Professional Learning
Professional Learning

Educators are the lead learners in schools. If they are to enable powerful, authentic, deep learning among their students, they need to live that kind of learning and professional culture themselves. When everyone is part of that experiential through-line, that’s when next generation learning thrives.

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As public education has responded to COVID-related crises, teachers are still looking for new, innovative professional development to move education forward in transforming education.

This time last year, we were beginning Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) first ever February teacher externships with edX and a group of life science partners: Schrodinger, Halloran Consulting, and Eli Lilly. As life science and disease experts, COVID-19 was on their radar but hadn’t become real for the rest of us yet. I remember having a discussion with a few folks wondering if this “COVID-thing” would become serious. Fast forward to this week, and we are now running our second annual February externship program, virtually. Our question was certainly answered.

We have 22 educators signed up in either our cybersecurity externship or life sciences 2.0 externship, all happening virtually. We’ve had a year to adjust as best we can to a virtual setting. As the externship management team, in our second round of virtual externships, we’ve had time to reflect on the experience.

A partner from Novartis, a new life science partner joining this year, said something that has stuck with me throughout the planning of the virtual February externship. While Schrodinger and Eli Lilly focused their presentations around their work with COVID-19, Novartis did not. The folks at Novartis brought up the great point that they have not focused on COVID-19 because the rest of healthcare and healthcare research has had to continue. Other medical interventions needed to move forward.

That concept got me thinking about our approach to education over the last year, especially since the 2020-2021 school year started. So much of our educators’ time last year was spent crisis planning. Now that we’ve had time to meet as many of the emergency needs as possible, we’ve begun to take the time to see what other areas of education need to move forward.

While they all look different through the lens of COVID-19, activities like college/FAFSA applications, postsecondary planning, and science fairs have had to continue. Not only out of necessity, but also to boost morale. It’s exciting to apply for college and participate in the annual science fair! These traditions, milestones, and events break up the day-to-day schedule and signal major achievements to be celebrated in a students’ educational career.

The same can be said for educators and their professional development. Educators are still looking for new and innovative professional development opportunities. We have done our best to honor that desire for special events and great content in the externship program.

We’ve focused on keeping the basics of the program the same—real-world industry content together with career input/guidance. Externs get a crash course in what it means to currently work in the industry and how their students can get a job once they leave BPS. The planning has been left largely up to the industry partners with support from BPS and UnitedWay where needed. We’ve also kept our deliverables for the externs the same (either a lesson plan or a reflection presentation).

Now that we’ve seemingly hit our stride in a virtual externship environment, we’ve felt that we can start coming up for air and planning for the future. As the externship management group plans for the next externship opportunities which take place in the summer (hopefully in-person), we are taking stock of the aspects of the virtual program we’d like to keep. For example, we’ve started hosting a short orientation session before the official start of any externship program. It gives externs and industry partners a chance to get to know each other without physically bringing the group together for an additional day. It also saves the externs from having to introduce themselves each day and eating into the industry partner’s agenda. We know it will enrich future externships to continue providing a short, virtual orientation session.

Hearing the perspective from the folks at Novartis was oddly refreshing. So often, when living through COVID, things can feel unrelentingly dark. Knowing that people are still innovating and planning for the future was a nice jolt to remind us that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re going to continue planning externships for this summer and February 2022 with that same energy. We’re excited to see if there have been any innovations in spite of COVID that we can build into the program in the future.

We’ll continue to inventory our virtual additions as we continue to plan for the summer.

Photo at top courtesy of the author, Karissa Goff.

Karissa Goff headshot

Karissa Goff

Boston Public Schools

Karissa Goff works in the Boston Public Schools Office of Expanded Learning Opportunities.