By Ellen Eisenberg

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

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?


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

In a recent Edutopia issue (June 26), the topic is about mentoring new teachers in a remote environment. The author offers six tips to build teacher capacity, promote teacher agency, and support the classroom focus. I think we all recognize that these three goals are critical in supporting teachers either virtually or in person. Are they really that different in a virtual environment? Haven’t instructional coaches always worked to help teachers grow and take ownership of their own learning? I think these goals are the same; how they are implemented is the difference.

While the six tips are essential for establishing a culture of collective growth, building and sustaining relationships is probably the most important, especially since many of us feel disconnected to our students and to each other during this unprecedented time. It’s a lonely place to find oneself only connected through a digital platform; the loss of control and fear of the unknown fuels the stress levels.

So, here are the six strategies for mentoring (and certainly for instructional coaching) remotely:

  1.   Meet weekly in a live platform; it’s helpful to see each other in real time.
  2.  Continue to plan your meetings consistently; keep your routines.
  3.  Take time to reflect on the year’s action plans; how will they need to change for next year?
  4.  Let videos be your friend…direct instruction videos can be uploaded to UTube and reviewed with the coach. Or, schedule the “during” to visit and view a part of the teacher’s class lesson, especially one where the coach and teacher planned together in the “before.” Feedback through videos can be very helpful.
  5.  Focus on building and sustaining relationships; it is difficult to start coaching virtually if you and the teacher have not established a trusting relationship. One word of caution…contact many but do not expect to establish a relationship virtually that you have not done in person.
  6. Reach out to the teachers you coach and/or mentor to remind them that although you are practicing social distancing in a remote environment, you are there to support teaching and learning wherever they occur.

What tips can you add to this list?


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” says George Bernard Shaw. Can you argue with that? I don’t think so… in fact, I believe that communication will either make you or break you.

And, before the world as we know it changed, we might have been annoyed with the social media blitz that has permeated our microcosm of society – our schools. But now, that social media blitz, Google Meets, Skype, and Zoom, etc., are keeping us all connected to each other.

Before the pandemic, I started writing about the assault of cyber bullying and the sharing of personal pictures for the world to see. Now, I’m grateful for the myriad ways our teachers, instructional coaches, students, and parents have stayed connected ensuring they are kept “in the loop” for all things Covid-19 related.

To say that this coronavirus has changed our current environs is an understatement. It has changed more than our lives… it has changed us for the future. But, that is not all a bad thing. There are unseen benefits, aka silver linings, in every experience and this one is no exception.

In talking with a number of instructional coaches and teachers, we’ve discovered many new learnings have emerged from our virtual world. Here are some of the positives they both mentioned:

1)      More frequent contacts and engagement with instructional coaches

2)      Deeper questions about content

3)      Increased desire to learn more about technology tools

4)      Multiple opportunities to discuss integrating technology into instruction

5)      More time spent in planning for instruction

6)      More time spent in reflecting about instruction

7)      Heightened understanding about student engagement and its importance in student achievement

8)      Extended time for teachers to work with students who need support

9)      Flexibility to plan extension activities to enhance their students’ learning 

10) Ongoing practice using technology

There were, however, a few negatives:

1)     Lack of personal contact and seeing students F2F

2)     Not being able to answer questions in real time unless the session was LIVE

3)     Not being able to “single” out students who needed the extra ‘touch’ of recognition

4)     Learning is social and without F2F contact, students, teachers, and instructional coaches are less social

5)      Absence of synchronous collaborative learning and collegial sharing

Clearly, the positives outweigh the negatives. But my burning questions are, “What have we learned that will help us prepare for the next school year? What am I taking with me as the next year begins?

So, what have you learned about teaching and learning through this pandemic?