As a 25 year veteran in education leadership, I can't remember when hiring has never not been a thing. Every year brings sometimes significant turnover in teaching staff, and leaders come and go as superintendencies shift. But as is true in so many other domains, this year is markedly different. In January 2021, school leaders across the country were hopeful that the pandemic would have been entirely behind us. And by July 2021 with the rates of people contracting COVID-19, the new Delta and Lambda variants, the reality is that COVID is most certainly not behind us. With the increased responsibilities for educators brought on by the pandemic and health concerns, there has been a rise in retirements, resignations and vacancy postings. And as is also so often the case in education, the classrooms and schools that are impacted the most are those that are historically highest in need, serving our most vulnerable student populations.
Two common misconceptions about personalized learning are that it requires technology and that it must involve significantly more independent work. We know instinctively that a room full of students working silently on computers is not necessarily personalized, even though there are powerful digital tools and programs that can make personalized learning simpler. And yet, an adaptive program still requires a teacher to facilitate learning that empowers students and builds their ownership of learning.
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Every first day of school is a new opportunity for a fresh start. As the first day of the 2021-2022 school year approached, teachers across the country were grappling with the question: How do I start fresh when faced with so much uncertainty?
In 2014, Education Elements promoted the notion of "Integrated Digital Content" as a core component of blended learning. In 2017 we changed this term to “Flexible Content and Tools,” recognizing that both online and offline content have an important role to play when personalizing learning. This change also represented a shift from blended learning, which focuses on the integration of technology into the classroom, to personalized learning, which is an instructional approach that empowers students to build ownership of their learning, making sure they get the instruction they need, when they need it. This year, we are taking things one step further by introducing “Flexible Path and Pace.”
Reflection and goal-setting is the simplest way to begin personalizing learning because it mirrors a practice we engage in every day of our lives. Sometimes this shows up in small ways, like aiming to show gratitude more often, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or reading more. Technology is playing a larger role in this practice, especially as it applies to our health. This can be as simple as checking your steps on a smartwatch to signing-up for an exercise and diet app. We reflect and set-goals at church, in a therapy session, at the gym, when we go shopping, or around the dinner table. It is one primary format in which we aim to improve ourselves. And it’s one reason why reflection and goal-setting is often the first step educators take to personalize learning.
With an influx of ESSER funds, many districts are choosing to invest in instructional coach positions. That’s not just a recent trend. From 2000 to 2015, the number of coaches in school districts doubled. It makes sense - multiple research studies point to strong evidence for increased quality of instruction and improvements in student achievement as a result of instructional coaching. In fact, a meta-analysis of 60 randomized controlled trials that looked at students’ standardized tests scores and teacher instructional practices found that coaching had a greater impact than most school-based interventions (e.g., pre-service training, student incentives, merit-based pay, generic professional development, data-driven instruction, and extended learning time).
Across the country teachers are welcoming students into their virtual and in-person classrooms, as schools are welcoming new teachers to their teams. These teachers - new to the profession, early career and veterans - are starting at schools while conditions remain unprecedented and unpredictable. Despite this reality, school and district leaders are tasked with onboarding their staff such that school, and learning can continue for as many students as possible.
Your favorite apps that seem to make managing life easier, social media sites that connect you to stories that resonate, shopping at your favorite store, your go-to streaming service when you need to de-stress - sometimes it feels like these things were built in a way that just ‘gets you.’ This didn’t happen by accident; this happened by design.
It’s that time of year again - we’re shopping for school supplies, teachers are returning to their classrooms, and students (as well as their parents) are eagerly awaiting the news as to who their teachers will be. As a parent of two school-aged boys, it’s also the time of year our family starts making predictions about the year ahead. “I think Miles will do so much better in reading this year.” “Taylor is probably going to get in trouble a lot, but maybe he’ll also test into the gifted program.” It’s an innocent practice in anticipating the successes and struggles we’ll experience in the year ahead, but without knowing it, we’re also shaping how we will perceive these experiences as the year unfolds.
Early in my career, when I was a middle school science teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, I didn’t think that the ritual of shaking my students’ hands, fist bumping, or hugging my students as they entered our classroom meant anything. But now, I realize it’s the opposite. The repetitive habit of checking in with your team means everything. It’s a signal that your team is paying attention to the whole being of others, focusing on the little things, caring about the unity of the team, and so much more.
There’s a line from You’ve Got Mail (yes, I’ve seen it hundreds of times) where Tom Hanks says, “Don’t you just love New York in the Fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” If you’re an educator, September makes you think of new backpacks, colorful pens, clean lunch boxes. If you’re an instructional coach, principal, or most central office staff members, July and August probably make you think of Back to School Professional Development and New Teacher Training. A little less sparkly than Lisa Frank, but alas, here we are.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 districts found that nearly two-thirds of districts are reporting teacher shortages heading into the 2021-2022 school year. To plug or refill leaks in this draining teacher pool, districts are increasingly leveraging stimulus funding to enact short-term solutions such as incentives and signing bonuses. But the foundational cracks in the teacher pool and pipeline are deep, widespread and found at every phase of the teacher lifecycle. We need to reassess and reimagine the way we engage and support teachers at every stage of this journey, and we can start by looking at the candidate profiles that drive our recruitment, hiring and onboarding.
In my 22 years in the K-12 education profession, I have worked for, and led organizations that run the gamut - from those that are very process and compliance driven, to those that multiply and engage creativity. And yet, after experiencing, what some consider the ultimate freedom of being my own boss, I am excitedly joining the Education Elements team.
Everyone's first year at a new school comes with growing pains -- no matter if it’s their first role as a new Principal, or their 25th year opening a new, or newly redesigned school. One approach is particularly useful at helping to alleviate the growing pains - a “secret sauce” of sorts.
With summer break already in progress for most school districts, leaders can finally plan a week or two to step away from the daily grind and have a chance just to be. But if you are like me, this is not as easy as it sounds. When most of our time is dictated by a calendar of events, meetings, to-do’s, and small pockets of time to focus on family and friends, genuinely unplugging can be challenging.
There isn’t a lot of convincing you need to do to get these two former English teachers talking about the power of stories. Whether it was unpacking The Danger of a Single Story, weaving together narratives into a photo essay about the Children’s Crusade, or crafting original 6 word memoirs, our classrooms were built around stories. Stories are a powerful tool to connect, teach, and inspire. Organizations are full of complexities and oftentimes making sense of that complexity is daunting. Our classrooms are full of stories, but often we don’t have opportunities beyond quick anecdotes in passing to share them with our colleagues.
I was recently struck by a piece by Elena Aguilar, the “coach’s coach,” about acting in one’s sphere of influence to create change. She writes that when looking at making change in the world, the best place to start is within one’s sphere of influence. In other words, systemic change is not just a collective responsibility, it’s also an individual responsibility.
Across school systems and around the globe, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on students. Some have thrived in online learning environments, while others have suffered from low-quality or interrupted learning — often with disastrous results. As the economy begins to rebound and educators work toward creating a new post-pandemic normal, these disparities in learning are likely to become amplified, resulting in a K-shaped recovery with a widening gap between those who are succeeding and those who are struggling, according to a new report “K-Shaped Education Recovery” by ISTE and Education Elements.
There’s a bridge in Choluteca, Honduras. It spans nearly 500 meters long, but it isn’t well known for its size or even because it is one of the only replicas of the Golden Gate bridge still in existence. Nor is it known for its importance in connecting traffic in Central America. Rather, the new Choluteca Bridge became famous as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
One of the best things about living your professional life in education is the assumption implicit in the field that everyone has something valuable to contribute, and there is always an opportunity to level up. Over the past year, we have seen this belief confirmed in classrooms, virtual classrooms, schools, and districts all over the country as teachers, counselors, campus administrators, and district leaders have taken on challenges and shifted the way school happens with no notice, little training, and endlessly changing demands and limitations.
More than a year ago, I - like many others - was hunkering down for what I thought would be a two-week quarantine. Thirteen months later, I have found myself adapting to my circumstances. I have created a comfortable work-from-home space, embraced many home DIY projects. I’ve started a herb garden, purchased a inflatable baby pool (I don’t have a baby) and I have had enough time to get in and out of shape...multiple times. I have learned a whole lot about things I never questioned before “the great pause.” For instance, my perception of time is completely arbitrary: some days seem never-ending while in others, 24 hours do not feel like enough. I’ve also rediscovered the magic of a full-night’s sleep and what a blessing and privilege it is to have my health. There are some things I plan to forever eliminate from my life (I’m looking at you, non-stretchy jeans) and some things I hope to incorporate in the next phase of life (hello, neighborhood walks). I am also seeing many district partners grapple with the tensions of identifying what we want to take with us and leave behind in our next phase.
About a year ago, we dealt with one of the largest supply shortages we've faced as a modern country. While toilet paper was certainly in high demand, it was actually active dry yeast that had people scrambling. New and aspiring bakers that found themselves with additional time at home were inspired to learn a new skill: how to make homemade bread amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic.
We have been reading, discussing, and reflecting quite a bit on the topic of leadership recently, and one of the products of this deep dive is a video series all about what leaders have learned this year. In his interview, Dr. Patrick Ward from Mayfield City Schools in Ohio mused on the fact that school leaders are trained to manage acute crises, but for the past year they have been managing a chronic crisis, with several acute crises emerging as the chronic crisis continued. We’ve been thinking about the phrase “chronic crisis” and drawing from some inspiring resources to consider the best way to rally your community through it. With the end of the school year in sight, now is the time to re-energize your teams so you can finish strong. To do that, you need to address three interrelated dimensions: Emotions, Mindsets, and Behaviors.
This school year made clear the need to redesign our existing systems to ensure that meaningful learning can continue even when our brick and mortar school buildings close. Most schools and districts had only days to prepare to close school buildings and move learning to students’ homes. Fast forward 12 months and remote learning has had time to grow from an emergency measure to a format of learning that invites growth and innovation in new ways. So how can you ensure that meaningful learning can happen anywhere?
Our team has spent months discussing the best term to use to describe the challenge education currently faces. We brought it up in team meetings, shared it with district partners, and sought out recent publications on the subject. We came together around five beliefs that helped us choose the term “schooling loss”:
There are 88 million opportunities in the human genome for trait variations to make us unique, but when it comes to what we seek in the workplace, neuroscience suggests most humans crave the same three things – safety, belonging, and a sense of mattering. This is hardly news; Abraham Maslow wrote about these same needs in his 1943 paper on human motivation, and a quick scan of nearly any company’s Glassdoor reviews will highlight these variables. The past year challenged the way nearly every organization approached these needs. Lack of personal connection, the inability to ‘disconnect’ from work, and whose health and safety are prioritized rank among a laundry list of complaints with today’s employee experience. And when it comes to the field of education, the pandemic doubled down on pre-existing conditions within the teacher experience.
Like many this past year, I suffered the effects of deprivation from proximity – that is to say, I miss humans. It was this dearth of face-to-face interaction that led me, quite fortuitously, to reach out to Brittany Barnett, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Girls Embracing Mothers [GEM] to seek out volunteering opportunities. Renowned criminal justice advocate, decorated corporate lawyer, and best-selling author, Brittany is a force of nature. After experiencing the incarceration of her mother, Brittany says, “I found this heightened sense of compassion and empathy in me that I never knew toward a group of people we were often taught to stereotype and ignore – people in prison. Her incarceration impacted me deeply.” She was inspired to start the GEM program as a means of connecting girls with their incarcerated mothers through facilitated monthly visits and ongoing systems of support like character cultivation workshops and events. With the COVID shutdown and cessation of prison visits, Brittany and her team have responded by pivoting to a monthly virtual curriculum where the girls are able to connect with one another, process their experience around maternal incarceration, and gain the tools necessary to lead successful and empowered lives. Much like we at Education Elements help decision-makers in the K-12 sphere reimagine systems of education, Brittany seeks to reimagine systems of justice and, through a multi-pronged approach, to specifically address the following question: “How do we work to really empower girls, especially girls from multi-marginalized communities to embrace their voice, amplify their voice and empower them to soar?”
I’m writing this blog during a 17-hour road trip that was supposed to be a 2-hour flight. My husband and I wanted to take our two boys skiing for spring break and have spent the last several months meticulously planning the perfect trip. I booked all of the fun activities, and he dusted off our equipment and bargain shopped for winter clothing. We found the perfect, non-stop flight that would minimize the frustrations of traveling with two young kids. And then mother nature brought the 4th largest snowstorm on record to Denver, Colorado. Thousands of flights were canceled, including ours. Lucky for us, my husband’s superpower is that he can quickly pivot to accommodate change. Without hesitation, he loaded our already packed suitcases into the car, strapped the skis to the roof, and here we are, well on our way to the vacation we hoped for.
Leading change, whether systemic or individual, requires strong habits. Last month I had the opportunity to chat with Greg Carlson, Founder of Leading Well, about how to create purposeful habits, and how strong habits can help one move from reactive and ad-hoc motions to strategic and lasting practices. From our conversation came three essential practices which together create a framework for lasting change – whether working to improve the physical and mental wellness of a single educator, or to create a thriving culture in your school system. At Education Elements and Leading Well, we believe that through alignment to purpose, consistency, and continuous improvement we can continually strive to realize our goals. What follows is a synopsis of our reflections on leading change through purposeful habits.
For most of us, summer school was a punishment for not passing a class. Sure, plenty of teachers (including myself) framed it as a second opportunity or a chance for more individual support. But at the end of the day, the hours spent in summer school are hours not spent working, looking after siblings, or just socializing. Especially in secondary grades, the primary – if not exclusive – purpose of summer school is credit recovery. Amidst increasing calls not to fail students during a pandemic, an opportunity arises: what could the purpose of summer school be if it wasn’t about credit recovery? This question becomes even more salient as educators consider how to address the time students have lost with teachers and classmates because of COVID closures and challenges with distance learning.
Time is weird right now. Hours can feel like months, weeks can feel like days, and a year into a global pandemic feels both like an eon and a few seconds at the same time. Regardless of how we perceive time or how much time has actually elapsed since school days shifted from 3D to 2D learning, we know that our students have coped with this complex time in a myriad of ways. Some have thrived, others have been barely keeping it together. Still others we might have lost touch with altogether. And that variety and variability of student experiences since March 2020 make it challenging to imagine how to teach when the next normal begins. The question we must ask ourselves becomes: when we open our school doors to all students again, will we revert back to standard operating procedures? Or will we take this seismic shakeup in the status quo to shift our practice to something more responsive, more equitable, and more student-centered? Let’s opt for the latter.
What’s the first word that pops into your head when you hear “strategic planning”? What word did you think of? Common responses we hear are boring, painful, old-school, far-off, or even just a simple, “ugh.”
Knowledge is Power! Measure what Matters! If our cliches are an indicator, we all know that data collection, review, analysis, and understanding is important. We all hear of data-driven decisions, and the importance of data in education and educational systems, but we are often challenged to incorporate data review and the next steps into our everyday lives. As we’ve been exploring the Essential Elements of a Data Culture, we’ve been considering how an organizational culture can shift from a culture in which data is in the periphery, pulled to the center for high stakes discussions and decisions, to one in which data is an integral part of every day, informing the small moves that reinforce the vision, clarify decisions, and advance progress. This is where our love of habits comes in…
To support the planning of opening a virtual school, leaders can be overwhelmed with the volume of questions to consider — logistics, strategy, and purpose to name a few. To guide the planning process, we offer the following table with phases of implementation with related questions. While the guide is set up sequentially, each phase may trigger a deeper articulation of previous phases to refine or reimagine the virtual school.
A few Fridays ago I got a message from my colleague Kelly. She asked what I wanted for lunch, said she would order it, and that we would eat together during our Zoom meeting later that day (where we would begin to reimagine what summer school could look like). This simple and thoughtful act changed my mood in the moment and for the rest of that day.
In September of 2020, Education Elements announced the first cohort of the “Systems for Education Equity Development," or SEED, Fellowship. The fellowship is an exclusive, multi-month, cohort experience for educational leaders to redesign a system within their school district that is contributing to creating inequity in the student experience. The inaugural SEED Fellowship cohort is a powerful group of educators made of leaders across 7 states including the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. Individually they are amazing, and together and through the SEED experience, the fellows will have an additional set of tools as well as a network of support to address their local, systemic challenges around equity.
For more than a century, standardized testing data have been used to measure the success of students, teachers, and schools - and even to mark our global competitiveness or lack thereof. These data have driven significant education policy and funding models at the national and state levels, and school districts devote up to 15 percent of their instructional days each school year to student assessments alone, costing an estimated $1.7 billion each year. The political and financial commitment to standardized testing was born out of good intentions. The incredibly high stakes for students, teachers, and schools that were tied to these data were intended to hold us accountable for educating all children. But the return on these investments is debatable at best. We know now that standardized testing data, when viewed in isolation, represent a limited view of student success and can even mislead us into making discriminatory decisions because of their inherent biases. We know the policies we’ve enforced and the decisions we’ve made based on these data have failed to close persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of color, even after 50 years of trying.
School schedules and use of time are one of the few remaining relics of the industrialized learning model. Even when most schools moved to virtual learning in March 2020, many organizations replicated the existing bell schedule and instructed teachers to move their onsite instruction online. The school leaders believed it would hold teachers and students more accountable and create more predictability to help families plan their own schedules. But pre-pandemic, some schools began to look across the systems that were set up and consider more flexible and agile options that were more in tune with designing learning that is more compelling, personalized, and appropriately challenging for their students.
Virtual schools in the K-12 environment have been a popular topic for discussion for many years. Recently I have noticed an increased level of interest by online charter school leaders, district- or state-run virtual schools, and program leaders in regards to how they can improve their virtual schools. Almost ironically, I also find myself having frequent conversations about virtual school opportunities with brick-and-mortar school leaders. With many school districts adopting blended learning as a major priority
Learning loss is the baby elephant in the room. It’s an issue that is currently small enough to briefly acknowledge, deprioritize, or ignore completely. Yet this elephant will continue to grow as the size and scale of learning loss due to the pandemic is better understood. The vaccine has returned a sense of hope that life will get back to “normal.” But educators must recognize that a return to “normal” will only reinforce the widening opportunity gap and systems that support institutionalized racism. Instead, structural changes will need to be made if learning loss is to truly be addressed. This conversation is critical as schools transition from virtual learning to in-person (and maybe back) this year, and begin planning for the summer and 2021-22 school year.
From North Carolina to California to Alaska, public schools around the United States are planning to preserve a virtual school option for students after the pandemic is over. The constant drumbeat of getting all students back to school as quickly as possible does not tell the whole story of learning in the pandemic. Singing the praises of virtual learning was not something many students, educators, and families would see themselves humming along to twelve months ago. But from the early and draining days, there has been a rhythm and stability that has flourished in expected and unexpected ways.
At the beginning of last week, my colleagues Purvi Patel, Dave Hardy, and I were excited to welcome leaders participating in our inaugural cohort of the Systems of Educational Equity Development (SEED) Fellowship after a well-deserved break and launch the beginning of our INCLUDE sessions.
As we watched the events at the Capitol unfold on January 6th, like many, our team jumped into crisis response mode. A planned all-day, company-wide training and retreat was canceled, as we checked in on teammates in the D.C. area, and reached out to partners, family, and friends to see how we might support them. We created safe spaces for each other to debrief and discuss, find some comfort amid the uncertainty, and pause on our to-do lists for the day if needed. Once the initial shock wore off and the flurry of activity wound down, I was sitting glued to my screen, constantly refreshing my feeds. I’d already passed the point where my mind was begging for a break from the news, needing time and space to process what I was seeing, but I’m the person at Education Elements who’s responsible for our social media channels (👋🏽) – this is what I do! Sad and overwhelmed, I remarked to my team, ‘This is one of the few times I’m not happy to be “the social media person”’. I had no idea that by the end of the night, I couldn’t disagree more with those words if I tried.
2020 was, among many things, a year of firsts. The first time a non-English language movie, Parasite, won Best Picture at the Oscars. The first time millions of people stopped their daily commute and set up a home office, classroom, or waited to resume their jobs and typical routines. The first Black Vice President, the first Asian-American Vice President, and the first female Vice President elected in the United States – Senator Kamala Harris. The first time for many people homeschooling their children, and for children to be attending school virtually. The first time a female athlete scored in a Power 5 Conference game in NCAA football (Sarah Fuller, Vanderbilt), the first female NFL coach to make it to the Superbowl (Katie Sowers, 49ers), and the first female General Manager appointed in the MLB (Kim Ng, Marlins). The first time Hallmark released a holiday movie with an LGBTQ storyline, The Christmas House. The first time one of the most commonly uttered phrases of the year was, “You’re on mute.” And, of course, the first time for most people to live through a global pandemic and navigate an unprecedented amount of disruption and change. While 2020 was a year of many firsts, there are a few things that we can count on to persist in 2021 and beyond. We can expect that unexpected change is a constant. We can expect that genuine connection is a basic human need. And we can expect that innovative, empathetic, and inclusive leaders are essential in guiding teams and individuals through whatever challenges and opportunities the future holds.
I got started with this tradition of predictions in 2010 after reading Disrupting Class, a book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn. In their book, they predicted that by 2019, 50% of all high school courses will be online in some blended learning model. That was a pretty bold prediction in 2008 when the book was published, but their model for cycles of innovation seems pretty accurate now that we have hindsight. Even as of May 2019, there were people pointing out the failure of this prediction. Now at the end of 2020, I’d estimate that +95% of all K-12 students took some form of an online class, and most likely this trend will continue into 2021.
Whoa. 2020. I became a mom this year. My daughter Emily Ruth was born on April 1, 2020. My husband and I knew immediately that she was going to be a mix of wicked and wise, given the birthday she chose: April Fools Day - so perfect for 2020. She was born 2 weeks into the first COVID lockdown, and 4 days after my labor had started (she was in no rush to enter into these circumstances). So I spent all of April, May, and June hunkered down in a bubble of love and sleeplessness with my newborn, while the world outside was descending into the scariness and unknown of COVID.
It’s December. We made it to the end of 2020 – a spectacularly stressful year, no matter who you are, what you do, or where you live. As the months ticked by, though, it became clear that the chaos of the year placed almost unbearable levels of stress on some professions, educators among them. As schools wind down for winter break in the midst of a national spike in COVID-19 numbers, it may be a good time to deconstruct and consider burnout, what it looks like, what causes it, and what we can do about it.
This Fall, Education Elements hosted our first ever virtual Distance Learning Road Race. The rationale was simple - we wanted to create a space to promote mental and physical wellness, model best practices for virtual community building, and give back to our partners and community. Admittedly, the ‘race’ was more of a running challenge, encouraging participants to commit to running a final distance of their choosing and engage with us over six weeks of challenges between September to November.
The systems that teachers and leaders design and implement in schools are all impacted by the biases of their designers. We have to design explicitly for our marginalized students and to do this, we need to first understand the way our own power and privilege impact what we believe is best for kids. As my colleagues wrote in Capture the Opportunity: Steps to Redesign School-Level Systems for Equity:
A known unknown is a question we are certain exists, but whose answer we are confident we cannot answer. This paradox pretty accurately sums up how many educators entered into this school year. We knew we might return to distance learning and we knew that no one could say whether that would happen, and if so, when. As COVID infection rates and hospitalizations rise across the country, the unknown answer becomes clearer; for some of us, returning to distance learning for some amount of time will happen. AND there is good reason to assume that distance learning will be significantly better today than it was last year. This is not a new experience for educators, students, and families. Our understanding of best practices, expectations, and support systems put us in a good position to ensure learning continues regardless of the physical distance between students and teachers.
As a new mom, I cared deeply about two things: my baby’s well-being and my sleep. I could go without showering or hot meals, but I was NOT well equipped to deal with the lack of sleep. And I was fairly lucky - my son slept about as normally as you can expect a newborn to sleep. However, any disruption in that pattern, and I immediately scrambled: “He didn’t sleep last night. I MUST try these five new things to get him back on track.” Sometimes they worked, and sometimes the shift in routine actually made things worse. My hyper-focus on the short run cues meant that I was super reactive to one piece of information but failed to take a look at the big picture. Conversely, there were times I didn’t have the energy or brainpower to try new things – I ignored the information my son was giving me because I simply didn’t know how to use the data or what to do.
The pitter-patter of toes on our wooden floors, reminiscent of a spring rain pinging against a tin roof, grow louder as they approach our bedroom door. A moment of silence occupies the space as our door slowly opens. Seconds later, we hear a soft breath pressed against my wife’s ear that says, “Good morning Mom, the sun is up.” My youngest son stumbles across the bed to nestle his buttery brown cheek against mine and mutters to me, “I love you so much, dad”. He has a way to melt his parents’ hearts first thing in the morning (and avoid being told to go back to his bed). His older brother lumbers in, stiff legs resembling the Frankenstein impression he uses to terrorize his brother at Halloween. Thankfully, he “sleeps in” until 7:45 am most days before he graces us with his presence. His deliberate steps thump against the floor as he makes his way to my side of the bed with silence and morning grumpiness. His little brother is now aware his big brother is in the room and meets him with the same daily surprise as if this is the first time they have met. Unfortunately for the little guy, his exuberance is not met with the same zeal by my oldest son who can do nothing but let his lanky seven-year-old body collapse on my chest as he tries to find his way back to sleep.
The Education Elements team, like the rest of the world, has been adapting to life-during-COVID-19, striving to serve our partners and our mission with a set of unplanned-for constraints. In short, we have had to walk the walk – living by our own New School Rules and practicing our best New Team Habits as we have tried to find ways to connect as a team and with our partners through times that, on a good day, could be described as turbulent. We’ve experimented with how to best operate in a virtual world, and want to share with you five lessons that we’ve learned in adapting to life during COVID-19.
This is a special blog post because not only am I interviewing an expert in family outreach but I am interviewing my mom, Aleida Goetchius, who is truly my first mentor and forever hero. This is a translation of a conversation she and I had about her role as a Parent Liaison in Northern Virginia. Aleida has been a Parent Liaison for 16 years supporting all families with a specialty in supporting families from international backgrounds who are navigating the American school system for the first time. Aleida was named the 2017 Region 4 Outstanding Hourly Employee and one of five finalists for this year's Outstanding Secondary Teacher Award in her district. In this conversation, we talk a lot about support for families in general and most specifically for international families whose first language is not English. I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
At Education Elements, we know that a leader is critical in navigating a school system through change. This has become abundantly clear as we’ve navigated the COVID-19 pandemic - schools and leaders have undergone and continue to experience a period of immense uncertainty and change. School and district leaders have to rise to the occasion and lead their schools through previously unconceived circumstances almost daily. We have seen leadership emerge in the creative ways you all are celebrating students, connecting with families, and adjusting to new norms and methods of instruction.
Fenestration, in architecture, is the way windows, doors, and openings are placed and arranged on a building. In medicine, fenestration refers to a new opening in the body made through surgery. There is another meaning of the word and it is used to describe openings in the leaves of plants. Where I live in South Florida, there are a number of plants with leaf fenestrations, perhaps the most common of which is the monstera deliciosa. Some of you might have it next to you, as it has become a very popular houseplant. Here in the subtropics, it is planted in many people’s landscapes including my own. Some people believe that the leaves have formed holes to help the plant survive the strong winds of tropical storms and hurricanes, a common occurrence in this part of the world. Others think the leaf fenestrations exist to let sunlight filter through to “understory” leaves so that they can grow and thrive (in its natural habitat, the jungle, monstera grows like a vine up very tall trees). Each of these is a theory to explain the adaptations, but no one knows for sure. Right now, in our reality of unknowns, students, teachers, and school communities across the country are adapting too–so that the sunlight of new ideas and concepts reach every learner and the turbulent wind of changing pandemic conditions, stress, and anxiety do not prevent learners from growing and thriving.
On January 28, 1986, the space program experienced one of its most catastrophic events to date when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just over a minute after launch. All seven crew members died, including Christa McAulliffe, a school teacher who would have been the first teacher in space. If you’re familiar with the event at all, you know the accident was caused by a failed O-ring seal in the solid rocket booster. What’s less widely known is that, according to the recently released Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight, NASA and the company that manufactured those O-rings had information available to them that day that could have led to a different outcome. For example: The O-rings were a known problem. In many of the successful launches using solid rocket boosters prior to the Challenger, there was evidence of damage to the O-rings during launch. The temperature the day of the launch was much colder (by at least 20 degrees) than typical launch days. More than one expert at the O-ring manufacturer voiced concern that the part had not been tested at that temperature and could fail. NASA made choices about the data they used that day. They went into their decision-making process with a bias (they were motivated to launch after a series of delays), and they failed to see how that bias motivated their choices and in turn influenced their behavior. In education, we make choices about our data, too.
This year has exacerbated the national crisis of staffing in schools. Attrition was already a looming challenge, but with all of the changes in education this year alone teachers are leaving schools and the profession en masse. That, combined with the racial reckoning taking place this year has prompted many leaders to reflect on their hiring processes and look for ways to recruit more Black teachers. If you are looking to diversify your teacher workforce or are assessing your hiring process, here are 9 things you must consider.
We’ve talked a lot about the need to improve teacher retention. During the pandemic, teachers are feeling burned out, unsupported, and dissatisfied with their jobs and lack of recognition. A survey this summer showed that nearly 30% of teachers are more likely to leave the profession now due to the pandemic. To add to the problem, there’s been a 35% decrease in the number of college students preparing to be a teacher over the past decade. So the supply of potential teachers is going down at the same time that the demand for teachers is potentially going to skyrocket. This happens for a variety of reasons that we could spend a whole week writing about. While that problem is enough to raise some eyebrows, we want to dig in beneath the surface a bit to talk about an even more pressing problem: equity, or the lack thereof, and its impact on teacher attrition.
When I was studying research methods as part of my doctoral degree, the running joke among our professors was that they would answer every question with “It depends.” My favorite professor would answer an either/or question with “Yes.” Should I use a survey to answer these research questions? Or would interviews be better? “Yes.” So when school district leaders ask me if their data should drive their strategy, or if they should define their strategy (goals, priorities, actions) and then make decisions about data based on their strategy, my favorite answer is “Yes.” Because honestly, it’s both. Here’s what I mean.
I moved a lot with my multi-cultural family as a kid. If you know me, you know this because I talk about it often. And this experience significantly impacted the way I view the world: I know what it means to be both a guest and a host, to speak the regional tongue fluently and not at all. If you’ve had a similar experience, then you know that it shapes you. I have seen my parents (and by extension, myself) be both locals and foreigners all in one day. These experiences have given me the gift of empathy.
At the core of innovation in companies leading the way in developing solutions for the future is a Research and Development team, more commonly known as R&D. This is where insight and inspiration are translated into creative and impactful solutions. In short, R&D is the process by which an organization obtains new knowledge to develop applicable solutions to present or future challenges. Companies leverage R&D for the following primary goals:
Across the country, students have returned to school, whether it’s in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid model. The work districts and teams did over the summer is now in action: you’re following new protocols for safety, implementing curriculum changes, and leveraging new systems for instruction and communication. Whether it feels like things are going smoothly or you’re barely keeping your head above water, now is the time to pause and reflect.
School boards across the country are experiencing marathon meetings as they listen to hours and hours of public comment, review guidance from local health officials, and review plans for what it will look like to bring students back to buildings and on what timeline. Some districts have already returned to in-person learning, only to transition back to distance learning when there is an unfortunate increase in COVID-19 transmission rates.
Typically in times of uncertainty, organizations tend to shift their focus to getting results fast, maintaining order, and ensuring safety. These actions make sense to avoid the complexity that’s being thrown their way, however, it prevents organizations from using the time to lean in and learn from the experience. In June 2020, a team at Education Elements outlined how they were seeing their team and district partners increase agility and heighten their ability to prioritize a culture of learning even while navigating the unknown.
“It’s all happening!” –Penny Lane, Almost Famous This month, those of us who love the movie Almost Famous got to feel really old as we were reminded that this lovely coming-of-age story came out 20 years ago. For the uninitiated, this movie is about an atypical learning experience, in which a high-school student joins a rock-band for a road trip as he attempts to learn how to be a journalist. His muse, Penny Lane, has a signature line, “It’s all happening!” to celebrate the wonder of the moment, and it has a whole new resonance as we embark on a school year like none we’ve seen before. After enduring Spring 2020, an end-to-the-school-year like none we’ve seen before, many students, parents, and teachers spent the summer in anxious anticipation of what the fall would bring. And now, it’s all happening!
Student engagement is one of the most overused terms in education. We talk about engagement in the classroom, between peers, with families, with the content, and now, virtual engagement. Engagement is certainly important if we talk about it this much, but what does it really mean?
In February, my husband and I bought our first home in Pasadena, Maryland, right on a creek that leads into the Chesapeake Bay. What we’ve learned since moving in is that a good number of our neighbors are sailing fanatics, which has led to my husband trying to convince me to buy a small sailboat (a 40-50-year-old Sunfish to be exact). My response was that we needed to build up at least a few skills and knowledge about sailing before making a purchase because the few classes I had taken in the past on a small lake were not going to cut it in the Chesapeake Bay.
"We all get caught up in the business of doing, and sometimes lose our place in the flow” (O Magazine, August 2011). Recently, we were spinning in circles trying to figure out a new process for an internal role we stepped into when Jason shared a way we might reframe our conversation. Shifting from trying to brainstorm as many solutions as possible or uncovering the perfect idea, we instead focused on the simple, yet powerful question: “What do we know for sure?”
As school returns, we know this year presents unique challenges and changes to both educators and students. With such change, it may be especially difficult to communicate with students. While your intentions may be good, sometimes the impact of what we say can have unintended consequences. Consider some of these alternatives to have the impact you wish to have to start the year on a strong note.
There is no question that our lives have been flipped around over the last few months. For many of us, we are adjusting to redefining our workspace and even our roles. Our work has changed and so has how we interact. One role that has significantly changed is the role of the parent or guardian of school-aged children. We know that active adults make a huge difference in a child’s success in school but the level to which this is needed has been redefined. While teachers navigate a new normal, the “job” they now must lean on guardians for is to assist in supporting students. This upcoming school year is going to require a level of flexibility from all parties involved and we want to support the parents and guardians as they collaboratively navigate the year with their child’s educators.
Planning Amidst Change “Aim small, shoot small,” is an old saying that many of us who occasionally enjoy a round of target practice embrace. But in our case, planning small for how to serve kids during this pandemic, simply was not going to work long-term. Our district Warren County is a rural county in Tennessee with a population of approximately 41,000 people. The entire district is considered economically disadvantaged and is served via the Community Eligibility Provision under the direction of the USDA.
In an effort to reconnect with students to truly understand their experience with virtual learning and what they will need from their teachers going forward in an educational landscape irrevocably impacted by this year’s events, we decided to embark upon a two-week long empathy interview tour with students themselves. We searched high and low - from reaching out to former students through email, connecting with former colleagues still in the classroom, to scouring Instagram and LinkedIn accounts. Not only did this allow for a mind-blowing retrospective of my twenty years in the classroom - what the students shared in an honest, open platform enlightened us to their relationship with school and opened our eyes to how kids are actually interfacing with the technology that has functioned, and will likely continue to function, as a central vehicle for instruction.
Welcome back, educators and leaders, to a school year like none we’ve encountered before! Usually, we use this space at this time of year to offer some ideas for how to get off on the right foot in the classroom or on your school teams as you prepare to bring your community back together in schools and district offices. This year, that looks a little different.
As teachers everywhere gear up to go back to school in various settings this Fall, one thing is for certain: they need to be prepared to deal with a number of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, chief among them being impacts to student mental health. If they’re lucky, teachers have a team of support staff in the form of school counselors and psychologists to help assist students, but even so, much of the work will fall to teachers to help keep students in a headspace where they are able to learn. As the people who spend the most time with students, teachers must incorporate support for mental health into their classrooms.
What a time to be alive. Many of us, particularly educators, are wearing hats we never even thought to try on before. I think of the everyday woman who now has multiple full-time jobs: her actual job, parenting, and remote learning management of her children. I think of the parent of a differently-abled child who now has to lead that child’s physical, occupational, or speech therapy daily. I think of BIPOC who now are called to serve as knowledge banks and on-call historians for their white friends who recently discovered (spoiler alert) that racism isn’t dead. It’s as if the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a wake-up call to sleeping America.
Educators across the country, and around the world, have found themselves in a whole new normal. In addition to focusing on student needs, engaging content, and individualized support, educators have been thrust into also focusing on equitable access to content, adapting content to multiple environments, and providing support that is more varied than ever before.
Regardless of where students are physically learning this school year, educators must orient their instruction towards distance learning. An orientation towards distance learning allows for continuity of meaningful learning experiences despite changing circumstances or disruptions to the school calendar, whether it be an isolated power outage or a global pandemic. It is important to note that highly-effective distance learning doesn’t just happen with the flip of a switch. It requires thoughtful, intentional design decisions fueled by a desire to empower students to drive their own learning. Ultimately, distance learning requires a student-centered approach to ensure more impactful and equitable learning outcomes for all students.
Leading While Grieving In The Wake of COVID-19 In the Fall of 2019, I lost my husband. After the dust settled from the initial crisis, I was inundated by having to make sense of what had happened, trying to figure out where I would live, and navigating what the future would look like for myself and my son. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to process, my therapist gave me a frame to help me reflect on the experience and move forward: What’s left? What’s lost? What’s possible?
Learning is most powerful when students feel valued, honored, and empowered. The teachers who leave the greatest lasting impact on their students are the ones who see them for who they are, often before the students even see this themselves. These teachers uplift their students by developing their interests, celebrating their uniqueness, and challenging their assumptions about the world and themselves.
Through most of the spring and summer, we at Education Elements have intensely focused on helping school districts prepare for returning to school. As we’ve gotten closer to the start of school, and school leaders return to prepare their campuses, one of the most common questions we get is how to think about instructional staff assignments when some students will be learning remotely and some will be onsite. To explore this topic further, we convened a group of school and district leaders in Texas to participate in a design sprint. Here’s what we learned:
How to Leverage Sprint Plans and SEPAD to Bring a Sense of Accomplishment to an Ambiguous Year Ahead Working in a school has a way of making late August and September feel like the official start of the new year. While coffee cheers replace the clinking of champagne glasses, one thing stays the same: the desire to set (and hopefully keep) a New Year’s Resolution.
After I wrote the first blog in this series, I received a call from a close family member wanting to talk about what I had written. Their initial reaction was offense and confusion-- why did I think all teachers were “white supremacists”? It caught me off guard because I hadn’t written that--what I did write was that the American education system is built on a foundation of white supremacy, and we as teachers should work to dismantle that system. Through this conversation, it was reinforced that there are severe misconceptions around language, especially language we use when discussing race and racism. I’m hoping we can align on language here and question the reasons we feel defensive when certain words are used in relation to us, our jobs, and the role we play in upholding systems that oppress BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else's.” -Tara Westover, Educated How do you set a vision when the only certainty is uncertainty? How can you lead a staff team or a cohort of students without knowing where you are headed? The return to school this fall presents a chasm of uncertainty for teachers, students, families, and administrators. This can be perceived as a loss of control over our schools and classrooms - and contribute to anxiety and fear. While I don’t have any answers to the and can’t assure you that this year will go fine and dandy, I can provide two exercises to help you envision and mentally prepare for the upcoming school year.
At the age of five, my shyness was taken for lack of understanding and I was tested for English as a Second Language (ESL). At eight, I was pushed into gifted math and made to feel defeated and stupid. At twelve, I was told I could not “handle” taking a foreign language, despite being in an advanced English class. At seventeen, I repeatedly heard my teachers attribute my academic success to my race rather than the countless hours I put into my school work. For eighteen years of my life, I was called by the wrong name. These are just a handful of instances in which the biases and beliefs of my teachers and the underlying systems within my school failed to serve me as a student of color.
If you are anything like me, you are at a loss for how we are suddenly in the last week of July and barreling straight towards the new school year. After a spring spent in crisis triage mode and a tumultuous summer filled with political and social unrest, there haven't been many opportunities to recharge our batteries and reflect in the ways that we may have in past years. If you are feeling tired, you are not alone. If you are feeling afraid and overwhelmed, you are in good company.
Here we are, looking down the barrel of another stretch of at-home learning. We always knew that it was likely not “if” but “when” we’d be back here, but the fact that many districts are announcing remote learning from day one has caught us all by surprise. Worn down from an already long stretch of stay-at-home learning, it’s understandable for parents to feel overwhelmed or daunted by the prospect.
There has been a lot of research done on what makes teams great. Google committed an entire research team to answering the question: What makes a team effective? Daniel Coyle explored the ins and outs of some of the world’s most successful teams in his book The Culture Code. And, leaders right here at Education Elements have compiled some of their learnings in The New Team Habits. I have found – ever since I started thinking about how teams work and what makes certain teams great – that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this question; even when I was 7,620 miles from home, 5,895 meters (or 19,341 feet) above sea level, on the trip of a lifetime.
The first time I tried to cook a meal in my own place was a disaster. Within 10 minutes, my kitchen was a disaster. Within an hour, my house smelled charred, and I had abandoned all efforts to cook myself dinner. I called my mom frustrated: what went wrong? Until that moment, I failed to realize the level of strategic thinking my mother uses every time she cooks. Her successful dishes require intentional preparation, planning, and organizing to achieve the outcome of a satisfying dish. The art of mise en place to smoothly roll out a meal was utterly lost on me. It wasn't until I had this experience, firsthand, that I realized that neglecting to read the whole recipe and then adequately preparing before I cooked results in disaster. Once that pan gets hot there isn't time to dice more onions or cut up the chicken breast. You need to know the next step and be ready ahead of time to add the ingredients quickly. It sounds silly, but no one had explicitly said this out loud to me, and I didn't make the connection on my own.
“There has to be a better way!” I remember a character on a movie or TV show I watched as a youngster constantly repeating this phrase and it’s been ingrained in my mind ever since. There’s a chance I’m making this up and such a character with this common refrain does not in fact exist, but go with me for a second. Searching for a better way to do things has fueled my work and my passion for design — not “capital D design” but design in a more general sense. I’ve always loved making things, but it’s not the final product that gets me the most excited, it’s the pursuit to get there. When I think about the word “creation,” I prefer the verb to the noun.
A bank teller, Jeff Bezos, and a Starbucks barista walk into a...school district reopening planning session. No, really. These may seem like disconnected personas, but in their book, Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsey McGregor use all three real-life stories to explain how organizations should prepare their employees in planning a response to uncommon and changing situations. Each story, from the barista handling the inconvenience of running out of ice for a guest’s iced coffee order to the bank teller keeping their calm in the middle of a bank robbery to Bezos dropping everything to work with a team responding to a customer’s complaint in the early years of Amazon, illustrates a lesson that school and district leaders are facing now when it comes to reopening planning – the need for adaptability in an environment where the norm has been disrupted. There has been no greater global disruption in the 21st century than the one caused by the coronavirus. With school districts facing the long-term effects of the pandemic closures and planning for a reopening in the fall, the need to be adaptive becomes even greater.
I'll be honest here--after my college years, any chance of me being a dedicated night owl pretty much flew out the window. Late-night five-page papers in Courier New font were only temporary. Now, when I stay up late, it is usually a result of an itch I need to scratch. I have a piece of writing or a level of flat out curiosity about the work I do. Surprisingly, nights like those come way more often, and each one leaves an intriguing morsel lingering on my brain.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police, demonstrations have taken place across all 50 states and several US Territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Floyd and Taylor's names are added to the painfully long and growing list of BIPOC who have paid the highest price for America's inaction on police brutality.
What makes people stay at their jobs? What makes people leave? At a time when 20% of teachers say they’re leaving next year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to hold on to as many great teachers as we can. Onboarding is an effective way to increase retention of new employees and enhance their productivity in the first year. However, Gallup found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees. Not surprisingly then, 50% of employees leave in the first 18 months of a new role. This is both expensive and time consuming for employers to constantly fill vacancies.
As we look toward reimagining schools, we encourage leaders to keep in mind that communities and families have been impacted by an unprecedented time and will continue to feel the impact into the next school year, and perhaps beyond. School is a place where communities gather for connectivity and support. During these challenging times, there is an opportunity to further develop schools as a place where SEL is embedded throughout school culture.
There is something about this crisis that has brought out the baker in many. Even the two of us, people who have tried elimination protocols to reduce our gluten intake, have made a few attempts at biscuit and sourdough making. And it’s not just us! We recently learned that King Arthur Flour has seen a 600% increase in demand for their product as home cooks are rediscovering the art of making their own bread.
The abrupt shift to distance learning directly challenged the knowledge, mindsets, and skills of our teacher workforce this Spring. Formerly ‘nice-to-have’ skills in digital integration became ‘must-haves,’ traditional classroom management and instructional design methods no longer applied, and everyone was required to embrace a high level of comfort with ambiguity as guidelines and expectations shifted on a weekly basis. And as a new school year approaches and the global pandemic remains, educators are bracing for these abrupt and temporary changes to take root.
In times of uncertainty, organizations tend to shift their focus to getting results, maintaining order, and ensuring safety. While these actions make sense to counteract the challenges of complexity, it is in fact a culture of learning that allows organizations to increase agility and heighten their ability to navigate uncharted waters.
Research matters! When developing your Continuity of Learning (CoL) plans there are many things that feel logical and natural. In looking at historical data from recent studies surrounding remote/virtual learning, there are several elements that, at face value, seem both natural and logical, but in reality, may not be in your students’ best interest.
The worldwide response to COVID-19 is creating unforeseen challenges and virtual changes for every aspect of our education system. Long-standing pillars such as curriculum and instruction, operations, and accountability, among others, are all being tested under the weight of the pandemic response.
One of our favorite expressions is that the only constant thing in life is change, which today’s global crisis affirms for us each day. For some of us, we don’t know beyond the next two weeks whether schools will be open or not. We don’t know what classes will look like in the fall (maybe virtual? maybe an A day/B day schedule to reduce the number of kids in the building at one time?). We may not know if all of our students are safe and accounted for, let alone if they have access to a device and broadband connection.
When I was younger, my mother and I would sit for hours playing the game Mastermind. It’s a game of logic, where one person sets a code using a pattern of six colors, and the other tries to guess the code. According to Wikipedia, there are over 1296 patterns that can be made - and the person guessing only has 12 tries to crack it.
"Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.” – Quote by Donna Volpitta shared in Inside the Box by George Couros A little more than a month ago, school teams transitioned to distance learning arguably overnight. In doing so, we quickly saw the cracks in our school systems, such as equity, access, social-emotional learning, and experiences that empower students to be more self-directed. Now more than ever we need to learn from the process of shifting remotely, so we become stronger and better at addressing the cracks in the system that are being exacerbated by this pandemic. Otherwise, what was it all for?
Every summer, I look forward to seeing the Little League World Series prominently displayed on ESPN. Over the past few years, we could see more and more of the journey teams would go through as they play their way to their final destination in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. There is something about the freshly cut grass, the metal bleachers filled with people from all over the world. Who can forget the left-field seating area as it hosts lawn chairs full of onlookers or cardboard box sleds of happily muddied kids depending on the weather? All of this creates the ultimate nostalgic moment of America's pastime. The drama, cheers, and occasional tears were always welcomed in my house as one team was eventually crowned champion, year after year with certainty.
The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them. - Hemingway February 10th was my first day as Managing Partner at Education Elements. On March 11th, 30 days into my new job, I was on the phone with our CEO making critical decisions about our response to the exploding Coronavirus crisis.
Donald Rumsfeld once said that there are three things we know - the things we know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know - and that it’s the last category, the unknown unknowns, that tend to be the most difficult things we encounter. The vulnerability of our global economy to a novel coronavirus may go down as one of the greatest unknown unknowns in our lifetime. And while the dust is yet to settle, it is safe to say that we will never be the same knowing now what we didn’t before.
In a single month in 2020, the unthinkable happened. Students in all 50 United States were impacted by school closures. Districts pivoted to short-term responses and initial guidelines for at-home learning. Now, a month after the coronavirus pandemic effectively halted traditional education for more than 50 million students, most districts have implemented or are in the process of implementing virtual learning plans and teachers across the country are finding creative ways to continue instruction through a screen.
Last summer, I decided to hit the road for a year as a “digital nomad,” giving up my apartment in Brooklyn, consigning my clothes, and storing a few treasured items in the basement of my childhood home. I took this leap because I wanted to be more nimble to visit our district partners, attend education events and conferences, and celebrate Simchas (the hebrew word for a Joyous Occasion, and the root word for my name Simma) with friends and family all over the country. This all came to a halt mid-March.
There is a strange contrast between moments during this time. I wake up with the sun, hearing the birds chirping and families playing with their young children outside. Then, during my near-daily walk around my neighborhood, I offer a timid hello to those I pass. Our eyes meet, and I see the corner of their eyes turn up while the rest of their face is obscured by a mask. We both move in our opposite directions down the sidewalks, and life carries on - and so does the work at Education Elements.
While the author of the quote isn’t certain (many attribute it to acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker), the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is commonplace in organizational management circles. I don’t know about you, but breakfast has been the last thing on my mind these past few weeks and months because I feel like there’s barely enough time to grab a quick snack in between phone calls, Zoom meetings, and responding to emails. And upon further reflection, thinking intentionally culture hasn’t really been at the top of my mind either. After all, who has the capacity to think about organizational culture when we don’t even know what the next day will bring? It seems like strategy is the one bellying up to the breakfast buffet.
Schools were asked to transition everything they would normally do within their school walls to a virtual environment overnight. District and school teams are continuing to find ways to provide meals to students, adjust all meetings to virtual, expedite the distribution of devices and wifi, update as many curriculum resources as possible, and do all of this while trying to keep it together at home. We are starting to see more people get settled into working remotely and also try to navigate ways to still build team culture and keep spirits high.
Teachers have a tremendous impact on the learning and lives of their students and communities, and planning a unique and powerful teacher appreciation week is one way to celebrate their incredible contributions. School and district leaders can use the strategies below as a starting point to plan meaningful ways to recognize all that they do, every day.
To close out this series on how to get your organization primed for remote work, I’d like to explore some pitfalls of working remotely and share tips for avoiding them. It can be easy for virtual meetings to get very tactical since participants are wary of conversations that are too long and fail to stimulate them. This can lead to several other issues that can derail a meeting. To avoid this pitfall, it’s important to have a strong facilitator that can bring people together to agree on a set of protocols and norms for any given meeting. Such norms might include not having side conversations, so as to not distract others.
Distributing information in an organization can sometimes feel like playing telephone. When we need to share information with teammates, it can be easy to start small, by having side conversations with colleagues sitting nearby. If you know how telephone is played, you know that this can be a recipe for disaster, with people passing on diluted information they did not have adequate time to reflect on. However, in a remote work environment, we have an opportunity to think about how we can distribute information quickly and equally throughout an organization to avoid confusion and misalignment.
Many leaders are making decisions that impact their entire organization in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As with many decisions with far-reaching implications, building consensus may be an obvious instinct for many. However, in a time with so much uncertainty, there can be many drawbacks to aiming for consensus – chief among them being too much input, causing the process to stagnate. Remote work provides the opportunity for leaders to try things differently and to avoid some of the traps that come along with integrating the input of many team members.
Many organizations are learning how they can push their work forward as they transition from in-person to virtual collaboration. No longer confined by the physical limitations that come with an office space, leaders must also recognize the opportunity that virtual work brings to more thoughtfully reflect on how work gets defined and how it gets delegated to team members. Defining the work before defining team roles is essential for individual growth and improving organizational decision-making.
Working with colleagues in-person may provide more many opportunities to build trust with your team, but it isn’t impossible in a virtual environment. Even though you’re unable to walk over to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question, you have an opportunity to reflect on how you can tap into existing relationships and build new ones, even through a screen.
Not too long ago, you may have found yourself wondering if 5 minutes was enough time for you to grab lunch near your office before your next meeting. Similarly, now you may be worried about filling up your entire day with back-to-back, hour-long virtual meetings. It’s a trap that many have fallen into as organizations shift to virtual or remote work. For this reason, it’s more important than ever to plan for change and build a more flexible schedule.
Remote work is a hot topic right now, and if you are not used to working remotely, it can be very difficult to adjust, particularly in these very special circumstances where schools are closed, kids are around, etc. Anthony Kim, speaker and author of the Corwin best-seller The NEW School Rules, is using some of the practices in his book to explain how they can apply in a remote work context. This is part one of a 7-part series.
Much of the initial planning around remote learning was based on the assumption that these were emergency measures; actions that would support students and teachers for a month or so. As of April 14th, twenty-one states have closed school for the remainder of the academic year. District and school leaders are shifting their focus towards longer-term solutions that make remote learning as meaningful as possible. Often, discussions about remote learning can be captured in three trends:
As of last weekend, President Trump has extended the national shutdown in the U.S. for a month and warned that the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic is yet to come.
The past few weeks have been full of new routines for all of us as we try to plan for and navigate through uncharted territory. The shift to full-time virtual work has been yet another challenge to face on top of everything else. Even for our team at Education Elements, where virtual work has always been a consistent part of our work culture, the transition has necessitated revisiting and reimagining best practices as we support our team and others. While you might have felt you were thrown in the deep end for the past couple of weeks, here are three small things you can adjust to make your new routines and habits work for you.
The ability to navigate ambiguity is a top skill of effective leaders, and there has never been a more urgent need for this skill, while simultaneously leading others through uncertainty and change. In reflecting on what sets great leaders apart, we had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa Whitaker, an Instructional Lead Coach with Dallas ISD, who has a Ph.D. in Health and Public Service and has also served as a K-12 teacher and adjunct professor over her 12 years in education.
During this time of uncertainty and rapid change, the students, families, educators, and broader communities that we support and belong to need our strength, encouragement, and bold leadership more than ever. In order to be the calm, responsive, and joyful leaders we need to be to best support our loved ones through this challenging time, it is essential that we prioritize our own wellness so that we have the energy and resilience to bring our best selves to this work.
Schools across the country have closed their doors to protect students, employees, and communities from the spread of COVID-19. While schools may be closed, district and school leaders, teachers and students are doing their best to maintain momentum and learning. This means many people across the country are suddenly remote workers.
I’ve written several blog posts and admittedly, this has been one of the harder ones. On the one hand, it’s important to share strategies at a time like this. On the other hand, I haven’t found a ton of equity strategies to share. I struggled with this dilemma and even considered shelving the post entirely. However, that struggle led to (1) a recognition that this conversation is just as critical as ever to have and (2) some important understandings, including:
Many school districts are closing to keep their communities safe from COVID-19. While we believe safety is the priority, we know that loss of classroom time could further achievement gaps due to paused learning. Since we are an education organization of primarily remote workers, we have a few tips we think you can utilize to maximize your time for those meetings or courses that cannot afford to be paused.
As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak spreads, more school districts have been asking us about virtual learning. This is an important topic to consider as schools have begun closing their brick and mortar doors and turned to virtual learning. This is the second in a series of articles related to virtual learning that we will publish in the upcoming weeks.
I had the opportunity to attend a webinar with Lynn Carter, Director of Talent Acquisition at Netflix. Many of you know Netflix as the first company to ship a DVD straight to your home (my mom still loyally queues up movies to be delivered to her Oregon home every week). In the past decade, Netflix has also gained recognition as a leader in organizational design and culture. Having had the chance to learn from Carter, I listen to Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings on Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. From these two interviews, I discerned three key lessons from how Netflix thinks about building and evolving their organizational culture that I think are relevant to any leader who wants to strengthen their own organizational culture.