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School & District Management Opinion

17 Actions Administrators Can Take Now to Support Students & Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 12, 2021 15 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What specific actions should superintendents, principals, and other administrators be doing during the 2021-22 school year?

This column is the latest in a series offering suggestions to both teachers and administrators on how to respond to this year’s challenges.

Today, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., Selena A. Carrión, and PJ Caposey provide their responses.

‘Rebuild Educator Agency’

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is a professor in educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High and Middle College. She is a member of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Research Panel. Her published titles include Visible Learning in Literacy, This Is Balanced Literacy, Removing Labels, and Rebound.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is also a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High. Previously, Doug was an early-intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles on teaching and learning as well as books such as The Teacher Clarity Playbook, PLC+, Visible Learning for Literacy, Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading, How Tutoring Works, and most recently, How Learning Works:

First of all, thank you to all of the school site and district administrators who led us through the crises of 2020 and 2021. You didn’t sign up to do this, but your leadership skills made a difference. And you made sure teachers were supported and students were learning. That’s no small feat, and it deserves to be recognized. We know it was taxing—just look at the number of leaders who left the profession at the end of the 2021 school year. But you are still here and ready for the next phase, which we appreciate. As we think about leadership in the 2021-22 school year, some of it will likely be the same. There will be crises to attend to, although we hope not as severe as those of the past year. In addition, there will be opportunities to lead the rebound, as we like to think of it.

For School Site Leaders:

  • Establish routines and procedures. We’re all a bit rusty. Some students have never been in their school building. Others have become accustomed to leaving the learning environment whenever they want to take care of business. Some teachers have not used proximity in a long time. Others overused the “mute” button and will realize they don’t have that option any longer. We don’t mean to be negative, but there are some routines and procedures that will need to be established or re-established. We’re not suggesting that you tell teachers what to do, but rather, recognize that there will need to be some resetting of expectations and establishing of classroom norms. Encourage conversations about this so that teachers can share their ideas. And remember, there needs to be a grace period as we all learn how to learn together again.
  • Rebuild educator agency. Agency is the recognition that our efforts matter; that when we put forth effort, good things happen. Notice which educators are not seeing the value in their efforts. When we don’t see a return on investment and our agency decreases, we put forth less effort and become demoralized. There are ways to build and rebuild agency. First, provide educators with collaboration time. When they have time to tell their stories and talk about their practices, agency can increase. Importantly, this includes administrators, too. Second, provide feedback that is growth-producing. When educators hear the perspective of others, their agency can increase. Third, specifically and intentionally make the connection between educator effort and the impact it has. Take a small-wins approach and directly state the impact, such as, “When you modeled your thinking, I heard several students use academic language with their peers,” or, “The feedback you provided to Jesse resulted in way better understanding and a big increase in effort.” In the past, you may not have needed to make these direct connections, but educator agency was probably not in question.
  • Foreground social and emotional learning. One of the lessons we all learned over the past 15 months is the value of social and emotional learning. We should not leave this aspect of development to chance, relegated to after-school programs or a short lesson after lunch. SEL should be integrated into the lessons that are provided to students, and educator well-being should be a priority. Some teachers report needing permission to teach social and emotional skills, so talk about the value of this type of learning. Other teachers note that they need instructional materials and ideas. Explore options, including free resources, that allow teachers to feel confident in these lessons.

For Superintendents

  • Innovate. Much has been learned in this last school year. The twin pandemics of disease and injustice have exposed gaps that have long been present. But much has been learned about the vital nature of schooling within the fabric of society. The community partnerships that emerged over the last 18 months should be nurtured, not neglected, because there is a return to school. There is a great danger in retreating to what has been done in the past, without using the lessons learned—positive and negative—that hold the promise of rethinking schools. Meet with individuals and groups to learn more about their recommendations. Students, families, community members, certificated and classified personnel, central-office and site leaders—they all have stories to tell. Listen closely for their successes, their setbacks, and their hopes for the future. Use these to construct a vision for schooling going forward.
  • Invest in the collective efficacy of leaders. Rethinking schooling requires collective effort, not just your own singular effort. Your investment in the collective efficacy of leaders will reap rewards as you innovate. It’s also an investment in their agency as educators. Now more than ever, central-office and site leaders need regular opportunities to collaborate with one another. Reconceive communication pathways by ensuring that interdisciplinary groups regularly meet to solve problems utilizing the collective knowledge of leaders. For instance, leverage human and social capital in your district by convening initiative-driven groups. As an example, a new technology initiative is likely to be more successful when personnel from the business office, pupil services, and site leaders have regular opportunities to meet with instructional technology staff to design, deploy, and monitor. The payoff is twofold. First, interdisciplinary groups like this are better equipped to anticipate and head off potential pitfalls. The second benefit is for the long term: the collective efficacy of leaders. It’s an investment in their belief that the organization has the wherewithal to positively impact student learning. It’s not just rah-rah thinking. They possess the evidence that their collective actions result in material changes.
  • Locate equity at the center of all your work. Dismantling institutional and structural barriers that limit the aspirations of some students requires a comprehensive approach. A district that possesses an access- and outcome-oriented stance, a concept forwarded by Chu’s 2019 examination of state equity plans, has a dual emphasis on increasing opportunity through the identification and removal of barriers to increase opportunities. In addition, it monitors the progress of identified student groups and responds to academic and nonacademic indicators. In this way, the district is internally accountable to itself for delivering student results and consequentially accountable to itself for actions impede results. Every initiative (programmatic, technological, fiscal) needs to explicitly contribute to more equitable district policies and practices. Challenge leaders to explain exactly how a particular proposed effort is aligned with and contributes to the advancement of equitable schooling, both in terms of access and outcomes.
locateequity

‘Reimagine Schooling’

Selena A. Carrión (@SelenaCarrion) is an experienced ELA teacher and library media specialist working in the Bronx. Her work is grounded in historically responsive literacy instruction, anti-racist teaching, the mobilization of parents of color, and the equitable transformation of our schools:

Now, while it seems like an arduous undertaking, we are in an unprecedented situation in history. School leaders and officials have the opportunity to seize this moment to blaze a way forward that actually creates a state of equity in education and benefits every single child in our public school system. Because when we fight for the educational justice of our most oppressed and marginalized students, we make education better for everyone else.

We can start by implementing equity-centered SEL in schools. All students have suffered trauma as a result of the pandemic. Marginalized students have suffered more so because of the trauma faced in and out of school from systemic inequities. Bringing students back into buildings to deal with compliance-based SEL, authoritative classroom management, or punitive disciplinary programs is irresponsible. Instead, schools need to adopt models that center healing and nurturing, giving students the space and tools to thrive.

Alongside equity-centered SEL, schools need a robust trauma-informed lens to instruction and relationship building with the appropriate mental-health staff to support. Students are returning to school with new anxiety and depression, some have lost family members to COVID-19, and many are just dealing with living through a time of tremendous chaos and loss. Teachers cannot do the work alone, nor should they have to.

This means providing our schools with the mental-health support staff long needed. In large school systems like New York City’s, some schools are in dire need of staff. In the past 20 years, we have seen the rates of mental-health diagnoses continue to climb , with 1 in 5 children currently dealing with ADHD, anxiety, or depression. And this was all prior to the pandemic. Our students deserve mental-health support and personalized care in order to succeed. They’re suffering and will continue to do so unless we reprioritize mental health.

Further, schools need to embrace neurodiversity. Some students thrived in remote learning and others lacked support. Yet, this diverse experience in pandemic learning demonstrates that not all students were learning in environments that were best-suited to their needs or were being diagnosed properly to make sure they received the needed support. Schools need to rethink the needs of students for more varied learning models. Then make sure that students have access to those experiences and an equitable screening process.

Project-based learning and outdoor education have become more popular throughout the pandemic because of the flexibility they have given students and teachers. Yet, what these learning models have shown is that many students perform better academically when they learn through hands-on experiences that develop inquiry, critical thinking, and nurture a child’s innate curiosity. Schools can continue to strengthen these instructional approaches to tap into individualized needs of students.

We continue to meet the needs of all students when schools use a culturally responsive curriculum. Schools need to reckon with how they have ignored the needs, history, and culture of marginalized groups. They need an asset-based instructional approach and curriculum to help us understand students’ genius, not view them as data on assessments. Instead of using precious instructional time for testing, remediation, and tutoring, let’s spend it instructing students using an evidence-based approach that meets their needs and supports their identities.

To make sure students have not only the individualized academic support they deserve but the intimate and nurturing relationships with teachers that foster such success, we need smaller class sizes. We saw small class sizes during the past year in many schools because of COVID-19 safety regulations. Let’s continue to allocate more space for classrooms and support overpopulated schools by building infrastructure to have a significant impact on student learning for all.

By thinking more deeply about each of these measures, we can begin to reimagine schooling. We need to have the audacity to be bold because our students need us now more than ever. Normal wasn’t working, not just for marginalized communities, but for most. Students do not need to catch up to systems and practices that have long been dysfunctional. We need to use this moment in history to set the stage for a new evolution in schools. One that has been long overdue.

wecanstartselena

‘Create a Compelling Vision’

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of eight books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

So, without knowing how others are going to respond to this prompt, I am fairly sure that I am going to zig a little bit while others zag. Without any condescension in the tone, I say leaders should lead next year. It goes without saying that the 2020-21 school year was incredibly difficult and trying for all involved. Teachers left the profession in droves, faced immense pressure and scrutiny, and we are faced with the academic uncertainty that 15 months of anything but normal will bring.

But . . . leadership is leadership.

Leadership has always been about two key elements in my mind. First, we have to grow the capacity in the humans we serve. Second, we have to be able to help people imagine a different and better tomorrow for their classrooms and our schools. This is still the charge.

Should we pay attention to our teacher burnout rate? Yes. But, when shouldn’t we have been paying attention to it?

Does student data need to be acutely examined to figure out the real impact of the Pandemic? Yes. But, when did student data NOT deserve to be closely analyzed?

Can the pandemic serve as a great catalyst for change or (just as likely) a reason to hunker down and preserve the status quo? Yes. But, so have countless other contextual events in schools throughout the country for years.

Thus, the actions are simple—but, not easy. And I sincerely believe the to-do list provided below will be just as applicable in 2027 as it is today and would have been just as applicable 10 years ago.

  • Love your people.

    • You cannot fake this. Your staff knows if you care and have their backs or not. This is a test of character and culture, not just fun events held every once in a while. Loving your people also means listening and knowing where they are mentally and emotionally at all times.
  • Create a compelling vision.

    • You, as an administrator, should (at all times) be able to give a 45-second stump speech on the state of the school and another 45 seconds on the exciting future you see for your school. If you can do that—amazing. But the true test is whether or not the people you serve could articulate your vision for their school to others. When that happens, we have a great chance at success.
  • Support your people on the way to the vision.

    • High expectations are necessary but are fruitless without great support. Your teachers need true emotional and professional support at ALL times, but especially now. This is your time to either help propel your people forward or serve as an anchor and stop all progress.
  • Ensure results matter—always.

    • If results do not matter, those that work hard to produce them will grow weary of the massive responsibility you are asking them to undertake. Results matter. They must influence behavior and decisions—both positively and negatively. In a culture where results matter, small victories are celebrated widely in public, while setbacks are discussed quietly in private. Accountability is not about public displays. Accountability is designed to change behaviors we no longer want to see. Celebrations are designed to positively reinforce the behaviors we would like to see more. Make sure results matter.

Next year is going to be insanely difficult. But, let’s not forget what got us here. The path to successful leadership HAS NOT and WILL NOT change.

highexpectationspj

Thanks to Nancy, Doug, Selena, and PJ for contributing their reflections.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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