Q&A with Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson:

“If we want 21st century learning for students, we need 21st century learning for teachers”

Recipient of the 2017 Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research

Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson is Assistant Professor of Educational Administration at the Faculty of Education of the University of Regina. She completed her doctorate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education.

Leveraging her experience as a former classroom teacher in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Osmond-Johnson has collaborated on numerous high-profile research projects that have the potential to reposition teachers as key actors and decision-makers in professional learning (PL), education reform and school improvement. Dr. Osmond-Johnson’s research has generated valuable data on teacher professional learning opportunities in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, including findings that demonstrate the positive contributions of teachers’ federations in providing its members with teacher-driven and relevant professional development and leadership opportunities. Motivated by the goal of advancing both teacher and student engagement, Dr. Osmond-Johnson’s research portfolio aims to redefine the role of teachers as both leaders and innovators whose perspectives and experiences can improve access to high-quality professional learning that is adapted to teachers’ individual learning needs and classroom contexts.

Dr. Osmond-Johnson is co-author of Empowered Educators in Canada, which debuted as #1 ‘Hot New Release’ and #1 Best Seller in educational administration textbooks on Amazon.ca

The following is an edited interview transcript.

What inspired your passion for improving teacher professional learning (PL)?

As a classroom teacher, I felt that there were opportunities for me to take part in numerous learning opportunities that were not always supported. At one point, a former professor had invited me to present one my research papers at a research conference. I had just finished my Master of Education and returned to classroom teaching. This was a huge opportunity, and I was ecstatic! Of course, I needed a few days off from teaching to be able to travel and attend. Then the school board denied my request for time-off. A light bulb went off for me at that very moment: I had received a clear message that my involvement in education research was not perceived as an important part of my work as a teacher. I have since become a researcher and a writer to improve the professional learning opportunities that are available to teachers, and to highlight the benefits of teachers having a greater say in decision-making and in determining the types of PL that is most beneficial to them.   

We wouldn’t want to send our children to doctors who haven’t been keeping up-to-date with the latest and most effective practices, so why would we be satisfied in sending our children to school teachers who don’t have access to high-quality teacher professional learning? 

What kind of teacher education programs and PD opportunities do teachers need to have an impact in classrooms and beyond?

I’m advocating for a shift away from the traditional “sit and get” approach where teachers just sit and listen to an outside lecturer, and where they’re not engaged in active learning. That’s simply not the kind of teacher PL that has a strong impact, nor does it encourage teachers to make changes to their practice. A great deal of research shows what high-quality professional learning looks like: teachers sharing first-hand their experiences in the classroom and their strategies for engaging students, which includes the key step of collaborating with other teachers to make informed decisions. In other words, teachers learn best when they can network and learn in community with other teachers. To do this, teachers need ‘job-embedded PL’: learning opportunities that are integrated into their day-to-day teaching practice where they’re not only learners, but also leaders of learning. This could take various forms, like participating in conferences that appeal to them, or in ‘teacher action research’ where they self-assess their practice to improve their own teaching and learning, among others.

In your work, you refer to the idea of an ‘activist teaching profession.’ What implications does this perspective have for teachers?  

The root of my work really comes down to having teachers embody what Judyth Sachs, who does a lot of work in this area in Australia, referred to as an ‘activist teaching profession.’ Activism doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in political protest, but rather it refers to teachers embracing self-efficacy and autonomy, as well as finding their voice and actively inserting it into the policy arena at the school, school board or ministry-level to influence decision-making processes. Teachers who embody this are able to guide their own professional learning and better respond to the needs of their students, especially in our constantly changing societies. However, teacher professional learning is often one of the first things to be on the chopping block, and I would argue that these cuts are impacting students greatly. We wouldn’t want to send our children to doctors who haven’t been keeping up-to-date with the latest and most effective practices, so why would we be satisfied in sending our children to school teachers who don’t have access to high-quality teacher professional learning?

What are the some of the obstacles standing in the way of access to high-quality professional learning for teachers?

What we see through research is that teachers who live in urban centres, who are English-speaking and who are in long-term teaching contracts are also those who have more opportunities to engage in a wide range of high-quality professional learning. Teachers who live in remote locations, early career teachers who hesitate to request additional release time to take part in professional development, Francophone teachers and teachers who are in short-term or provisional contracts are less likely to have those opportunities. There is also the hurdle of outdated mindsets, and there is a need to create new understandings around the role of teachers. Traditionally the work of teachers has been to deliver the innovations of others, and traditional forms of professional learning often positioned teachers in a deficit way, needing to be advised of the latest and greatest on student learning by an outside expert. However, we know that’s not how students learn, and we know that’s not how adults learn either. If we want 21st century learning for students, we need 21st century learning for teachers.

The EdCan Network regularly showcases examples of successful and effective teacher engagement strategies. Is the type of teacher professional learning you are promoting not already taking place across Canada?

It is true that we’re seeing many examples of high-quality teacher professional learning taking place across the country. It’s also evident, however, that this is not the reality for every educator. So one of the goals of my work is to advocate for equitable access to high-quality professional learning. In fact, when we first started conducting research into teacher professional learning, it became quickly apparent to me that there is a lack of data on teacher professional learning opportunities, such as the number of teachers that are participating in PL, the types of experiences they are engaged in, the frequency of their participation, and the types of funding that are being provided. This has surprised me the most about my work. With ten provinces and three territories, there is no national platform or any type of comprehensive data on this important issue.

I tell my teacher candidates, ‘If you think that you don’t need to learn something new every single day for the rest of your career, then you’re in the wrong career.’

Much of your work focuses on the role of teachers’ federations in promoting relevant learning opportunities for teachers, although critics would suggest that they can be roadblocks to educational change. What is your perspective on this?  

Teachers’ federations are one of the top sources of high-quality teacher professional learning in the country, so they do indeed provide valuable learning for school improvement. Many ministries of education recognize this and work alongside teachers’ federations on PL, even when they’re not agreeing on traditional “bread and butter” issues such as salaries and pensions. That’s happening in Ontario in many instances, including the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP), which is a joint initiative of the Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF). There are a lot of joint initiatives that are taking place elsewhere across Canada although, once again, there are inequities in what is being offered across provinces and territories.  

How do faculties of education support teacher professional learning?

As a university professor, I work heavily with my students – both at the undergraduate and graduate levels – to model what is sometimes called a ‘professional learning community’ or a ‘community of practice’. This means that my students engage in a variety of self-driven learning experiences: they converse with each other, collaborate and engage in critical dialogue. I do very little lecturing at the Master’s level; rather, I’m facilitating on the side by monitoring the learning and allowing my students opportunities to make connections between the material and their experiences in classrooms and schools. I often ask, “What does this look like in your context? How does this resonate with you and the work that you’re doing in schools?” At the undergraduate level, I try to emphasize the importance of teacher as learner. I tell my teacher candidates, “If you think that you don’t need to learn something new every single day for the rest of your career, then you’re in the wrong career.” Teaching is a life-long commitment to learning, trying new things, taking risks and engaging with new pedagogy to meet the ever-changing needs of our students.

What do you feel your research has the potential to change, and what will you be exploring next?

My hope is to continue promoting the idea of an ‘activist teaching profession,’ and that more teachers will be able to engage in collaborative learning, leadership and decision-making processes in the classroom and beyond. Right now, I’m collaborating with my colleagues to mobilize the knowledge gained from our studies to create different types of publications: news reports, policy briefs and plain-language summaries that target a wide range of audiences. We’re then hoping to conduct a second phase of our study where we launch a national survey that will allow us to have a better picture of what’s happening in teacher professional learning across Canada.