senior Manager of Learning and Development, and when she was hired last year, no one was worried about a global pandemic. Lebowitz was busy developing professional development programs. 

When the pandemic hit, she had to move all of our training efforts online.

“This summer, we had all hands on deck, we had an amazing team working together. We all put our heads together and everyone played a role. We really focused on refining our objectives.” 

The work started with responding to a crisis.

It grew into developing innovations that will permanently change what we do. 

“In our conversations about planning and rollout and implementation, we think a lot about the relationships that we’re building with participants,” Lebowitz says. Her PhD dissertation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education looked at the impact of early childhood instructional coaching both on teacher performance and on children’s outcomes. 

How do you promote strong professional development relationships in a shoreless ocean of Zoom calls and online chats? By rethinking everything. 

The first task was to move City Connects’ annual June meeting of its Program Managers online. As supervisors of the coordinators who work directly with students, program managers share their insights with us and take new ideas back home to the coordinators. 

“Suddenly my job became not just shifting our in-person meeting online, but instead using online tools and platforms to create something better,” Lebowitz says. “We wanted to be instructive, but not exhausting.” 

The result: the meeting turned into a “flipped classroom.” Program managers did content learning on their own, then came together online for shorter but more targeted discussions. 

The next challenge was putting City Connects’ August Institute, a training program for coordinators, online. So Lebowitz drew on the insights she’d gained from the June meeting. 

“We asked ourselves, What are the richest interactions we can think of? We thought very deliberately about who the best speakers would be. We focused on being really succinct and really clear, especially for the new coordinators. We also gave all our materials a huge facelift.” 

Coordinators did assignments before the group meetings. Zoom made it easy to invite guest speakers from different geographic locations to run sessions in breakout rooms. 

“We were also able to have this amazing Zoom panel of community partners.” 

The other professional development project that Lebowitz worked on was creating four online professional development modules for educators outside of the City Connects network. An additional module was also created for City Connects staff. For this effort, Lebowitz helped develop training that offered both a guided course — an individualized way to work through the material — and a related Zoom call, ensuring that the two components could also stand on their own for educators who couldn’t do both. 

The reviews have been good. City Connects has received positive feedback on the June meeting, the August Institute, and the online module. But Lebowitz is quick to point out that, “We won’t really know what the impact is until we evaluate it.” 

“We have an amazing opportunity to work with the evaluation team at the Center for Optimized Student Support to understand what the metric should be for measuring our outcomes. That would tell us if we’re having an impact.” 

One clear outcome is that professional development at City Connects has been permanently changed. 

“When things go back to normal, hopefully sooner rather than later,” Lebowitz says, “our professional development will not snap back to where it was. We’ll keep a lot of the innovations we’ve developed.” 

This should build a strong foundation for the future. 

“I see us offering more professional development to a range of different stakeholders, becoming a rich place where people come to learn about integrated student support. We would support the field in the most advanced ways so that they could do their best to support children. 

“That’s my pie in the sky dream.”

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