School & District Management

Lessons From the Pandemic That Can Improve Leading and Teaching

By Denisa R. Superville — March 16, 2021 8 min read
Dave Peters, Director of Student Services for Everett Public Schools, outside the district office on March 2, 2021.

Schools will look different when most students return for in-person classes in the fall. And along with mask-wearing and heightened cleaning procedures, teaching and learning are expected to change, too, as teachers and principals incorporate some of the approaches they’ve learned during a year of remote schooling.

School and district leaders in the Everett school district in Washington, one of the first in the nation to shut down when the pandemic hit, share some of the things they hope to see continue as students make the shift back to in-person learning.

Thinking about the students’ user-experience: Before the pandemic there wasn’t enough attention paid to how students were experiencing their lessons. Students were in front of their teachers and teachers could read their expressions to see if they didn’t understand something, or peer over their shoulders to see their work in progress. Teachers also had supporting tools and reminders plastered all over their classroom walls.

The pandemic forced teachers to be more strategic about lesson-planning and think about what can be stripped from lessons, what’s essential, and whether students would be able to follow along if they referred to the lessons in the future.

“People… had to think about how they were structuring their assignments, how they were communicating what students were expected to do,” said Michael Takayoshi, the principal of Cascade High School in Everett.

“That kind of rethinking of their work really helped people think about lesson-design or user-experience,” Takayoshi continued. “‘What can I trim?’, ‘What’s not clear?’ Getting to the core of what you’re asking students to do, and removing the things that may be superfluous.”

Lara Fullner-Grennan, who teaches English/language arts at Gateway Middle School, made a number of changes to in-person lessons to adapt them for the remote environment. She had to consider: Would this make sense to students and their parents? Is it cohesive? Is this engaging?

In the spring, Fullner-Grennan used the online quiz game Gimkit to increase student engagement. Once she started using Gimkit, students started showing up, even if they did not attend other classes.

She expects she’ll keep many of those changes, including using Google Docs to share and organize assignments. (Some students will prefer paper, so she’ll continue to provide that option.)

“I’ll continue to keep a digital platform to organize materials,” Fullner-Grennan said. “I think it’s a nice way to keep all the documents you would normally give students on paper.”

Immediate, more personal feedback: Teachers are used to students submitting assignments, taking time to grade them, and then handing them back a few days later. But remote learning has given teachers new tools to respond to students—often in real time. Fullner-Grennan records video feedback for students and posts in-the-moment comments on shared documents while students are working on assignments.

Those comments are more direct, faster, and personal. Students in her classes also use Quizlet or Padlet, where she can give a quick thumbs-up if they show comprehension of the concept they are discussing.

Some of the online feedback tools are more efficient than taking home a stack of paper at the end of the day and hand-writing feedback to return to students another day, Fullner-Grennan said.

“The grading and feedback have been more efficient for me in the remote learning environment,” she said.

Mark Dersom, a 4th-grade teacher at James Monroe Elementary School, often had an assignment where students would sit in an “author’s chair” and read aloud a piece of original writing, while their peers gave feedback. During the year of remote learning, Dersom’s students recorded their essays on Flipgrid, allowing both Dersom and classmates to comment even though they were not in the same classroom.

“Teachers are going to walk away from this with another [set] of tools in their toolbox to engage kids in new ways,” said Jared Kink, the president of the local teachers’ union. “I think that’s one positive thing.”

More Grade-Band and Content-Area Collaboration: Professional learning communities have always been important avenues for teachers to share ideas and learn from each other. But the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of that collaboration. After the shutdown, Everett mounted districtwide professional learning, but it also held content-area sessions where teachers learned together about instruction in the remote environment, digital tools they hadn’t used before, and best practices for using those tools.

“That was key,” said Dave Peters, the director of student support services and the former principal of the district’s Henry M. Jackson High School.

“They discover things in similar contexts—because the math teacher needs a different type of software or different type of content resources than the English teacher.”

Teachers would then take those lessons to the grade level and collaborate from there, Fullner-Grennan said. Grade-band collaborations were important in helping teachers develop lesson plans, find new tools, and become better at translating lessons meant for in-person classes to online learning.

“Collaboration has strengthened; we’ve needed to rely on each other,” she said.

More Competency and Standards-Based Grading: When schools closed, many districts took the approach of reteaching standards and ensuring that students understood the content rather than introducing new material.

Fullner-Grennan would like to see an approach that prioritizes competency and understanding rather than when the student turned in the assignment.

There should be multiple opportunities for students to show they understand the content and improve, rather than the current system that penalizing them for not demonstrating understanding of the content at an arbitrary deadline, she said.

“I want to make sure that when we are grading students, we are grading them based on their progress in learning and not that they needed extra time to get it done,” Fullner-Grennan said.

Directional arrows provide a guide for students at James Monroe Elementary School in Everett, Washington. On March 1, 2021, the elementary school welcomed its kindergarten through third graders back into the building for hybrid classes.

Make the Most of After-School Hours: The pandemic has shown that schools must do a better job meeting students and families where they are. Many students do not have supervision during the evening hours while their parents are still at work. Schools can restructure that afternoon time, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., with enrichment activities, including homework assistance and SAT and ACT preparation, said Ian B. Saltzman, Everett’s superintendent.

Remote Options for School And Other Activities: The traditional school day is often structured in a way that benefits those who are able to be there in person. If you can’t, you’re often left out. That applies to a host of activities, from students missing out on valuable lessons because they are sick, parents being unable to attend parent-teacher conferences or their children’s activities, and teachers and school leaders unable to take time off to participate in professional development.

Remote learning has shown that most, if not all, of those activities can be expanded to make schools and districts more inclusive. Video recordings or a camera set up in a classroom can stream lessons for a home-bound student. Asynchronous assignments on Canvas or other learning management systems that students can sign onto at their convenience and submit when they are completed, without having to see the teacher in class, will also have staying power, Takayoshi said.

Zoom parent-teacher conferences and streamed activities can help a parent who is working late participate. And online professional development can help time-crunched school leaders and teachers deepen their knowledge without having to miss an entire school day.

“School has traditionally been in a scenario where oftentimes if you are not there to reap the benefits of direct engagement... you are shut out, and that inordinately harms people with jobs at night,” Takayoshi said.

Double-down on Social-Emotional Learning: Many schools and districts were already heading in this direction, but the pandemic has revealed just how crucial it is to check in on students’ emotional and mental well-being.

Everett was one of those districts, but it’s become more intentional about stressing SEL, engaging the Yale RULER social and emotional learning program to train staff.

Principals like Heather Paddock, who leads James Monroe Elementary School, stress the importance of the morning meetings to bond with younger students and focus on building relationships—even though students and teachers are connecting through the screen.

Everett students start class by greeting each other every single day.

“I have kids that show up just so they can do their daily greeting at the beginning of the class—because it’s that social connection, that relationship, that interaction,” Fullner-Grennan said.

Clearer Communication With Parents: Dersom spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it easy for parents to understand his lesson plans and what’s expected of their children. He color-codes e-mails so parents know when assignments are due and where students are in class. Grades are also color-coded so parents can easily figure out how their children are doing—whether they are meeting standards or need help. “I was thinking, ‘How do I make this super-easy for parents?’” Dersom said.

He also adds a positive note about students, for example, something he enjoyed talking to them about that week.

Parents have also seen him in action, and he hopes that by watching him teach over the past year—and sometimes, participating in hands-on lessons—they realize that he’s only part of the equation.

“Parents have been so involved,” Dersom said. “I hope that doesn’t go away.”

Adaptable School Leadership: School leaders have always been required to change course on a moment’s notice, but leading in a crisis, with rapidly-changing information, called for them to sharpen that ability.

While principals are still expected to create plans—as they are wont to do—they’ll have to be ready to pivot on a dime.

“Things change on the fly,” Paddock said. “As a leader you have to be adaptable for anything, regardless. But never before have I had to dig deep for my adaptability and go to Plan D.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Lessons From the Pandemic That Can Improve Leading and Teaching

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