2020 was a year that will universally be remembered forever. For educators and those alike, it will be remembered as the year that altered education. For close to 400 years, schools have followed a mold. Yes, curriculum has changed, federal and local legislation has changed, the way we discipline and the learning tools we use have changed. There have been a massive number of programs and initiatives, but in terms of being inside a classroom, in front of the teacher, side by side their peers, students have never experienced school in the manner 2020 brought about.
Not only did this demand us to learn technology that many of us had never used or heard of, but it also forced us to do it quickly. Over the course of a few months, and for some immediately, teachers were responsible for taking all the pedagogy and skills they learned from college and professional development in the past and convert it all into a virtual classroom that made students feel motivated, included, and engaged. These were skills that many teachers were still mastering in the face-to-face setting. At that time, with no other choice, we had to pivot.
What We Learned
There are a great deal of challenges that we overcame and lessons we learned in 2020. Using technology as the sole means of teaching and learning was definitely a challenge. Many teachers were earning technology credits each year from professional development. There were some districts that were already one-to-one. Teachers in general were coming into the reality of the importance of technology integration and how to effectively use it in their classrooms.
What was learned here is that teachers and school staff are resilient. We have always known that students were resilient, but our school teams have proven their strength and tenacity as well. They are trained to monitor and adjust, differentiate, build relationships, and multi-task. In response to virtual learning, educators from novice to veteran did what they do when their students do not have supplies, when they need tutoring, when a student needs lunch and does not have money, when a parent requests a late evening conference or for that review packet to be dropped off at their home; they made it happen. They studied and phoned a friend. They played with it until they figured it out. They took courses and practiced. There has been a change in our mode of instruction but not a total lack of instruction. Virtual learning has its barriers and hiccups; but one thing is for sure: teachers have pushed forward and students have still grown.
The importance of collaboration was a huge lesson learned. Educators thrive when collaboration is strong. What happens when the daily physical interaction and regular meetings are no longer an option? 2020 taught educators that we still need that connection and teamwork to be successful. Administrators learned especially how to continue to facilitate these vital meetings and allow teacher agency to remain at the forefront of what we do.
As a leader, we know that the culture of our buildings can make or break the school. It is our responsibility to create and support the culture we desire. I am a huge advocate and carry the torch for positive school culture. It was difficult however, to convert all the things that made up our school culture from face to face to virtual. We learned creative ways to host our meetings and have staff fun nights. We implemented our House System and PBIS model virtually, and still recognized our students for awards. We recognized our teachers with shout outs and still held our Winter Program. I’ve learned that we cannot be stopped. Virtual learning cannot take our thunder or minimize our culture. We cannot allow that. Culture and relationships are our bloodline. I encourage all school leaders to ‘act’ outside the box.
We also learned to only focus on what we can control. Typically administrators are used to being able to control many variables. 2020 taught us that we cannot control all of those things during virtual learning. Put a good faith effort towards the things that mean the most to you and focus on the things that you can control.
Going forward, we are still faced with challenges. It takes time to make in-person learning with COVID regulations and precautions normal. Teachers and staff, vaccinated or not, will still have reservations about their health and safety. Parents will worry about their children – not only the parents of the students, but also the parents of the staff. Technology bandwidth issues may arise and school teams will still need continuous professional development to make concurrent teaching effective. Over time, things will settle in as we navigate through and find our way.
School Leadership: Moving Forward
The first thing we must do as administrators is take care of ourselves. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Find ways to relax and distress. Meditate and teach your staff how to meditate. Self-care right now is key.
Ask your staff about things they’d like to do to help boost morale. When teachers are happy, students are happy. Plan safe and fun events for them that don’t always involve planning and schoolwork.
Employ Student Voice
Host focus groups of your students to ask them how they feel about virtual and hybrid teaching and learning. Use their feedback to implement new strategies that will better engage them. Encourage them to write and video blog about the history they are currently living. These words will be valuable to look back on.
Continue to Build Community
Invite local school and county officials, business owners, and other influential people in your area to come in for the first few minutes of your faculty meetings to thank and encourage your team.
Be consistent and have a positive outlook on learning the next new thing. Read, study, and share with your staff. Be their cheerleader and also show them you are working alongside them.
Act Outside the Box
Be innovative. Don’t be afraid to try something new. After all, we signed up to be trailblazers.