Due to the coronavirus pandemic, children around the world have had their lives change overnight. As adults, we are working tirelessly to catch up. Teachers are now contending with how to look after the kids in their own households while ensuring that their students still receive an exemplary education and feel a sense of community. District and school administrators have found themselves needing to run the many aspects that make up a school, including budget, food distribution, technology distribution, and learning expectations—all from their homes. Families are now figuring out how to keep their jobs, while managing the daily aspects of their child’s education. All the while, many of us are worried about the health and safety of our loved ones and how the future will unfold. This is a lot to bear.
Research shows that students learn best when they feel a strong sense of belonging. Right now, students’ overall sense of belonging is off-kilter. School, the place where they went each day, and likely one of the primary places where they felt safe, is no longer available to them. Never has it been more clear how deeply intertwined a student’s home and school lives are. As leaders in a school or district, it’s our job to ensure that we are providing adequate support for teachers and families as we transition to remote learning. This is a time to come together and focus on how we can best support young people.
LitLife, an international literacy consulting firm, has worked with hundreds of schools around the country and internationally. Now, we’ve watched as schools and districts everywhere begin remote learning. In the past few weeks, I’ve observed successful districts as they consider the possibility that this new paradigm may last longer than initially anticipated. These districts have a longer-term plan in place and are taking into account the very real social-emotional effects of this pandemic on their students.
In order to support students during this challenging time, it can be helpful to narrow your focus on one tenet of instructional delivery each week, rather than overloading the system with too many mandates and directives. By focusing on one umbrella concept, while monitoring one or two data points during a two-week period, you’ll be able to ensure that all stakeholders build a sense of stability around the basics, and feel secure in taking on this new challenge.
Below are six key focus points, shared with me by teachers, families, and school administrators, that they’ve found work well to successfully establish a routine for remote teaching and learning. While schools may be in a wide range of implementation stages for distance learning, my hope is that these takeaways will be valuable as they continue to support students and engage with families remotely, now and in the months ahead.
Weeks 1 and 2: Focus on Meaningful Connection
The first two weeks of remote learning should be taught as though they are the first two weeks in a brand-new school. We all need to get to know each other in this new space and ensure that all students regain a sense of belonging. Building connection should be the first focus.
Teacher goals: Give the right support and clear guidelines
- Develop student connection
Teachers overwhelmingly reported a need for time to build community within their new virtual classrooms. They need to spend this time gathering information on where, how, and when their students will be connecting with them. During these two weeks, ensure that teachers are ready to be up and running with one main feature, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, and one supplemental feature such as Padlet, Nearpod, or Seesaw.
- Tiered support
In order for teachers to be able to properly support all of their students during this time, they need time to get used to the technology they’ll be using. To do this successfully, teachers must be allowed to self-select what professional development they need. Because of their unfamiliarity with the software, some teachers may need an introduction to remote learning with topics such as what buttons to click when, how to invite students to join them in the virtual classroom, etc. You should provide a range of coaching opportunities and allow teachers to decide what level they are on and what additional support they need to be successful with their students. It’s also important to make sure they feel comfortable asking for support no matter where they are with their remote learning capabilities because this is new territory for us all.
Family goals: Student attendance and access to technology
- Set expectations for attendance
Most importantly, ensure that you know where students are, what they need, and how they will be reporting to school. Will students be required to sign in and complete assignments daily? Or will assignments be due at the end of each week? Be clear that this is the beginning, and there will be time for experimentation with feedback in the coming weeks.
- Ensure all families have access to technology
During this time, poll families to see what technology or learning materials they’re using for their children and help them get what they need. This may mean seeking donations from outside companies to get iPads and laptops for students, as is happening in NYC, or allowing the school busses that are currently not carrying students to serve as WiFi hubs, as is happening in South Carolina. This is also a good time to gather information on how many families will be sharing a single device, and informing teachers on ways you can stagger lessons and ensure that all of their kids get the access they need, when they need it.
By focusing on giving teachers and families all of the tools they need to succeed, you are setting a strong foundation to ensure that everyone is prepared and supported to begin meaningful learning in the coming weeks.
Weeks 3 and 4: Focus on Experiential Learning
By now, most schools report having their technology sorted out, and teachers are beginning to feel comfortable within their new systems. Teachers and students are getting creative with their lessons and work, and families are beginning to solidify routines. Now is the time to begin experiential learning, as the district administrators seek to better understand the work that’s happening in each classroom.
Teacher goals: Flexibility within structure and key reporting metrics
- Key reporting
By giving teachers just one or two things to report on, you ensure that you’re getting the timely information you need while allowing for the necessary flexibility, as everyone works to adjust to this new classroom environment. These reporting metrics should come from your district’s initiatives that were put in place before remote learning began. For example, one school I work with spent the year focusing on small group instruction. Now, with remote teaching, the principal is asking for data on how many small groups teachers are pulling together weekly. The key metrics that were in place before remote teaching should remain the key metrics now.
- Work with partners to further key data points
Make it clear for all partners providing professional development, technology, or other services to your school which goals are “must-haves.” This way, teachers continue their learning and have room to make their own classroom decisions, while continuing the instructional priorities of the school or district.
Family goal: Family feedback on instruction
- Feedback with next steps
By this time, families have developed a sense of what works and what doesn’t for their children. Now more than ever, families have unique insight into what students are learning and doing in school as they see it happening in front of them. Let’s use this time to hear from them what’s working and not working for their children. We can ask questions about:
- Timing: What time is your student learning best?
- Method: Does your child prefer pre-recorded content or live?
- What is working within this new system?
- What would you change?
Weeks 5 and 6: Assessment and Moving Forward
After four weeks of methodically getting remote learning up and running, most school and district leaders report that they are newly able to refocus on assessment and learning. By spending four weeks monitoring family, teacher, and student satisfaction with schedules, technology, and methods for learning, leaders are able to use this foundation to begin planning for longer-term learning targets.
Teacher goal: Put together assessment expectations
- Assessing instruction with key metrics
Many schools have allowed teachers to self-report what markers they’ll use to monitor student learning. Right now, as a school leader, it’s important to give guidance around what will constitute learning for your school or district in this time. By making the expected assessment metrics clear, teachers can then get creative and use different technologies and methodologies to ensure students are learning.
Family goal: Begin regular instructional communication
- Weekly instruction at-a-glance
By now, most families have gotten into a rhythm with home learning. Now is a time for teachers to begin regular communication with families, letting them know what to look out for in their children’s learning that week. What are the objectives you’ll be seeking to teach and how can families support that? Some schools have used this time to set up a “virtual help desk” to allow families to call in with instructional questions.
This is perhaps the only time in the history of education that the lines between home and school, and between families and teachers, have been so blurred. Let’s use this to our advantage to come together to ensure all of our kids are supported in learning. From our living rooms, kitchen tables, cozy corners, and basement offices, let’s work together to provide students with the world-class education that comes when all the caring adults in their lives are rowing in the same direction.