Our school leaders and their teachers have just had the most stressful summer to date. When was the last time educators had to wait so long to be able to figure out what back-to-school would look like? To add to the complexity, they all know that their current plans will have to shift as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve.
After spending the last six months helping school leaders around the country design and implement their reopening plans, here are three leadership strategies to prioritize—and two to try to avoid—in order to provide teachers, students and caregivers a smoother experience to start the school year.
Create a Unifying Vision for Learning
Online or offline? Live classes or asynchronous learning? Having to shift between different learning modalities is stressful for leaders and teachers. What can help make this process easier: creating a unifying vision for learning and helping teachers define what it looks like concretely, whether teaching from a distance or in the school building.
Angela Watson, a former teacher and author of “Fewer Things Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most,” refers to this idea as designing a resilient, flexible pedagogy. I also created this template to help teams develop a unifying vision for learning and unpack it could look like concretely in virtual and in person classrooms. It pushes leaders to identify key indicators of what constitutes quality learning in their school, regardless of the learning modality (online, hybrid or in-person). For example, what are indicators of a high-quality class discussion? How are these indicators similar and different when we host a live video conference, moderate a discussion board or lead a classroom discussion?
When we create this road map with teachers, we can help minimize the amount of new tech tools and instructional strategies that teachers, students and parents have to master.
Lead With Actionable Empathy
Our teachers, our students and their parents are hurting right now. None of them are starting the school year in their preferred setting and they are coping with this reality while trying to learn new skills every day.
As a leader, it is more important than ever to lead with empathy, and to think about ways your actions can carry the same level of concrete empathy as your words.
Teachers need kind thought and accountability partners to make it through this difficult moment of their career. Create true coaching cycles that allow them to bring a challenge, and get support in designing a strategy to overcome it. At BetterLesson, we practice the Try, Measure, Learn framework, which empowers teachers to identify a new strategy to try, test it out, and measure its impact against a goal set with a coach. We also try to make coaching conversations more teacher-driven by using approaches such as GROW, a 4-step process for structuring coaching conversations around goal-setting and identifying a way forward.
Also, reach out to your teachers, students and caregivers and be a true listener. It is critical to hear from all actors involved to continuously learn what is working and what needs to be adjusted. Seek authentic feedback, build true partnerships with families, and exercise shared leadership so diverse stakeholders can work together toward more equitable outcomes. Listen and act based on what you are learning about your blind spots.
With concrete empathy, you can start building bridges between different realities, an essential aspect of this new school year.
Build Bridges Between Realities
Everybody is feeling stretched right now: between different learning modalities, between conflicting expectations and aspirations. It’s essential to build bridges between people and their realities.
Make time for teachers and learners so that they can exchange feedback and set goals. Encourage the utilization of simple routines focused on sharing feedback with the whole group and individual students in a streamlined way. Without this bridge, online learning loses its meaning and becomes disconnected from in-person learning.
Help teachers implement activities bridging the reality of their students' life and distance learning expectations. Take a look at this activity called “I Wish my Teacher Knew…”, a simple routine that can help teachers learn from their students’ current reality and experience at home in order to continue to be more aware of potential teaching blind spots, and to improve systems based on students' feedback.
Used thoughtfully, these strategies can help reduce anxiety for teachers and students during this uncertain time. There are also pitfalls to avoid at this time.
Avoid: Over Scheduling
Give your staff and your students the gift of time, one of the most valuable resources they need right now. Try to create “off camera” time for them, not only to breathe and stretch, but also to take care of themselves, and to take care of building these meaningful bridges mentioned earlier.
This requires staying away from overscheduling teachers and students and creating more opportunities for self-paced learning opportunities. We do not need to recreate a full brick-and-mortar schedule with hybrid and distance learning. Instead, trust that with support and structure, every member of the learning community can make great use of time.
Avoid: Assessing the Old Way
While it is important to re-introduce some form of formative assessments because they are an essential part of the learning experience, it is crucial to reconsider the way we are measuring our students’ progress and wellbeing right now.
Long standardized tests were already questionable prior to this crisis, from an equity and validity standpoint. But in the context of distance learning, they become highly problematic, as we cannot guarantee equitable conditions for students taking them from home. And requiring students and teachers to be on a video call for hours to take them will slow down the (already slow) process of making distance learning more engaging and personalized for students.
Instead of long summative assessments, prioritize shorter formative assessments, embedded in tasks, and including the student voice in the process. Check out this rubric to help you assess faster with “written+audio assessments.” You will learn more about what students really need this way, and you will be better able to ensure the validity of the data collected.
The task ahead of us is challenging but we should seize the moment to toss the old playbook and prioritize leading with a vision and empathy, while building bridges toward better experiences informed by what we are learning through these difficult times.