Being an educator during the COVID-19 pandemic has completely shifted the way I think about public school education. I have come to realize that now is an opportunity for us to make many lasting and impactful changes in how our schools operate.
Although we won’t be returning to our classrooms or school buildings this academic year, I am confident that when we do return, we will be able to make changes to systematically improve upon the learning experience for all students. Here are four lessons I learned from this whole experience as a K–12 elementary school administrator.
1. In Times of Crisis, School-Family Relationships Are More Essential Than Ever.
There’s not a school around that does not believe in the importance of relationships between staff, students, and families. If you look at any vision or mission statement, you are sure to see a reference to this.
Prior to March 12, 2020, our priority had been on ensuring all students were given access to high levels of learning. At times, we had fallen into focusing so much on the what of our work (teaching and learning) that we may have started shifting away from the why of our work—building strong partnerships with all families and our community. Beginning March 13, that all changed. What I have learned during this pandemic is the need for schools and communities to support each other and to understand the needs of one another. Not every student and family has the same needs; therefore, schools need to know their families so they can provide the best support. The concept of educational equity has never resonated as much as it has this spring.
I’m proud to say that during this pandemic, we have learned deeply about our families and their needs and have worked to build relationships through almost daily communication. Our staff have realized how challenging it is for families to juggle working from home with teaching their children, as much as our families have understood that their teachers—also working from home and raising children—are equally challenged to meet the demands of learning. Through our interactions with our families, we learned some families have required access to food, others to devices, and some to other community or mental health supports. We learned the importance of “meeting families in the middle” and accepting the fact that a successful day could mean a child completing only one assignment. We learned that some families have the ability to work from home to support their children while others do not. In communicating with our families, we learned that some could only work and submit learning before 7 a.m., while others could only begin working and supporting their children after 9 p.m. In response to this, our staff have made themselves available at hours around the clock.
Taking the time to connect with our families through phone calls, emails, and texts enabled us to partner with community agencies to coordinate food distribution, provide access to devices, and connect families with mental health resources. Our district worked to collaborate with Wi-Fi providers to ensure families who needed it had access. I am optimistic that these experiences—to name just a few—will only improve the culture of our building and continually increase when and how we communicate with our families. I am even more optimistic that future conversations with our families will focus on more than simply academic or behavioral updates.
2. Teacher Leadership Is Essential to Innovation in Education.
As an elementary principal for over 10 years, I regret not capitalizing on all of the teacher leadership actions in the buildings in which I worked. During this time, I have been amazed with our staff for their willingness to learn new technologies and share their learning with others. Using new technologies has given us the appreciation that learning can happen anytime and anywhere—whether or not we are standing in front of our kids. Suddenly, the walls of our school and classrooms have expanded.
I have appreciated visiting classrooms using remote learning tools and apps and seeing the varied ways in which our staff are providing virtual instruction, virtual intervention, and virtual social-emotional learning. When staff realize that one method of instruction is not effective, they have turned to new ways to deliver instruction to support new learning. As a result of this pandemic, I have seen teachers show their creativity, learn with their colleagues, and craft highly engaging lessons from their homes.
Some of the most rewarding experiences for me during this time have been seeing our staff teach each other different forms of technology to better meet the needs of our students. Whether it was recording themselves teaching a lesson, creating interactive lessons, or utilizing Zoom for live teaching, our staff have become better by working collaboratively, and the true learning was a result of their colleagues.
It’s essential that all building and district administrators not only look for examples of teacher creativity and leadership but also cultivate these opportunities. The concept of visiting classes now more than ever needs to be from the lens of a learner as opposed to an evaluator, and by doing so our kids will benefit. If we don’t begin to do this we will continue to overlook excellence in our classrooms and deprive innovation from improving our schools.
3. Teacher Collaboration Can Help Ensure Equity In Learning.
Another area that has been positively highlighted during COVID-19 has been the need for and power of collaboration among teachers in ways beyond exchanging technological tools. I have seen our staff spend time each week discussing instructional strategies, assessment, success criteria, and individual student needs. These conversations have focused on the four essential questions of a professional learning community:
- What do our kids need to learn?
- How will we know they learned it?
- What will we do if they already know it?
- What will we do if they haven’t yet learned it?
At South Side School, we have been working for the past four years to understand the concept and truly deliver what Robert J. Marzano refers to as a “guaranteed and viable curriculum.” He says we need to be clear on what kids have to learn in a course to be prepared for success the following year. All students in all classes should be given the same access to the same high-quality, grade-level content. As a district, our ability to deliver this type of curriculum has been accelerated because grade-level teams are now planning together each week, discussing essential learning, and collaborating to respond to students who have yet to learn this essential learning.
According to Dr. Megan Kuhfeld and Dr. Beth Tarasawa from the nonprofit organization NWEA (April 2020), students who are not being instructed at home or engaging in learning can be expected to only have learned 70% of ELA learning relative to a typical year. For math, they predict students will have only learned 50% of the content. This means when we return in the fall, teams will need to collaborate first on the essential learning lost, and then on the next year’s essential learning. Without frequent collaboration and laser-like focus on clarity for essential learning, the gaps in student learning will continue to grow. You can also learn more about how to mitigate learning loss due to COVID-19 by downloading this HMH research guide.
4. Professional Development Is Accelerated When Educators Determine Their Learning Needs.
How we view professional learning has also been impacted by COVID-19. During the last seven weeks, I have seen our staff engage in many types of professional learning using varied formats. I have seen members of our staff engage in new technology professional learning and then turn that learning into positive changes in their practice. I have seen staff participate in virtual conferences to expand their knowledge in essential areas such as trauma-informed practices and then use that learning to make changes to their own, their grade, or our school practices. I have also seen staff engage in Twitter learning and chats, take that learning to improve upon their instruction or student engagement, and then share their new knowledge with others during a staff meeting.
Professional learning during this pandemic has also highlighted the varied technological skills and abilities of our staff. Recognizing that some staff are less comfortable using different forms of technology highlights the need for differentiated professional development. It was essential that we personalized professional learning opportunities while giving staff a choice in what they need now. For some, basic technology to navigate learning platforms was a priority. For others, learning to craft highly engaging interactive lessons was needed. I found that through this choice, all staff made substantial gains with their use of technology for instruction, and for that, our students will benefit.
As we prepare for the summer and already begin school improvement planning for 2020–2021, it would be remiss to not capitalize on our new learning and its connection to our school’s core values. As we have been able to develop stronger relationship with our families, highlight examples of teacher leadership, accelerate clarity of learning through collaboration, and improve instruction through professional development, we must continue to grow these areas and not return to our status quo.
I am incredibly proud of the work of our district and school during this pandemic and am confident our school and community will be a better place because of it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Blog contributor David Huber is an elementary school principal in Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidJHuber.
To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math