5 Ways School Leaders Can Respond to the Challenges Ahead and Open Stronger

There is no doubt educators are exhausted from a trial-by-fire school year. As a virulent pathogen spread, we were forced to abandon brick and mortar schooling and scrambled to provide remote instruction. Our nonprofit, Teaching Matters, has focused on professional development and coaching for teachers both in-person and online for nearly two decades. So when the pandemic hit and we pivoted to create free remote learning materials for students and virtual support for teachers, the transition was a smooth one.  

But for educators, the move was chaotic. Whether this was a teacher’s first year in a classroom or they are a teaching veteran, coronavirus leveled the playing field. In March, all educators became first-year teachers. After our own first year teaching, we used the summer to reflect on our failures and successes to be better prepared for the following school year. This is the time for all educators to do the same.

This summer, the greatest challenge for school leaders is preparing educators for a future composed of a variety of scenarios. We are facing a more complex and challenging ecosystem of blended learning possibilities.

Here are a few focus areas for school leaders as they prepare their teachers for the year ahead:

  • Prioritize knowing students on a deeper level. Teachers knowing their students is always a priority. Now it is even more critical because there is a sense of isolation when students are not in a classroom community and seeing their teacher every day. Teachers should strive to understand each student, their family and home life, and specific strengths or needs they have in a remote learning environment.

    Grasp the trauma by which students have been impacted. Has a student’s parent lost a job? Has a family member died? Are they taking care of their siblings? Until teachers understand what a student is bringing into a learning environment, they can’t go forward with instruction.

    Try empathy interviews by asking students to share experiences about learning. What is the best time for you to do your schoolwork? Do you feel like you belong to a community right now?

    Regardless of your tactic, be sure teachers check in individually with each student. 

  • Build a safe classroom community online and in-person. At the beginning of a typical school year, the first month is focused on building a community and establishing classroom culture. Teachers spend a lot of time creating classroom norms—respect for one another, responsibility to self and others, how to ask for help—that are critical to a culture of learning and success. Now for the first time ever, many kids will begin the year by meeting their teachers and classmates in a virtual environment. How can school leaders help teachers translate culture-building from a traditional setting to a virtual one? How do you build the foundation?

    There is an opportunity here to utilize a virtual environment to improve building a community. Traditionally one teacher stood in front of 32 students. Now teachers have the ability to meet more frequently with small groups online by leveraging tools like Zoom and Google Meet. There is less of a chance that students will “fly under the radar” and more opportunity to build community in small groups.

  • Adapt to a steep technology curve. Before the pandemic hit, educators could have hardly used technology and still been an excellent teacher. That is no longer the case. We are at a time where there is a minimum bar of how comfortable educators and students have to be with technology in order to function in this new environment, and this bar is a lot higher than it was just six months ago.

    School leaders need to get teachers comfortable with basic technology so they can teach in a blended learning model. All teachers within a school should be on the same page in how to use learning platforms like Google Classrooms or Schoology and others, how to schedule using an online calendar, and how to successfully use video conferencing tools.

    As a school leader, your teachers need to be using the same platforms, same system and same technology. They also need to understand how to house lessons, move a workflow from in the classroom to online, be comfortable with an assessment plan and engage kids online.

  • Focus on planning and delivering culturally responsive content and assessment. As teachers plan for a school year of both brick and mortar and virtual learning, don’t throw out research-based culturally responsive education that is critical to advancing equity and social justice. Teachers still need to focus on student-facing resources that reflect students they serve. This should look like a combination of not throwing out all the work done to do better in culturally responsive practice and knowing lesson plans will look different now.

    It is not easy to translate curriculum and lesson plans into an online environment for kids in a student-facing way. A lot of work needs to be done on what teachers have to teach that is aligned to Next Gen and Common Core standards.

    The old model shows teachers driving all of the learning experiences, and now we need to build online in a new way. The teacher is driving some of the learning experiences, but so are students as they are at home engaging in independent work. Students and teachers should continue to engage in culturally responsive education (CRE) practices through synchronous and asynchronous instruction and find the right balance of both.

    One component of culturally responsive practices is students experiencing academic success. CRE aids in students demonstrating an ability to use critical reasoning, taking academic risks and leveraging a growth mindset to learn from mistakes. Through CRE, students become self-motivated. They learn to set and revise personal academic goals to drive their own learning and growth. In order to do that, teachers need to embed opportunities for students to get feedback on their work. That takes careful assessment and feedback planning in a virtual environment.

  • Finally, meet the needs of diverse learners in innovative ways. We must think about how to model the structures that are so important to special needs students, English language learners (ELL) and multilingual learners (MLL) in remote settings. Teachers of MLL students must be cognizant of language abilities and home life when distributing resources or providing tutorials. Look for tools that include translations and make sure to diversify delivery methods. Videos and audio presentations that multilingual students can watch or listen to over and over again are especially helpful. 

    For students with special needs, there must be intentional, strategic collaboration between classroom teachers and special education teachers to create individualized plans for each student. Check-ins and meetings should be increased in a remote environment to make sure students with special needs have adequate support. 

We don’t know yet exactly what school will look like this fall, but now is the time for school leaders and teachers to prepare for the year ahead so that we can make sure that all students receive a high-quality educational experience.

Colorado News