I recently came across a post on Twitter that said “School is important during this crisis, but not as important as the needs of our families who are experiencing anxiety and fear as we develop our new normal. Our kids and families need us more than ever to model social and emotional learning before content” (@jaydostal). This tweet got me thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it connects with the work that school leaders do.
Maslow’s Hierarchy has become ever so important in this context of teaching and learning during a global pandemic. While most school leaders have been able to reach out and support their communities during school closures, we need to continue to think of ways to provide ongoing support throughout the new academic year. During these uncertain times, school leaders will have to lay equal emphasis on aspects of teaching and learning and ensuring well being of their stakeholders. Here are some strategies that school leaders can implement to support students, empower teachers and partner with parents during these uncertain times.
Through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we know that students will only be able to deep dive into learning when other needs have been met. It is important for students to feel prepared not only for synchronous online learning, but also for asynchronous learning at home. The following guidelines can help school leaders support students and help them take ownership of their learning:
- Focus on listening and building connections: With lockdown and social distancing measures being the new reality, social belonging has become a focus for many school communities. In such times, students need to feel emotionally connected to their teachers and classmates before they can focus on learning. It is important to set time aside for teachers to build a sense of community and check-in on student wellbeing.
- How can we focus on creating a positive culture during virtual learning?
- How do we support students’ social emotional needs?
- Provide clear and consistent structures: Students thrive when given a clear routine and structure. Co-creating essential agreements for online and offline learning will help build a shared classroom culture and language, and allow students to take ownership of their own learning. To build student independence, it is also important to minimize the number of tools and platforms that students use. Providing a one-stop-shop helps students know where to go to find that day’s or week’s tasks. This could be on a class website, learning management system or through a platform such as Toddle Classroom, Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
- What behavioral and learning expectations do we have for online and in-person learning? How do we communicate these?
- How do we help students take ownership of their learning? How do we provide students with all the resources they need to successfully complete an assigned task?
- Celebrate student growth: Finally, students need to feel a sense of accomplishment and reflect on their progress on goals, rather than doing “busy work” or online worksheets. Teachers can build student agency by co-creating learning goals with students and creating structures for ongoing feedback. Peer assessments, self-evaluation and systems of immediate feedback like online quizzes, can be useful in getting students to reflect on their learning and build relationships.
- What feedback systems should we create to monitor student progress?
- How do we ensure that students receive ongoing feedback?
Partnering with Parents
Our students’ families are our most important partners during remote learning. They are the on-ground personnel and have to navigate the complex path of monitoring virtual learning along with all other commitments. Not only do they have to grapple with the curriculum and technology, but they also have to understand the pedagogy of concept-driven constructivist inquiry and provide resources to make learning meaningful- and this is all uncharted territory for many of them! It is this “how” of teaching that they seem to need the most support with. It is therefore important for school leaders to think of strategies to equip parents with the tools they need to be successful.
- Focus on clear communication: Encourage teachers to send personal emails to each family during the first few weeks of school. Messages with a short video or photograph helps parents put a face to a name and helps build a personal connection. If possible, also consider a face-to-face meeting time for parents who have questions.
- What forms of communication will be most accessible to parents?
- How do we involve parents to help increase student engagement?
- How do we equip parents with information on learning tools that students may need to use at home?
- How can we remind parents that teachers need a break too? What structures do we need to create to support effective communication between teachers and families?
- Provide clear guidelines to parents about inquiry: Taryn BondClegg in her Making Good Humans blog advises parents to meet a question with a question – not to give the answer but to ask their children how they think they could find out the answer to that, and then maybe work with the student to inquire together.
- How can we partner with parents and give them clear guidelines that enable them to model being a learner alongside their child?
- What information and tools do parents need to drive inquiry at home?
- Make assessment during virtual learning visible: Parents are going to be really concerned about how much their child is truly learning during this time. They might wonder if learning is effective when it is blended, online, and hybrid. Therefore, it is important to decide how student growth will be assessed during virtual learning. Be clear with parents about the expectations for learning.
- What information should we provide to parents about how children learn?
- What do parents need to know about learning and assessing in a virtual learning environment?
- What evidence of learning will need to be provided by parents for the youngest learners?
- How can teachers use video conferencing to discuss student growth and development?
- Investigate technology needs: It is important for us to understand the technological equipment, such as devices and access to strong internet connectivity in each home. Parents may also be concerned about the amount of screen time that can come with online learning, so be sure to address these expectations, in particular with the youngest learners. It’s worth remembering that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time for 2-5 year olds, broken into sessions of a maximum of 30 minutes.
- How do we provide a balance between synchronous and asynchronous activities?
- What opportunities for learning and tools can we provide to families with limited devices or bandwidth?
The last few months of distance learning have presented challenges for teachers. With transitioning to a new form of instruction, and supporting students and families, many teachers suffered from burnout and were unable to focus on their wellbeing. One of the most important jobs of a school leader right now is to build supporting relationships with teachers so they feel ready for the challenges of this uncertain school year. It is important for us to remember that teachers need to take care of their own emotional needs before they can address those of their students. Whether engaging in synchronous or asynchronous learning, remember that our goal is not to try to recreate face-to-face classrooms but to provide authentic opportunities for student learning.
- Supporting teachers in their homes: Almost every teacher in my professional network has shared that their workload has increased enormously due to remote learning. On one hand, teachers spend a considerable amount of time restructuring their plans to meet the unique needs of virtual learning. On the other hand, they also spend a lot of time looking for and creating structures to provide adequate support to their students and build a classroom community while being physically distant from one another. All this in addition to ensuring the wellbeing of their own families while working from home. As a school leader, it’s important to recognise these stresses and a major focus should be on supporting the well being of teachers as the division between home and work has become blurred.
- What do teachers need to set-up a comfortable workspace at home?
- How do we support teachers in creating a work-life balance and setting clear working hours?
- How do we incorporate adequate breaks for teachers throughout the virtual school day?
- Focus on Communication: Regular communication with teachers is probably going to be one of the most crucial elements of a successful virtual school year. Focus on building relationships. As a school leader, it is our responsibility to find a balance between focusing on your team’s wellbeing while ensuring without being intrusive. It is important to remember that during times of increased stress, even simple questions can be misunderstood.
- How can we coach our teachers, actively listen to their concerns and empower every teacher’s voice?
- How do we create structures to stay connected? How often should we plan virtual meetings to stay connected?
- How do we create spaces for teachers to connect socially and share experiences during virtual learning?
- How do we share and celebrate teacher successes?
- How do we ensure that teachers don’t get overwhelmed by too much information?
- Focus on Professional Learning: Schools this year may look different in different places. Whether in-person, online, flipped, or remote, everyone is in need for new knowledge and ideas. I’m currently leading a 4 week on-demand, in-school online workshop on flipped learning for teachers in Minnesota. This is a bit of a shift for me as up to now I’ve only done in-school workshops face-to-face over a 2 or 3 day time period. However I’ve come to realise that there are a lot of virtual offerings available for teachers who want to upgrade themselves and expand their professional learning networks. Engaging in these networks not only provides teachers with new information, but also provides a platform to share experiences, challenges and build relationships. While planning professional learning for their teams, school leaders can look for offerings based on their focused priorities.
- What support do teachers need in dealing with these difficult times?
- Do we need to focus more on collaboration and building relationships?
- How equipped and comfortable are our teachers while using technology as their primary learning environment?
- What internal professional development bandwidth do we have within our team?
- How do we create space for effective growth with easily accessible resources? Could books and videos be used as an alternative form of professional learning?
Effective Use of Technology
During remote learning, teachers will wear many hats and will be responsible for several things. Some of which might be – collaborating virtually to plan for teaching and learning, conducting video chat and virtual conferences with their students on a regular basis, and communicating with families to share learning plans and progress.
While shortlisting learning platforms, as school leaders you have to keep factors such as security, age-appropriateness, features and pricing in mind. A comprehensive platform such as Toddle can be used to communicate with students and families, share and receive resources and feedback, and initiate synchronous sessions- all from one place. It is also important for schools to identify a place where students and teachers can collaborate, store and share their resources. Through the Toddle Classroom and Toddle Student App, students can complete learning experiences, give and receive personalized feedback and communicate with teachers, family and other students. Identifying one such platform helps students and teachers create structures, routines and a classroom community online.
The school must also create a process around sharing and receiving resources on the platform and ensure that students, parents and teachers are informed about policies and procedures related to virtual learning.
- Do you have one tool that will seamlessly connect students, teachers, and parents to make learning meaningful?
- Do these tools help replicate the classroom environment for virtual learning?
- Are there ways that these tools can help build a sense of community?
- If you are expecting students to use particular tools, do those tools encourage voice, choice, and ownership?
- Are these the most efficient platforms and tools to engage our entire school community?
Eventually Preparing to Return to School after Virtual Learning
As school leaders, we have to plan not only for remote learning but also for eventually returning to schools. Therefore, it is imperative for school leaders to begin preparing a transition plan. As you plan to get back to school, consider that students might have become accustomed to a flexible structure and shorter synchronous and asynchronous classes. No matter how much we try to ensure that teaching and learning continue during virtual learning, we must also prepare for any gaps in learning that might emerge once we are back to brick and mortar schools. Therefore, we have to plan for adequate learning support resources that may be needed to help students close the achievement gap. Similarly, teachers who have engaged in virtual learning for months might be experiencing fatigue and would also require time and support to get accustomed to being physically in school. Consider that teachers will also need time to transition to “regular” school again.
One thing is certain- education as we knew it will not be the same going forwards. As a school leader, your task will be to learn from what went well during virtual learning, and to incorporate the best practices moving forward. The priority has to be both student and teacher success as they transition from “click to brick” or from “brick to click”.