No turning back

New perspectives on professional learning

At first there was a sense of loss, but Renee Rehfeldt thinks that Covid has made PD fairer and more accessible in international schools.

Time to reflect

A new school year is about to begin, a perfect time to reflect on the last. It has been 18 months since the pandemic began – full of on-the-fly planning and a necessary focus on immediate needs rather than strategic goals.

With the first full year of pandemic learning under our belts, perhaps we can see out the other side. Our routines are not back to how they used to be, and perhaps won’t be for a while. But you have to ask: Does everything have to return to the way it was?


 Communal Grief

A sense of grief washed over us in 2020. Loss of control and predictability; loss of all we had planned and anticipated. It was griefnot transition and not change – that we experienced.

Scott Berinato’s article, “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” in the Harvard Business Review resonated and gave me a deeper understanding of what we were navigating. Considering the opportunities our students and teachers lost and the constant uncertainty, grief seems an appropriate term.

A year well-planned

“The best laid plans – for professional learning

Like many schools, we had a well-planned year ahead of us. Everyone was looking forward to multiple professional opportunities. Spring 2020 promised to be full – but in truth, it was the same PD plan we always had. It was a comfortable routine, a well-established PD habit.

Suddenly we found our habits pulled out from under us.


“We can go on as normal, just a few precautions”

Considering the unknowns and prior commitments (and not having a back-up plan), we entered the first stage of grief, denial. We said to ourselves:

  • Some March workshops might still be possible, right?
  • We’ve already booked flights and hotels, let’s just wait and see what happens.

We postponed decisions until the last minute, always hoping things would get better, or that we could hold a modified event. We knew that we didn’t know a lot and the situation kept evolving.

Working through grief is not linear and leadership conversations reflecting our denial rose to the surface frequently. Balancing realism with hope and a positive outlook is tricky.


You’re taking everything away”

As far as PD is concerned, anger had two faces: loss of fringe benefits and loss of normalcy. COVID restrictions meant loss of travel, loss of networking, and loss of socializing. Even though job-embedded learning has a higher impact, one-off conferences are seen as a perk of the job.

We cancelled face-to-face events but faculty were skeptical about virtual alternatives. We heard:

  • “I hate online learning. I see what it does to our kids and it isn’t for me either!”
  • “I can’t learn online, it has to be face-to-face.”

But what if we…”

Bargaining came alongside denial and anger. Denial of what had to change, anger over what was lost, and bargaining to keep the status quo. Leadership considered some hard questions which, while obvious in hindsight, resulted in honest debate at the time:

  • If parents are banned, can we justify a workshop presenter on campus?
  • If students aren’t allowed field trips, should we allow teachers to travel for PD?

We hadn’t imagined an alternative. PD is often built around one-off events – workshops and conferences. They are the bedrock of professional learning. So, what happens when everything falls apart?


I need to get away”

 Sadness reflected the pandemic and challenging times. Leaders needed to support faculty, family, and students. Regarding PD – we only could manage what we had to – just-in-time training for IT needs and distance learning. PD was “one more thing” and was rejected by most staff for many months.

Even as virtual and online PD became increasingly available, we wondered:

  • No one has the capacity to tackle the PD available, Is that important right now?
  • When can we restart training for strategic goals?

“The new normal…”

Schools and leadership teams are beginning to accept that not only is virtual (synchronous) and online (asynchronous) PD a part of the new normal, it may be a long time before we return to face-to-face events. Gradually, teachers and leaders have taken up these opportunities and in many instances, they are now requesting this type of training directly.

While not the preferred and privileged norm we were used to, it is a viable and meaningful option for all schools.

Finding Meaning

There may be benefits …”

Kessler added a sixth stage to the initial five stages of grief – finding meaning. It fits well where we are now in reimagining PD planning.

With the end of the first full year, we reflect on the journey travelled. We are learning how to do virtual and online PD right. Schools and providers have gone through an experimental stage in providing virtual PD and how to integrate it into their professional learning program.


Virtual PD is as beneficial as a face-to-face workshop and we are discovering the power and potential of virtual events:

  • More teachers are able to participate – we can increase opportunities for all and worry less about being ‘fair.’
  • Topics fitting teachers’ needs are more readily available – the world is truly our sandbox and there are no travel expenses.
  • Teams are discovering what a professional learning community can achieve – when it learns together in a job-embedded model.

With all that we have experienced and learned, we shouldn’t go back to a solely face-to-face model of PD. It is time for a paradigm flip. Virtual and online sessions will become the norm and face-to-face experiences, such as conferences and workshops, will become the outliers.

In-person opportunities will always have a place, but they no longer take priority nor take the majority of our precious budgets.

We have all been on quite a journey – from panic to growth, from denial to finding meaning. Following our first year of “just barely managing,” we can now wonder “what should it look like now?”

It’s time to reimagine professional learning.


Renee Rehfeldt

    Ewen Bailey

   Michael Iannini

This article has been adapted from Virtualizing Professional Development, co-authored by Renee with Ewen Bailey and Michael Iannini, due for release in the Fall of 2021.





Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review, 23 Mar. 2020,


FEATURE IMAGE: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Images: by Gerd Altmann & Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay


You may also like