Mary Burns wants to break the mold of teacher training, largely because of her own work as an instructional coach in schools in Louisiana and Texas.
“I saw teachers dramatically change the ways they taught because they had support,” she says. “And I saw the profound impact that had on students and on teacher-student relationships.”
Before Burns specialized in using technology to improve teacher learning around the world, she taught many subjects in numerous locations. She was a French teacher at a college and an English teacher in a prison, both in Kingston, Jamaica; a high school teacher of English and French in Boston; a Latin teacher in Nebraska; and an advanced writing teacher at a university in Mexico. She speaks Spanish, French, Latin, and Portuguese, and has master’s degrees in education, urban planning, and Latin American studies.
Burns has written numerous articles about online learning, professional development, and instructional technology. She travels broadly, usually touching base in Indonesia, to join EDC’s Jakarta-based team and their cadre of online instructors.
Globally, we have a crisis in teacher professional development, says EDC’s Mary Burns. Often, she says, teacher training programs are developed based on cost and ease of delivery, not on the needs of teachers. This frustrates schools, teachers, and policymakers alike. Her work using technology to improve teacher training is finding new footholds in Indonesia.
Why is the current state of teacher training in developing countries so dire?
Research suggests that a well-trained teacher is the most important element in a child’s education. However, across the globe we offer teachers professional development that is neither meaningful nor relevant. Not surprisingly, because of a lack of time, support, and follow-up, teachers are often unable to implement what they’ve learned.
What doesn’t work?
Most cascade or train-the-trainer approaches, for example. Cascade programs typically feature a weeklong workshop that prepares teachers to train their peers. The training “cascades” through several tiers of teachers. It has surprisingly little research to support it, but we all do it because it’s less expensive and easier to do than more proven methods of professional development. It focuses on the numbers of teachers trained and not on how, or even if, teachers actually implemented the innovation.
What is the weakness of the cascade approach?
This model is more likely to work when there is expertise diffused throughout the school system and a lot of existing support within the school. One huge weakness is inconsistency of quality. The first group of teachers trained in the cascade typically has a good deal of expertise. The next tier has lower skills and so on. The very teachers who need the best professional development are typically at the lower levels of the cascade and thus receive some of the worst professional development.
What would work better?
Teachers need mentoring, coaching, and a community of teachers. But these methods of professional development are time-, labor- and resource-intensive. In fact, such approaches to improving teacher quality are often branded as idealistic when they are in fact realistic. What’s idealistic is thinking that a few one-week workshops will result in any sort of meaningful teacher change.
How is this perspective influencing your current work?
The Indonesian government is upgrading the skills of 1.7 million teachers—67 percent of primary school teachers are now technically unqualified. To do this, we are working with the government to improve the professional development system and create effective models of teacher professional development.
Last year, we did a pilot program involving 92 teachers and 12 coaches. We offered a coaching program that placed two coaches in every school. All 92 of our “coached” teachers implemented what they learned in technology-based professional development. With support from USAID and the local Indonesian government, we’ve expanded the coaching program to include 48 coaches. We’ve also added a mentoring component for the coaches themselves.
What does the use of technology add to the program?
It offers the possibility of scale. Because Indonesia is a huge archipelago and needs to upgrade the skills of so many teachers, we’ve designed an online coaching program and three variations of school-based coaching.
Almost all of our teachers are learning technology and new instructional practices for the first time. They are gaining self-confidence, discovering how to collaborate with their colleagues, and learning how to trust their students to use technology. Our coaches are excited, and our mentors are so committed. It’s very challenging and exciting work.
Originally published on April 15, 2010