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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Does Remote Instructional Leadership Look Like During a Pandemic?

By Peter DeWitt — May 17, 2020 9 min read
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For most educators and students around the globe, this has been the hardest spring of their lives. At first we thought our schools would be closed for a week, which then was extended to a couple of weeks. We now know, that this has turned into closing schools for the rest of the year for most states within the US.

In the U.K. they are looking at a hybrid model of return to school for students, and in Canada, some provinces are not allowing students to return until the fall, while others are bringing back primary students in a hybrid model, as secondary students remain in a full-on remote learning experience. We can also look to countries like Australia, which is cautiously moving forward bringing students back in for the end of term 2.

The bottom line is that the issues we see in our own country are the same issues other countries are experiencing. Can we learn from one another while we explore the concept of reopening?

This pandemic has created a space where most of us, no matter where we are in the world, still find ourselves experiencing the 5 stages of grief. What we know now, is that in many cities, states and provinces, this remote learning experience is not going to end any time soon. It’s time to move toward acceptance, so we can salvage some sort of positive learning experience during this time, and utilize this new learning we have developed to create a better learning space for students.

This is what else we know:

  • Most teachers and students around the world want to get back to an in-person classroom experience.
  • We started off the experience by providing review work to students, and slowly saw fewer and fewer students showing up to their pandemic learning sessions (we know there are at least 6 reasons why).
  • Students want to see the faces of their teachers and peers, and are tired of getting worksheets uploaded to Google classroom (they told us so in a survey).
  • Some students dislike being on Zoom meetings and Google Meet because it makes them uncomfortable to participate in discussions.
  • Teachers are working hard, with tools they are learning to use at the same time, finding ways to engage students.
  • Many principals are creating several master schedules simultaneously because they are not sure what next year will look like.
  • Most principals are still working within their buildings every day, and to them it feels unnatural without teachers and students there.
  • 75% of the over 500 respondents in 9 different countries on a survey said they are becoming more and more confident each day (This Is What Teachers Want Us To Know About Pandemic Learning).

As you can see, just like in an in-person classroom, there isn’t one strategy that works for everyone. As leaders, we need to provide flexibility to students and teachers at the same time we help students understand their responsibility when it comes to learning. Out of survey responses mentioned earlier, many teachers stated they have been focusing on the social-emotional needs of students, because academics have been more of a review. Throughout this pandemic teaching experience we have consistently heard, “Maslow before Bloom” which has been very important. Once again, we find ourselves in a place that we usually struggle with in our brick-and-mortar structures, which is finding a balance between social-emotional and academic learning.

It’s time to say, “Maslow AND Bloom.”

Can We Really Practice Instructional Leadership?
Some leaders are finding it difficult to understand where they fit in. They have not found their niche when it comes to offering academics or social-emotional learning. Many have been focusing on the important management side of leadership, which means balancing their budgets as they look into ways to get students the internet connections they need. It also means creating several potential master schedules for the upcoming school year because they are unclear on what that year may look like from an in-person or remote standpoint. Leaders are also meeting with their district or division leaders, and most importantly, keeping up with the increasing basic needs of students by providing free lunches every day to them.

Given all of these other duties, what might instructional leadership look like? First and foremost, instructional leadership is how those in a leadership position (i.e. building leaders, instructional coaches, department chairs, etc.) focus on learning, and if we want to take our present situation from a pandemic teaching experience to a remote learning one, then it is now time to put our focus on learning.

Parents, teachers and leaders seem worried about the loss to the educational progress of students, at the same time they admit that they just went to “get through” the rest of the school year. Is that really any different from when we are in-person? During a “normal” school year after mandatory state or national testing, don’t most of us struggle with keeping a focus on learning for the rest of the year? The issue with that level of thinking is that we now know that this pandemic learning experience is going to last into the beginning of the new school year. Schools are discussing a full-on remote learning experience in the fall, or some sort of hybrid program.

So, how do leaders begin to change their mindset from pandemic learning to remote learning? It begins with focusing on learning, and how it might look as we move forward. It’s about reflecting with evidence on what has worked so far, and what has not worked at all...and getting rid of what has not worked. It requires us to go through the 6 categories of instructional leadership (DeWitt. 2020), with a remote leadership mindset.

It begins with implementation.

Implementation - Many improvements suffer at the hands of the implementation dip. Even the most needed improvements can fail when there is pushback from parents or teachers. Using a program logic model (PLM) is the first step to lay out what an improvement should look like. The improvement to work on right now with a leadership group is how to go from pandemic teaching to a better remote learning program for the fall, and leaders can hold meetings through Zoom, where they share their screen and work on the PLM together. They can even use breakout rooms so smaller groups of stakeholders can talk out information and come back to the larger group with ideas.

Focus 4 Learning - In surveys of several hundred students from 4 different countries (This Is What Students Want Us to Know About Pandemic Learning), most students responded that they were tired of just doing review or being provided a worksheet through Google Classroom, and we know we are at risk of doing this again to students in the fall. In Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020), I focused on Knowledge Dimensions created by Anderson et al (based on revised Blooms Taxonomy), which are factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognitive. These dimensions can be used to outline what different assignments, and different levels of learning in the same assignment, can look like during a transition from pandemic to remote learning.

Student Engagement - Odetola et al (1972) found that there are two types of alienation that students feel within our schools, which are identification and powerlessness. Identification is defined as “the students’ sense of belonging to his school” (p. 19). Powerlessness is defined as a “student’s feeling of incapacity to affect the direction of his learning” (p. 20). We know that these are two reasons why students do not attend school whether we are remote or in-person. Relationships are key, which we know already, but 75% of students in the survey I mentioned earlier stated that they are never asked what they want to learn or even how to learn new material. Virtual instructional leadership means joining different Google Classrooms and Zoom Live sessions to see what engagement looks like to get a better sense of how to move forward.

Instructional Strategies - We often look at pandemic learning with a barrier in mind. That barrier makes us believe that we cannot possibly use some of those high impact instructional strategies in a remote setting like we can in an in-person scenario. Not true. Take something like reciprocal teaching, which you can read about here in a powerful Fisher and Frey article for Educational Leadership (ASCD). Wouldn’t it be possible to replicate this strategy by using Zoom breakout rooms? At some point, and I realize this may be hard to hear, some leaders may have to do remote teacher observations, so this is the time to begin getting more comfortable with what remote learning looks like.

Efficacy - Bandura found that efficacy is the confidence we believe we have in our own abilities, and we know that that confidence is context-specific. Meaning, some teachers feel very confident to engage in remote teaching and others do not. However, what we know from a recent article by Price, Waterhouse and Cooper is that only 10% of teachers surveyed in 2018 said they felt confident using technology to engage students in deeper level learning.

What a difference 2 years makes!

75% of teachers in the survey stated that they are gaining confidence as they go through this experience. The major contributor in raising our own self-efficacy is going through a challenging activity, and there isn’t a more challenging activity most of us have faced than teaching during a pandemic.

We know that efficacy is not just about teachers. Now is the time for leaders to create more engaging remote faculty/staff meetings, and join live sessions between teachers and students. It also means leaders need to become more comfortable creating short videos to send out to the community in order to build engagement before the new school year comes.

Evidence of Impact - Leaders and their teams need to come together to decide what evidence they can collect to understand what is working well during this experience and what is not. What can teachers continue to do in the fall because it is engaging, and offering deeper learning experiences, for students, and what can they take off the plates of students and teachers. Perhaps that evidence comes in the form of student and teacher surveys, and other times it means teachers have to keep track of what assignments have been handed in the most and inspired the best learning.

In the End
There is no doubt that this is one of the most difficult times we have seen in education. Pandemic teaching and learning is highlighting the inequities that have always been present in education, but more and more people seem to finally be seeing it. What we know is that pandemic teaching will never be as good as being with our students in person. However, what we know is that this experience will last into the fall in most states, and we have to find ways to go from pandemic teaching to remote learning, because if we do not, the learning gaps will widen.

Parent of a K-12 student? Please consider having each child fill out this student survey.

Want to expand on your instructional leadership strategies during the pandemic? Check out Peter’s vlog offering some suggestions of where to focus.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Photo courtesy of iStock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.