“No interaction is too small, and time spent investing in the lives of others is never wasted.”
—Thomas C. Murray, author of Personal & Authentic
We’re at a crux. We still remember how school felt for ourselves, our teachers, parents, and students the last two years. Our hope and optimism are continuing to be challenged by reports coming in regarding learning loss for students as well as yet-again-updated safety guidelines from federal and state authorities. Though we can’t control many of these variables and will have to stay adaptable in the weeks and months ahead, we can adopt a common mindset to help learning find a way for our teacher and students.
We need to make space to acknowledge the advances made during the past year and a half with as much attention as we’ve afforded the setbacks, because there have been advances. We’ve become more humane out of necessity. For example, the last 16+ months have given us a chance to ask what self-care looks like in comparison to the constant sacrifice of our time, energy, and money to do our jobs as educators. Also, as a field, the education world is gaining a better understanding of how online and blended learning works and doesn’t work; what practices to avoid; and what practices to uphold and develop further.
Carrying this knowledge forward, we can stay grounded, especially as we reopen our schools with more mindfulness and intentionality in our leadership philosophy. There’s a universal call for more human-centered policies in our culture that span from local to international levels. In our field, being “human-centered” starts as learner-centered. The best way for education leaders to be learner-centered is to create cultures where teachers (and counselors) are empowered to thrive and are trusted more than ever to take care of our students in this era of our profession loaded with the resolve as well as the funding to actuate change.
As we welcome students back, consider a future-ready mindset of two parts working symbiotically:
1. Reprioritize, Refine, and Reinforce Relationships and People
“Nothing can replace the inimitable power of tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, and authentic concern for others when it comes from a leader. If you consistently show this for your teachers and students, you will slowly and surely make your school a place of great dynamism and power.”
—Mike Kleba & Dr. Ryan O’Hara, authors of Otherful
During the pandemic’s continued effect on our schools, many education professionals lost a level of connection to each other and to the families we serve, and so for the fall semester, let’s restore and build our connections.
To reinforce relationships, simply reminding ourselves and our team—regardless of role as administrators, teachers, parents, and students—to take time to see each other and listen to the stories that have transpired over the summer (or beyond) is something education leaders can model well in the opening weeks back together. There will still be time for completing registrations and student schedules—maybe not as much as we’d like, but there will be enough. Those tasks will seem more purposeful after such interactions with students, parents, and teachers.
Our communities need leadership to keep the focus on the relationships that bring families together with educators in order to move forward in how our schools function and what they provide. We can refine our expectations of roles based on the people occupying them by accounting better for their strengths and weaknesses and promoting reasonable growth, all while setting the stage for our colleagues to thrive at what they do best. Without the relational element, learning objectives and skills don’t persist between teachers and students; best practices don’t get adopted between administrators and teachers; and tensions emerge between teachers and parents.
We may be at an inflection point and experiences or views will vary, but as the new school year gathers steam, the job of those in leadership roles is to focus first on reinforcing connection in our relationships and using that to achieve more authentic student-centered learning experiences at the core of reimagining the way we operate our schools.
As stories about how schools have reoriented their learning experience continue to emerge, with the right touch and optimistic leadership, that energy can be steered toward progress for our children and yield some wonderful results where applicable school by school. This is a moment where we can be heartened by parents leaning in, giving a clearer picture than ever of what transpires between their learners and the teachers who are guiding them.
In communities across the country, superintendents, principals, and other school leaders are going door to door to set an example from an angle of equity. The need to go to such lengths is bolstered by the research that this is an investment in the equity we’re attempting to maintain, especially for low-income families and families of color.
This is where technology can support relationships—not just for remote learning but ongoing even in face-to-face settings—by improving ongoing parent communications, such as virtual parent-teacher check-ins, a chat, a virtual bulletin board where students can share asynchronously, or even using technology for teachers and students to connect with subject-matter experts and mentors in the community and beyond.
Such measures may be part of the new normal, one that reestablishes the bonds that define a community. These relationships are the currency for bringing to the forefront what education leaders have studied for years but haven’t been able to accomplish in terms of more effective teaching and learning models and approaches.
2. Destress the Stressors in Day-to-Day Operations
“With each day that I work with teachers, I am more convinced that it is vital to the future of public education that we make teaching a more sustainable, humane profession.”
—Katy Farber, professional development coordinator, former sixth grade teacher, author,and blogger
During the course of any school year, there are times where tasks seem more insurmountable than others. There’s more tedium around registration and graduation seasons than between. Our expectations of the technology to run our schools’ operations are often thwarted when amending student schedules and auditing transcripts against graduation requirements. There are only so many periods in a bell schedule and only so many seats in our classrooms. The result is more stress for both staff and students. One way we can create less stress is by repurposing both time and spaces in our schools; this applies to both brick-and-mortar and digital learning spaces.
One important factor prioritizing this from the past two school years is an increasing demand for the digital tools that empower learning from anywhere without adding further stress to the role of teachers. Those tools need to be as transparent as possible in their data interoperability so central offices and administrators can stay current and compliant with the state and other stakeholders. Before going to market for new digital tools, raising expectations for what our current technology can accomplish is key. When tools work together as well as our people do, excitement displaces stress. According to Project Unicorn, “Data interoperability is the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications.” The advocacy group’s resource library and community platform contains a multitude of supports to educate practitioners and their technology departments and help a school or district work with their vendors to make the entire edtech stack function optimally for overburdened teachers and school counselors.
Another related way we can deliberately make more time is to devise personalized professional learning that bolsters our ability to use new digital tools better and replace the tools that aren’t keeping up with a school’s modern needs, which will make the most of the training resources and user groups that vendors support. This can cultivate improved practice that takes us from simply digitizing instruction (or transcript auditing) to optimizing and transforming our work as professionals.
Although our students would benefit from more relaxed, confident, and rested teachers, counselors, and principals, there are other factors we can change when it comes to standardized assessment. Consider how high-stakes testing should inform interventions but are seen as summative by the students, causing undue stress and reinforcing test-taking skills over building mastery with learning targets or social and emotional learning competencies.
For our teachers, what does a critique (often in a vacuum) look like after a principal shares notes following a classroom observation of a teacher? Are either of these school system mainstays serving teaching and learning or are teachers and learners serving accountability entities?
When we measure performance, it’s just data without value until we volunteer it. The data tells us what we can do to make excellent decisions to support their growth. Let’s communicate that to those being measured, observed, and evaluated and undercut the factors of stress that is keeping them from thriving.
This is an interesting yet opportune time for our field in many ways. Gaining—and maintaining—perspective is a challenge given the unrelenting demands for solutions and the energy required to make decisions. Let’s not be discouraged by the burden in front of us. It’s lighter than the ones that just made us stronger as professionals serving our communities in the way we do as educators. Instead, let’s reinforce our commitments to each other as people first and as professionals second. May that commitment help us find joy in the journey to reduce the stress at all levels of the school systems we design, manage, and participate in alongside our more precious assets—our learners. Doing so will set the stage for reimagining how to make our schools and learning experiences even more amazing than they already are.
We will be successful because learning finds a way. It always does.
Now It’s Your Turn to Think About Reopening with Intention
Download the reflection sheet and share with your colleagues.
Stay tuned for the third and final post in our reimagining learning blog series. This final blog post will continue to support school and district leaders with best practices for reimagining student learning experiences as we learn from the past and surge into the future.