Customizing Professional Learning to Meet the Needs of Teachers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

A Modular Approach to Schools’ Individual Summer Goals

Challenge: Preparing faculty for an upcoming and unprecedented pandemic school year that will likely require them to toggle between in-person and virtual learning

Outcome: Agile Course Design, a customized professional learning opportunity delivered to over 450 in the summer pandemic months



When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many schools had to shift into a mode of emergency remote learning as the virus moved into their regions. For most educators, teaching purely virtually was something they had never done, and they had to overcome a tremendous number of obstacles, from figuring out how to use video conferencing software to finding ways to make instruction engaging and differentiating. Most school communities understood that there would be many hiccups in these first few months, and the goal for many schools and parents was simply to make it through the rest of the school year safely while doing the best they could to continue positive student outcomes.

However, school leaders recognized they would be expected to do better when school reopened in the fall. They immediately began to reach out to their partners to provide professional learning programs for their faculty that would prepare them to teach their students remotely, as well as deal with the possibility of toggling back and forth between in-person and virtual teaching. 

EXPLO Elevate had developed a course to help faculty explore the best ways to teach students virtually, but as schools began to contact us in April, we quickly realized that a one-size-fits-all approach would not be optimal. The pandemic was creating different challenges for schools in different parts of the country. Boarding schools had needs somewhat different from day schools. And each school had a unique plan for reopening. A uniform approach would fail.

Pre-Workshop Needs Finding 

To meet the range of school priorities, EXPLO Elevate created a model to run a course that would appeal to this broad set of needs. EXPLO Elevate’s Director of Programs, Dave Hamilton, would first connect with school leaders to determine their goals for a summer workshop. In some cases, as with one school in New York City, we met with the department heads, including core academic subjects, art, music, and physical education, hearing each department’s specific successes and challenges. EXPLO Elevate would then work with an academic leader to review the base course content Hamilton had created, and identify where the school wished to focus. For example, each workshop session began with laying the foundation for the week, covering topics such as backwards design, elastic proximity, and how to create community and connections online. When speaking with schools who had not already undertaken a formal reflection on the spring semester, we recommended adding a reflection activity at the start, surfacing successes and challenges from distance learning, while also mixing faculty members together with those outside their department or division for new perspectives.

Part of the delivery and support model was to identify “Distance Learning Coaches” at each school, based on a 1:10 ratio of coaches to faculty. These coaches participated in a pre-workshop session, gaining an overview of the course curriculum and engaging in a few activities to prepare them to help facilitate breakout groups and serve as a knowledgeable bridge between EXPLO Elevate and the school. Partnering with the Distance Learning Coaches allowed each school to take more ownership of the course content, reducing the sense that some outside group was coming in with broad frameworks and practices, as opposed to guidance that would truly resonate with a particular school’s faculty and leaders. These Distance Learning Coaches would also then be equipped to provide ongoing support to the faculty during an upcoming year with a lot of variables and continued professional learning needed.

A Unique Delivery Model

EXPLO Elevate titled the workshop Agile Course Design. In this usage, “agile” had multiple meanings. First, the professional learning was structured to enable teachers to be agile as they meet the needs of shifting between virtual and in-person learning. Second, the course was delivered in a highly agile fashion, based on each school’s rapidly evolving needs. The core workshop was designed to be four half-days of synchronous learning with some asynchronous work in between. Schools such as Meadowbrook and Pomfret preferred to run the sessions on four consecutive days. Others, such as Cambridge School of Weston, wanted the sessions run over a several week period during the summer, and The Willows Community School wanted some of the instruction in the summer, but to continue into the fall to address the evolving needs of staff.

Another example of the agile mode of delivery took place while working with the Brookwood School faculty. Between the first and second half of the course, the school had announced its reopening plan. Hamilton met with the leadership of Brookwood to understand the plan and how it was being received by the faculty. Consequently, the agenda for the final workshop day was altered to allow faculty to have some space to reflect upon the reopening plan, along with EXPLO Elevate providing a new curricular framework for teachers to consider as they planned a few ideas for the fall. 

Another need to demonstrate flexibility in the delivery of the course came about as a result of the intense feelings after the murder of George Floyd in late May. At one school, the workshop was one of the first times the entire faculty had come together since Floyd’s murder. Many faculty needed time to discuss their feelings about racial injustice in the U.S. and in their school. Hamilton partnered with an administrator to adjust the day’s agenda and ensure that those crucial conversations were thoughtfully considered with EXPLO Elevate’s workshop activities. 

Milton Academy had chosen another one of its partners to deliver content around virtual teaching. They reached out to EXPLO Elevate to request a shortened version of the course for about 11 of their own distance learning leaders. After taking EXPLO Elevate’s course, Milton’s Indu Singh, Dean of Teaching and Learning, decided that it would be worthwhile having all 120 Milton faculty attend a shortened version of Agile Course Design. Indu said “For so much of my career, a lesson plan was something we wrote down. Using images to design for proximity now feels indispensable, particularly for a hybrid classroom. The workshop invited our faculty to design iterative, flexible plans for our classes and to make that thinking visible in entirely new ways.”

Support Continues, Long After the Workshop

After completing the workshop with each school, EXPLO Elevate continues to provide support to the schools, mainly via the Distance Learning Coaches. Hamilton and the team check in with the coaches, respond to their questions, and provide additional resources. For example, after meeting with The Willows to learn more about emergent curricular topics from the fall, Hamilton recently produced a 10 minute video using Loom, about the importance of process versus product in project-based work. Another coach from an Agile Course Design school reached out to solicit resources for an upcoming professional learning morning with her division, hoping to build upon some of the work from both the course and recent EXPLO Elevate webinars. We worked with her on building out her workshop plan and other possible future sessions that could complement her selected topics.

Agile Course Design is also agile in the fact that the schools receiving the workshop are not the only ones learning – the learning is bidirectional. EXPLO Elevate found that in each workshop, we would not only gain new insights from the faculty we were instructing, but that we would also meet inspiring and highly creative teachers who shared their experiences and best practices with us.

One example is Suzi Holmes, the JK/SK/1 @Home Guide at The Meadowbrook School of Weston, MA. Suzi was a highly engaged participant during our workshop with Meadowbrook, and our relationship with her continues as she recently shared her experiences on Constructing a Pre-K Classroom Community Over Zoom on the EXPLO Elevate blog. 


EXPLO Elevate is grateful for the opportunity to deliver the Agile Course Design workshop to over 450 faculty during the pandemic summer of 2020, and for all the new relationships we forged with so many inspiring teachers.