By Ellen Eisenberg

By Ellen Eisenberg, Executive Director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching (TPIIC)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Here we are in mid-October and we only know slightly more now than we knew prior to school opening. We know that we want our students and teachers to be in safe environments, engaged in meaningful work, and supported in every way possible. We don’t know when school will be fully F2F for all students in all buildings as they were in February 2020. So, what does that mean for us here and now?

Well, this is still a new year brimming with energy for new learning, a “rebirth” if you will. Of course, this “rebirth” is not the same as it’s been in the past but there are some things in common: 1) students still need to be engaged; 2) teachers still need ongoing and consistent professional learning opportunities; and 3) technology is the means of communication keeping us connected while we are maintaining our social distancing. We still need to become acquainted with our students, their needs, and learning styles. As coaches, we still need to familiarize ourselves with how teachers learn and what they think about how their students learn. We still need to ensure that our teachers have multiple opportunities to share ideas, “visit” each other in their workspaces, rethink what they are teaching, assess how they are teaching, and reflect on ways to improve teaching and learning. We still need to follow the BDA cycle to support professional learning. That hasn’t changed even though the instructional delivery may have changed.

On the other hand, we need to remind ourselves that we cannot approach the year with the same systems in place, the same personnel providing support for both F2F and virtual classes, the same rules and regulations, or the same plans to move learning forward. We need to reconsider our modus operandi and build on our previous successes in ways that continue to encourage growth, reimagine learning, collect data about how and what our students are learning, address the disparities that distance learning has highlighted, and restore our commitment to teaching and learning regardless of the venue. Students still need to learn and teachers still need to be supported. 

What did you do F2F that you can adapt and implement in a remote environment?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Learning the information, processing the information, and using the information swirl around our heads! So much is available to help teachers navigate distance learning. But, how much is too much and what do teachers do with the information they collect? Do we have systems in place that help teachers make sense of the resources they can access? How do we help them become critical users of the resources and then sustain their learning so that they don’t feel overwhelmed with the plethora of materials and the enormity of their tasks?

I know that questions are the currency of instructional coaching and usually evoke thinking that creates reflection and self-resolution. These questions persistently surface as we continue to navigate the different school settings. Each day brings a new way of thinking and a new set of circumstances. What can we do to streamline the process and create some steadiness for teachers? The "unknowns" continue to plague us but we are getting better at surviving and thriving through them.

First of all, I think “less is more” when it comes to offering technology tools to teachers. Instructional coaches tell me that when they work with teachers to define the lesson’s goals, suggest 2-3 tools that are appropriate to support and extend the learning, and identify how to use the tools, the teachers feel assured that they are enabling their students’ learning in effective ways. They feel confident that they can manage the tasks, replicate the learning, and enable students to use their learning in multiple contexts. The teachers’ understanding of the technology tools is manageable and does not overwhelm them. In fact, the coaches also feel more confident when they bring teachers together via zoom and the teachers share that they feel more in control of their instructional plans and delivery. It’s a win-win situation for all!

What is your "less is more" message?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

I don’t think any educator is surprised at the inequities highlighted through distance learning. The distance learning environment didn’t cause the inequities; the inequities have always been there. Some were “masked” while others were clearly noticeable. In face to face school, the absence of updated resources, technology limitations, and physical plant facilities are the first things one might notice. Too often, those insufficiencies give permission for lower expectations. After all, how can students be expected to achieve high levels of academic success if they don’t have the educational communities to support them? Those imbalances were ignored for the most part; schools “made do” with less so they were expected to “do less.”

But now, with the current environment of either a hybrid schedule or a full remote schedule, student inequities have exploded.

In a recent (August 21, 2020) Learning Forward blog, Melinda George reports that according to a Common Sense Media study, 30% of all public K-12 students have inadequate access to the internet. This is called the “homework gap” affecting more families of color and low-income households. No surprise there… if students do not have access to computers, the internet, or someone at home to help them navigate their remote work, where does that leave them? Far behind! If work must be completed using the technology at home and students don’t have that access, how are they expected to grow like the students who do not have these challenges? They are not expected to grow.

So, what happens? Students are given computers with the hope that they can catch up with their more affluent student counterparts. Unfortunately, this is not by osmosis… instructional coaches are even more necessary than before so they can help the teachers plan lessons, collaborate with their colleagues, and engage in ongoing professional learning so that they raise the bar for every student and every teacher. And, probably the most valuable learning experience is the opportunity to meet regularly with colleagues to talk about effective instructional practices. Be a team! Above all, don’t let the common planning time disappear from the day… take the practices that worked so well face to face and amend them to work in a remote environment.

What’s your plan to meet virtually with your colleagues?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

As we move into our second week of school in some communities, students are going back to school in a combination of venues: F2F, remote, or hybrid. No matter the environment, teachers and parents all over the globe are anxious about how the students and their teachers will reach each other. Many teachers have made videos and posted them to a YouTube channel, Vimeo, maybe a class Facebook page, Hippo Video, Animoto, Flixtime, or on a variety of other online platforms. Teachers know how important it is to engage their students from the onset and parents know how important it is to support the learning in this challenging time.

As you continue to plan (and worry), remember that many things accomplished in a F2F environment can be replicated in the remote world as well. The content must be strong and the delivery targeted. Preparing students for their learning this year really does mean a fresh new start for everyone. Regardless of the content, the cues for engagement must be recognized, reiterated, and practiced by teachers and parents.

For instance, students still need back to school “stuff” either at home or in their schools. They still need books, either in print or online; they still even need pens and pencils; they need a place to organize their work; and they need routines to get started each day. They need to be reminded that although school will be different, the attention to their work is as critical as ever.

The mindset of each student, teacher, and parent is vital to a successful start. Students need a sense of belonging, purpose, and relevance which supports their growth. They need to know that their voices, perspectives, and work are honored, and that authentic learning is the goal. Reach out to your students, call out their names, welcome their thoughts, understand they may be unsure of the anticipations, and provide consistency and high expectations; this year may be different but valued just the same.

What three strategies have you implemented so far this year that are similar to last year but may be delivered differently this year?

Monday, August 17, 2020

What do you think is the indispensable attribute that schools and districts are looking for in teacher candidates? Is it technology skills, experience with distance learning solutions, understanding the standards, or none of the above?? That’s right… according to the top school jobs this week in EdWeek July 28, 2020, the most sought-after quality is not in that list; it’s being empathetic!

Much has been said and written with respect to the social-emotional lens of learning. We’ve all read the articles and journals… sustain the connection not only between teacher and student, but also teacher to teacher and student to student. We have all heard about and most likely experienced the void in remote learning… our students and their teachers missed the day to day contact and real time support with feedback. They missed seeing each other and getting the personalization they craved. Yet, the tools drove the learning, not the conversation around the learning.

In far too many instances, technology became the focus even though student access to technology presented almost insurmountable issues. (Let’s not minimize teacher inexperience as a factor as well). Either the hardware was unavailable, or the connectivity was unavailable. Add to that the potential limitations of home support to use the technology. So, the digital divide widened, and student access continued to be inequitable. Teachers scrambled because their teaching was emergency teaching with stop gap measures rather than measured teaching that followed their plans. Sending learning packets with worksheets became the norm in many places. These were the kinds of things that gained attention. What was missing…the ability to communicate regularly with the school community and the plan to ensure that happened.

The communication between and among school aged children, families, and the school community highlighted the gap and raised issues that needed (and still needs) immediate attention. How that communication was “delivered” became a source of anxiety and shifted the focus for teaching. This August, the communication and start of the year may be different from last August but the concept and the importance of establishing effective relationships has not changed. Students need to feel connected to each other and their teachers. And, teachers need to feel connected to their students and each other as well.

Instructional coaches know first-hand the importance of establishing and sustaining relationships. The virtual learning environment compounds relationship building because when schools start, the teachers will not know their students and will need to establish those relationships differently than in the past. But make no mistake… those relationships must be forged and making a plan to do that is critical for a successful school opening. That will “set the tone” about how students and teachers will work with each other.

So, here are some thoughts to ponder:
  1. Think about the possibility of teachers beginning the new school year with their former students for about 2 weeks to reconnect with students and give them some sense of “normalcy” before they break into their current classrooms;
  2.  Send digital postcards to each new student with your picture and something about the new school year;
  3. Create some type of class FB page or Instagram account so you can connect with individual      classes; post questions and ask students to respond;
  4. Create a classroom newsletter and ask for students to submit some topics for inclusion. Perhaps students can use an online collaboration tool and write short pieces for the newsletter. Maybe a  parent could submit something short to publish as well.
  5. Make beginning of the year phone calls and introduce yourself to the students and their parents. Ask for something to note about each student from the parent’s point of view and from each student, e.g., what’s one thing the student wants you to know about them;
  6. Ask students to create a “badge” or video about themselves and post them using an online tool  like Lino.It; Scrumblr, or Flipgrid (or one of the many others available);
  7. Create a Kahoot game about something they learned last year or some trivia facts;
  8. Start using Seesaw so you can have a portfolio of student work;
  9. Schedule weekly “town meetings” with students to talk about life, not academics;
  10. Schedule one-on-one meetings to personalize your time with each student.
Regardless of where the learning takes place, make sure that personal connection is reinforced with each student and your teaching colleagues.

How will you ensure that empathy is every bit as important as learning content?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

To send or not to send… that is the question… how do we figure out the answer to this highly politicized and polarizing question? What are we sacrificing either way?
The New York Times, July 23 offered these three suggestions:

  • 1    Establish “Pandemic pods” otherwise referred to as “microschools.” This option provides an opportunity for families to hire private teachers, tutors, or “instructors” to teach a group of children in someone’s home or other controlled environment. Of course, this will continue to widen the gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” Again, the racial divide rears its ugly head. One NY University professor suggests that these privileged families invite other children from families who cannot afford to buy this service on their own into their “pod”;
  • 2      Rethink the configuration within a building. Schools will need much more space if the number of students is halved so that social distancing can be followed. More room means the need to “repurpose gyms and cafeterias.” Or, holding classes outside in portable structures where space is not an issue. Think for a moment when classrooms without walls was the trend… we all taught in hallways, lobbies, or in those huge cafeterias along with several other teachers. This time, the placement would need to be deliberate to prevent the transmission of the virus. Of course, these students still leave their classrooms and travel back home where distancing may not be a reality;
  • 3      Design a hybrid model. This hybrid is not necessarily that students have a combination of attending F2F and virtual school. This is where some students stay in their homes and connect virtually while their classmates who do not have that capability would go to buildings/classrooms converted for virtual use so that everyone connects virtually. A variation of this theme is to have all high school students engage in distance learning and the elementary students work F2F in buildings that have been repurposed for elementary use.
Each district’s decision is certainly a unique one. I applaud all school communities that are making these incredibly difficult decisions to offer remote, F2F, and/or the blended approach as we move into the next school year. Certainly, this is new territory for all of us and may clear heads and hearts prevail.

As a coach, what are some of the strategies you will employ to promote ongoing communication and help teachers navigate the new school term?

Friday, July 17, 2020

I’ve said many times that you can’t change a culture in a school through emails, newsletters, or memos. Those are all necessary, however, to keep the communication going but it doesn’t really change anything. I think the same thing is true about providing resources and tools… they don’t really help to make long-term changes in thinking although they may add another small dimension to something that is happening in the classroom.

Culture is changed through conversation and communication. And, conversation is dependent on building relationships that are established through ongoing communication.

Think of your own family… does anything really change in the long term unless you talk about “it” in person? (And many times, the talking about “it” must happen frequently and consistently to make sure whatever you are trying to change gets heard! 😊)

Relationships change culture. But how are those relationships built?

Instructional coaches are incredibly adept at understanding adult learners and their needs. Coaches are trustworthy, respectful, understanding, experienced, deliberate, reflective, and focused on helping teachers reach their full potential and take ownership of their actions. One conversation at a time is how coaching starts and it continues by supporting teachers and keeping the lines of communication open. These conversations, even in the time of COVID-19, are confidential and non-evaluative, encouraging teachers to make data-driven decisions that will make a difference in their students’ learning.

So, instructional coaches, even though you have spent from March until June in the distance learning world and you may start the year in a remote environment again, you’ve learned a tremendous amount about helping teachers meet the needs of their students. Some things will remain the same either in a F2F environment or a remote one. One of those things is to keep that communication going via phone calls, Zoom calls, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, or other modes of remote F2F communication. Do not let the environment make you forget what helps to create a culture… talk, talk, talk!

What is your communication plan as you work with teachers this coming school year?