Feedback Hacks in the Online Teaching Era

Feedback Hacks in the Online Teaching Era

I miss the days of sitting cross-legged on the classroom carpets with students. While it gave my dress slacks all the pull they can handle, it also brought me up close to teachers guiding students with passion and expertise. It put me next to engaged students who used whiteboards, math manipulatives, and straight-forward language to think through rigorous grade level concepts.

Now, we find ourselves in a different era of teaching and learning. In response to the global COVID 19 pandemic, the majority of schools in America persist using a distance learning educational delivery model. Daily, teachers and students log into lessons through Zoom applications. Students see classmates through screens, share thinking in chat boxes, and attend to reading strategies, all while snacking on their morning breakfast.

Teachers do their magic from home offices and living rooms, silencing pet dogs and cell phone vibrations. They erect double screens so that they can see the full compliment of students on their rosters. They teach from swiveling office chairs and record student ideas on chart paper that is pinned to the textured drywall of their homes.

As instructional leaders, we too, are compelled to transform our coaching practices to meet teachers where they are at.

As instructional leaders, we too, are compelled to transform our coaching practices to meet teachers where they are at. Here are some “hacks,” or better stated, some methods of providing meaningful feedback in this novel era of online teaching and learning. And while this arrangement is likely to shift to a more supportive version of in person learning, it will be important to carry forward what has proven to be effective.

Have a “Master Zoom” sheet at the ready.

*These are sample Zoom ID/ passwords, not actual virtual classrooms

A “master zoom sheet” lists all the teachers, their recurring meeting IDs, and the individual passwords to get in. Orchestrating the creation of this document has saved me, and para educators hours of time. Instead of hunting through emails from teachers, dating back months, we are able to enter classrooms at the click of a link, and the keyboard peck of a simple password. Some days, the ease of visiting classrooms feels even more efficient than walking the campus. The only downside to this method of accessing classrooms, is knowing that we need to get our daily “steps” in through real physical exercise.

Narrow focus for observation and feedback. Align it to a teacher-identified focus.

Coaching and feedback is more likely to be well received and growth producing when it is aligned to an area of practice that teachers self identify. Just as it is in physical classrooms, countless dynamics play out in real time during lessons. Without a consistent focus for the adult learning, feedback can come across as scattered, subjective, and unfair. Teachers can feel like they are playing whack-a-mole to respond to our wonderings and suggestions. On the other hand, if we are able to agree on a single area of teacher practice, that will directly benefit students, then everyone wins. Teachers welcome objective data collection and probing questions. Administrators can zero in on a difference making dynamic. And students benefit from increasingly effective actions, taken by educators who are guiding their learning.

Spend sufficient time in each zoom lesson.

Zoom makes it easy to “pop in” and “Pop out” of classrooms at the click of a mouse. The danger for instructional leaders is that we are now able to visit classrooms with efficiency, without adding value. Visiting a classroom does not equate to partnering in the work with teachers. While there is not a universal threshhold for “long enough” or “too long,” we have to spend enough time to 1) get a sense of the lesson being taught 2) collect enough data to be able to ground our coaching conversations and 3) communicate value for the preparation and delivery of the lesson. We want to avoid the possible perception of teachers that “You were only there for a few minutes. You didn’t see X, Y or Z.”

Have grade level standards open on a browser tab.

Whether we are focused on a teachers moves to engage students or master guided reading, the ultimate measure of success lives in the question: To what degree were students successful approximating or mastering grade level concepts? Whether teachers communicate the learning goal with clarity or not, it is our responsibility to ensure students are receiving grade level preparation. This is an equity issue. Identifying and noting the grade level standard or critical concept being taught is always my first goal in an observation. I listen for it. I reference the resources I have to locate it. And I capture it on any feedback form I use. When I am unable to make the connection, it becomes a point of clarification during coaching conversations. It has a way of grounding our work, reinforcing alignment of learning concepts to learning activities. And it communicates that learning is the main business of our school community.

Use googleforms to provide immediate feedback, identify trends across the sight, and capture frequency of observations by teacher.

I’ve created, adapted, and experiemented with a number of feedback templates over the years. I’ve used index cards, copy paper and typed word documents. Over the last couple years however, I’ve shifted to using googleforms to provide written feedback. I’ve found them useful because 1) They can be completed with on a phone, tablet, or computer. 2) I’m able to send the feedback to teachers electronically before leaving the classroom 3) I can capture and analyze data from visitations over the course of a semester or year (including frequency of visit, consistency of focus, and previous wonderings per teacher). Now that we are in a distance format, I am able to dictate the observations and wonderings into my phone, which transposes it to the google form. Pro tip: Make sure that you are on “mute” so that the entire class does not hear you!

Use “voice memo” feature on the phone to record and email personalized feedback with your own voice.

Since timely feedback is important and written feedback can be impersonal, I started using the voice memo feature of my phone to send brief messages to teachers following observations. Immediatly following a lesson, I simply tap the phone application, hit the record button and begin speaking. I affirm the amazingness that I just witnessed, highlight 1-2 aspects I noticed, and leave them with a wondering. I keep them under two minutes, and I send them instantaneously via email. So far, I’ve noticed that these messages are received well by teachers. They respond a increased frequencies, usually by email. And they get to hear a real human voice, with tone and inflection. These do not replace coaching conversations that include the synergy of back and forth dialogue. But they allow me to affirm and challenge a wider range of teachers on a given day of observations and feedback. Observations worthy of greater space and time are usually scheduled for the following day.

Schedule zoom meetings for follow up coaching conversations with a couple of teachers you visited during a day.

It’s important for me to have real coaching conversations with a handful of teachers on a given school week. Instead of sending a voice memo, I schedule a zoom meeting with them for the following school day. The further we get from the actual lesson, the harder it is to recall specific student responses and teaching moves. So getting that meeting in the scheduled quickly, is important. Then, I send the google feedback form so that they are able to reflect on the lesson with my initial questions. I find that conversations are much more productive when teachers have been able to ponder the questions I ask them.

Take screenshots to capture engaged learners and brilliant teaching moves.

To capture moments in time during distance learning, take a few screenshots. Each computer may be different. On a Mac, the shortcut command is “Shift +command+4” pressed simultaneously. Screenshots can be powerful for anchoring conversations in a particular moment of the conversation. They can also be a tool for discussions around students engagement and active participation. If you are looking for ways to capture brilliance, the screenshot function may become your newest tool.

Remind yourself that you will be back on the carpet with students soon enough.

This season of distance learning will pass. With COVID-19 vaccinations being offered to all Americans, we will once again feel safe to gather. You will, once again, get your front row seat to powerful teaching and learning. That carpet, up in the front of the classroom, has a square with your name on it!

Leadership Guides from 2020

Leadership Guides from 2020

I experienced what you did in 2020. Some days, my drive to grow and learn translated into action. I leveraged additional pockets of time and flexibility of schedule to push myself as a leader. Other days, I fought apathy, lethargy and under-motivation. After a few rounds of going toe-to-toe with these demons, I learned to trust that they would fade. I learned to “call it a day” when the struggle became too fierce. And I learned to call on virtual mentors to push me along.

Today, on the last day of 2020, I want to highlight a few of the guides and resources that have pushed me forward.

Today, on the last day of 2020, I want to highlight a few of the guides and resources that have pushed me forward. Perhaps you, too, can gain some strength, insight, and courage from them.

John Kotter

While Kotter has been a strong voice in the leadership world for some time, I got introduced to him through my learning with the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL). Together, with 30 other principals from our district, we dove into critical topics related to transforming schools and systems that will serve all students. Of all the learning we engaged in as a cohort, over a year and a half, I was most moved by Kotter’s dual operating system for gaining momentum in an organization. His book, XLR8 ,illustrates how leaders can see transformational work take hold, if they strategically empower motivated team members, let go of control, and work to eliminate barriers that get in the way. We are in the launching phase of this work at my school, and I am invigorated to see what we can accomplish together!

Bettina Love

I met Bettina while re-staining the redwood in my backyard. Wanting to pair physical labor with mental challenge, I scrolled through enticing suggestions on my Audible account. Three deck boards in, I knew that Love was going to challenge my assumptions, and push my thinking. I listened to her book We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, and I was not disappointed.

Then, sometime mid-summer, I discovered that our district leadership landed Bettina Love for a principal PD session. She was even more compelling in person (Zoom style). In our time with Bettina, she asserted:

“The system doesn’t work for all students. So what are we going to do about it?…All the great language of the forefathers were not meant to include dark folk…[and]…Every group has not been an able bodied white man, has had to fight to be seen important in our school.” Yes and yes. I am still pondering that question: “So what are we going to do about it?”

She eluded to a starting point: “The work of anti-racism starts with mindsets.  Believing that our job, is to teach all learners.  They are ours.” I see you Bettina. #thosekidsareOURKIDS

Check out her Abolitionist Teaching Network!

Craig Groschel

Craig Groschel is not a new voice to me. But his voice cut through the chaos and silence of 2020 to anchor my leadership in some trusted principles. The Craig Groschel Leadership Podcast is a regular on my feed, providing fresh content every two weeks. This year, I gleaned invaluable direction from the episode 71, “Leading Through Crisis” and episode 76, “Becoming a Leader People Love to Follow.”

A few of the nuggets that made me pump my fist in the air while driving included:

“Most people see problems. Leaders address the problems and seize the
opportunities!”

“You will never be a leader others love to follow if you aren’t a leader
who loves people.”

“A practical way to demonstrate that you love your team and the people you work with is to exercise these four words: I notice. You matter.”

Hamish Brewer

Hamish Brewer is known as a “relentless” principal who believes in children, works to turn around some of the most challenging schools, and shares the passion through modeling, speaking and writing. His book, Relentless: Changing Lives by Disrupting the Educational Norm, is easily accessible and highly motivational.

Hamish spent a morning with leaders in our district and left us ignited with passion to realize equitable outcomes for all of our students.

I was particularly moved by the burning question: “In education things move so quick.  What will they say about our impact?” He further pressed to point out that our behaviors have to match our intentions and hopes: “Your effort has to match the dream!” Then, recognizing the full weight and ownership principals face, he asserted, “If a teacher in my building fails, that’s my fault.” He kept pressing: “You are not the manager of your school. You are the leader of the community!”

In spending time with Hamish, you will be awakened to your deepest passions for students. Whether you read his book, view or listen to media highlighting his work, you will will certainly be reminded that we must strive to be great, for all of our kids. After all #thosekidsareOURKIDS.


TJ Kids are Our Kids Too

TJ Kids are Our Kids Too

Today I took a wrong turn and ended up in another country.

It was supposed to be a day of reflection, rejuvenation, prayer, and writing. As leaders and healthy humans, it’s important to step away from school, the computer and the email inbox. It’s important to get some distance for inspiration and creativity. Today, I took one of those days.

I decided to start my day with a long run at the Tijuana Estuary. Here, a winding sandy trail opens up to a breathtaking panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, with San Diego to the right and Mexico to the left. Driving southbound on I-5, I found myself looking for an exit that was already in the rear view. By the time I figured it out, I had passed the last United States exit and was on my way to crossing the International Border into Mexico. At the inspection point, I pulled over and asked two federales, dressed in fatigues, if it was possible to turn around. They flatly directed me to the two-hour border wait in the Zona Rio Central.

What? This was not the plan. Instead, it felt like most other days at school. You likely get it: You drive into school with clear priorities, only to discover that there are fires to put out, unexpected assemblies, teacher absences, or parent concerns. So you pivot.

So I pivoted. Instead of starting my day in a multi-hour traffic jam I decided to head toward the coast. I did find space and time to reflect at Playas. I ran along the beach at Playas, sipped a locally brewed café americano, read some sacred scriptures, and let the ocean breeze clear my mind. I even texted my friend in Tijuana to meet up for tacos.

The adventure portion began on my early drive home. If you’ve ever tried to find the correct border crossing entrance points in Tijuana, then you know that it’s a bit like finding your way through a maze that your fifth grade substitute teacher gave you to kill time. I ended up in a medical lane, for emergency vehicles. Eight dollars cash, which was all I had in my pocket, is what it took to get a taxi cab to lead the way out of the circular streets back into town and onto the general border crossing. While it’s pretty hard to be rejuvenated in the middle lane of a traffic jam, I did my best to stay in a reflective zone. It didn’t help that peddlers consistently knocked on my passenger window, trying to sell me tostilocos, framed pictures of El Chapo, and wool Dodger blankets.

One of the things that struck me was how many children were employed in efforts to bring income into their families. I kept thinking about how these children should be in school. I kept wondering if they got to play with their friends. I kept thinking about my own children, and about the students at my school.

I kept reminding myself that these kids are our kids too. It’s true, they live 15 miles south of my house on the other side of a double iron wall. But, they have the same image of God in them. They have great minds and deserve the opportunity to grow them. They could be our next scientists, our next entrepreneurs, or our next educational leaders. Very few look beyond the car window-chicle transaction and see futures for these children. Likely, they don’t see roads to success for themselves. But it is possible.

After all, our oldest son, Ricardo, grew up in Tijuana before he came to San Diego with his family. Today, he is a scientist, businessman and leader. Ricardo holds a Master’s degree, contributed to research advancing cures to cancer, and has aspirations of starting a biotech laboratory. Most of his family still lives in Mexico. The difference for him was that he got the chance to be challenged, supported, and believed in. Idling in that mass of cars at the border, I reminded myself of the blessing I received in getting a front row seat to Ricardo’s story. I even got to play a part in it!

I wonder if any of these children, walking up and down the oil stained concrete, selling chicle and ceramic statues of the Virgin Mary through exhaust fumes, will get their shot. I wonder if they will get to attend school, have mentors, or receive praise for their writing.

I fear they will not. But I pray they will. After all, those kids are our kids too!

Get Out From Under the Desk

Get Out From Under the Desk

Yesterday, I saw one our new students (new arrival from Latin America) hidden under his desk. This student came to us with limited schooling and a slew of trauma related behaviors.

Lonely. Hurting. Confused.

Yesterday, I heard a teacher giving this student pointed directives aloud, for the whole class to hear.  Directions were shot like an arrows towards this student cowering under the desk. Words moved fast. The tone was biting. Lacking basic English skills, our student must have heard, “Blanca,  blah blah, blah –tah-jah- tah” <then more sternly>  “gada gada yadda!”

Yesterday, I gave some unsolicited advice.  I suggested the directions be given 1:1, calmly and in a voice level that wasn’t directed at the whole class.  That suggestion was met with reflexive defensiveness and raw emotion.  The teacher didn’t want to hear any of it.  A nerve had been hit.  And the ensuing in-the-moment conversation wasn’t going to be productive during the instructional hour.

So we tabled the conversation. 

Everything in me wanted to retreat from it all together.

But I knew that wouldn’t help the teacher, our professional relationship, or the student’s current reality.

So I asked for a follow up conversation.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I know it is the right thing to do.

Today, while serving jury duty, I was gifted space and time to breath and prepare for an upcoming conversation with this teacher.  In between the jury orientation and rambling of tongue-twisting names over the loud speaker, I was able to dive into Brene Brown’s new book “Dare to Lead.”  She is a vulnerability Jedi.  And two things she asserted remind me that “the Force is Strong” in me.

Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.

Brene Brown

Hard conversations come with the territory in leadership, in principal-ing specifically.  There really isn’t any way around it. In the words of Dr. Sanee Bell, “…there is no way to address the academic disparities…without leaning into tough conversations on an ongoing basis.” More and more, I believe that a ciritcal difference between transformative leaders and generic leaders, is that the former head towards conversations that need to be had, while the latter shrink away.

Nobody wants to have the hard conversations.  And it’s helpful to think deeply about some of the reasons we shrink away from them. Some of them require conflict.  Some of them are upsetting.  At times, folks feel hurt and misunderstood.  At times, leaders are verbally attacked.  Other times, the conversations get re-told in the public square.  Leaders who want to be well liked fear that popular opinion may shift against them. Other times, we think think that we (the leaders) need to have the answers.  But we don’t have them.  That reality makes us feel weak.

In this instance, I knew a conversation was necessary.  I believed that this student deserved an advocate to help staff consider his challenges and to soften our approach with him.  But I also believed a direct conversation would spark emotion, defensiveness, and potential erosion of a strong professional relationship.  So I avoided the direct conversation.  Until I couldn’t.

“Daring leaders work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can.”

Brene Brown

Daring leaders work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can.At our school, we are committed to assuming positive intent.  Brown admits that this skill is super easy to talk about, yet super-duper challenging to practice.

What is more startling, is that (empirically) those of us who are more prone to believe that others are not doing their best, struggle with our own self-perfectionism.  We are less forgiving of ourselves.  And we end up being harder on those we lead.  Leading out of our own insecurities precludes us from building strong and healthy teams.

Given time, space, and a dose of self awareness, we will do better to realize that folks are doing their best.  They are striving under challenging conditions and working with their own limitations and triggers.

Assuming positive intent does not mean that we stop coaching our team members.  But it might mean we rethink our approach. 

Just thinking about the upcoming conversation made me want to crawl under a desk myself. But that’s not what daring leaders do. So I won’t.

Instead, I want to celebrate that I am not shrinking from it.  Additionally, I want to recognize that this teacher is doing the best he can.  And I want to be courageous enough to push both of us to act in a way that aligns with our deep belief that this kid, is our kid.

#thosekidsareOURKIDS

***This post was first drafted over a year ago, in the context of in-person  teaching and learning.

Learning Pods For All

Learning Pods For All

Heading into the 2020 school year, in the throws of the coronavirus pandemic, “learning pods” are gaining interest by families looking to avoid breaks in learning for their kids.  Pods are an especially attractive idea for resourced elementary parents who see a need for regular socialization and continued learning, while limiting exposure to an entire school. Some parents need space to work themselves, without having to facilitate minute by minute learning of their own children.  Others are simply disappointed with the version of schooling their children were provided last spring, and they fear the worst, headed into the new school year. Some pods are led by professionals, teachers, and micro schools, while others are organized in a co-op fashion by parents themselves. Either way, they are gaining more and more traction across the nation as schools ready for a new, atypical school year.

Here’s the Case for Pods

Students need direction and support to thrive in distance learning. Some parents are taking their children’s education into their own hands, creating small groups to ensure their children get in-person learning. Students benefit social emotionally through interaction with peers. Pods balance limited peer interaction with acceptable safety precautions.  Most models plan to host small groups of students outdoors, or in large open air rooms. A Japanese Study of over 100 cases found that exposure to COVID19 is twenty times less likely in outdoor environments than indoor settings.  If schools and districts won’t provide acceptable levels of support, parents should rally together and pool resources to provide the best possible outcomes for their children. Communicated both cynically and candidly by a close friend, “Schools should just figure their sh** out and adapt to make a meaningful learning program. Unfortunately, we’re forced into this situation while still paying taxes for the schools.”  In short, many parents feel like they must take these measures to ensure high quality learning for their children.

Here’s the Case Against Pods

Organically developed pods of students will benefit resourced families and widen the already stark achievement gap. Families who can afford to pay teachers, college students, or other qualified adults will have a mountain sized advantage in learning.  This design unintentionally regresses our system to a “separate but equal” imbalance of schooling that benefits some, while leaving others behind (Brown v. Board of Education).  Children of socioeconomically challenged families, and essential workers will bear the effects of this imbalance of support.  And these imbalances, no doubt,  will correlate to historically underperforming sub groups of students, including African American, LatinX and students with disabilities. Learning pods, increasingly facilitated by entrepreneurial outfits, come with a high cost.  According to MIT, “the cost is $1,200 to $1,500 per week per pod, depending on pod size, hours, and location.”  The Hudson Lab School, recently highlighted by New York Times cited “Each pod for grades K-4 will cost $125,000 for the academic year, or $68,750 for a five-month commitment.” For many families, learning pods will not be an option to consider. While well meaning, pods are not open to all families across neighborhoods and classes.  Most often, they are formed out of already established friendships, teams, and neighborhoods. By definition, they are leaving some of our most valuable, vulnerable children out.  And because “those kids are our kids too,” we all stand to lose.  

A Call for Equity

Perhaps this is a call to public schools who are charged with serving all of our students. In providing access to a rigorous education for all, we know that some children need more than others.  Children shouldn’t get the “same thing” across the board.  On the contrary, students with less advantage, more trauma, increased learning needs, and more formidable barriers to access need the extra support.  Maybe pods should be designed for them, rather than for resourced and over-resourced families. As stated in a recent New York Times Op-Ed:  “All parents will do what is best for their own children, especially in a crisis. As poor — and, therefore, many minority — parents have fewer resources to help their children, the state should come in to address the inequity.”

What if We Embraced the Idea of Pods for All Children?

The ideal state is for all children to be served in a school house, with differentiated support, so that all students achieve and reach their highest potential.  But current health metrics, limitations of staff, and the recent direction of California Governor Newsom tell us that this will not happen in the short term. Instead, we will open the 2020 school year in a “distance learning” format where all children will receive synchronous and asynchronous learning through the internet.  Parents will be courted as deeper partners in the education of their children. And we will experience a phased in return to schools as the health threats subside.

Since this is the case, why don’t we embrace the idea of “pods” for all of our children? What if we followed up requisite synchronous learning in the morning, with targeted in person pod-sized targeted support in the afternoons? Since this is the best thing that resourced parents can provide children, can’t we attempt to provide this for all of our children?  

It wouldn’t be an easy task.  It would require us to locate possible outdoor/ open air venues where students could gather.  We’d have to roster classes beyond groups of twenty four, into subgroups that could function as “pods.”  We’d have to account for residential locations and family limitations.  We may have to partner with community childcare organizations, and leverage volunteers in ways that we haven’t considered yet. Additionally, and probably most radically, educators would have to re-imagine their roles.  We’d have to see ourselves as mobile, flexible educators who are willing to go to great lengths to see all of our children succeed.  But isn’t that who we are?  Nobody got into education thinking we would raise through the ranks and get independently rich.  We got into education to help children, to improve their life trajectories.  Has there ever been a time when this call to help has been stronger and more compelling?  If not, then we cannot, and should not, cling to our historic view of what schooling should look like, at least not in the short term.  At least not while children we love, our children, stand to face gaps in their education that could set them back for years.  

This isn’t the only innovative solution floating out there right now.  And there isn’t one solution to this complex challenge. But in times of crisis, when so much is on the line, we should go back to what we believe most:  All children can learn and deserve a chance to be prepared for a world that we cannot yet imagine.  We can’t accept that some children will be highly prepared, while others languish in their apartments half engaging in zoom calls and haphazardly completing a handful of google classroom assignments.  We have to create a plan for all kids, as if they were are own kids.  After all, they are.

A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

Two employees got into a parking lot skuffle right when I was walking by. Chests puffed. Words and phrases got sharp. Tension was on the rise. Both of them are passionate. They are committed to our school’s mission.

Caught off gaurd, I made a quick decision to keep walking. While surprised in the moment, I reminded myself that these two would find a healthy way through whatever conflict they are having in the moment. That had to. It’s who we are.

I concluded they needed some space to do it. And they didn’t need their boss stepping in to take sides. So I kept walking.

On my eleventh step in the opposite direction, I heard something that warmed encouraged my soul.

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to,” one said to the other. “Let’s start over.”

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to.”

“Yeah…..Lets” the other returned serve. Within minutes the conversation was over. Both were back to baseline. And all three of us continued serving students and families, in the parking lot at dismissal.

At the root of their argument was something very small: Whose responsibility it was to open the gate for cars on a minimum day?

The implications of their resolved argument was something huge too, for a couple of reasons. 1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. 2. We are further than where I want us to be from being a TEAM where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared.

1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. Conflict should be expected, even embraced, in organizational cultures that are pushing hard towards improvement. It is evidence that team members feel safe enough to bring their best ideas, and beliefs to the table. Conflict is also an expected dynamic in any family, team, or organization where lives are lived out in a shared space. Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” points to healthy conflict, as an essential dynamic of healthy teams. Where conflict is disallowed, compliance is an expectation, divergent ideas are squashed, and unhealth blossoms. Team members go underground with their complaints and their brilliant ideas. People get ‘cagey.’ And everyone suffers.

Navigating conflict in healthy ways is important for sure. But seeing conflict happen in the open, followed by repair and reconciliation, is a thing to celebrate!

2. We further than I want to be from being a team, where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared. I long to lead teams motivated by a compelling vision for equity and empowered to make decisions that will bring us to that reality.

In this instance, both employees deferred to the rules, and a boss. Neither had explicit responsibility to open the gate. In fact, the procedure hadn’t been articulated at all. But instead of jumping in to address the immediate need, both employees deflected to the other. They wondered about the letter of the manual. And they got tangled up with one another.

Employees who embody mission, exhibit ownership, and assume trust, don’t have to think thrice about small things. They make decisions that are in the best interest of the students and then reflect on the outcomes at a later point.

In unhealthy school organizations, all decisions big and small have to come from the lips of the school leader. People act skittishly and fear making a wrong decision. This isn’t who we want to be.

“I am so proud of you!” I affirmed one of the employees in the skuffle. “You recognized that things were getting elevated and suggested a do-over. That is generous, mature, and healthy. That is who we are!”

“Let’s also revisit this at our next check in.” “You are a leader on this campus and don’t need an okay from me to open that gate. I trust you to do what is right for us.”

And so we continue to push towards a healthy organizational culture that has space for conflict and trust for good-faith decision making across the team.

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

This past school year, I’ve learned that my learning community depends on me to be a ‘squeaky wheel.’ But I need to be careful of becoming a ‘squawking principal.’

As the leader of a relatively small school in an enormously large school district, I’ve had to grow in my ability and willingness to advocate, call out for help, and present data that demonstrates our need for critical supports. Here’s what it has looked like for us this year:

  • Compiling data and trends that demonstrate a drastic increase in newcomers and, thus, a need for added support (personnel and curriculum) from the Office of Language Acquisition.
  • Firmly and politely asking for special consideration to open up another classroom, after all on-site remedies have been exhausted.
  • Bringing in district level architects and safety personnel for advice and support to address safety challenges
  • Voicing displeasure about a board vote to close a pre-school
  • Coupling requests for facility improvement, on the heels of self-help volunteer work days to better our learning environment.
  • Respectfully pointing out inequities in the level of arts programs, compared to neighboring schools, by communicating a desire to grow arts in our community.
  • Anchoring every single request in the stated vision of our school district, “To see quality neighborhoods in each and every school.”
  • Choosing to make first contacts with key personnel in person or over the phone ahead of the incoming email request.

I’ve also seen and experienced where disproportionate and inartful asking can undermine critical relationships and push away partners. Here’s what this might look like:

  • Venting to Human Resource personnel about contractually binding processes that are already in place.
  • Voicing needs in the form of complaints.
  • Neglecting to thank district staff when they have ‘gone to bat’ for us.
  • Failing to recognize that partner schools and leaders are facing similar limitations.
  • Ripping off emails riddled with critique and demands.
  • Becoming the leader that district support staff avoids in a large gathering.

We know that teachers who are “warm demanders” get the most out of their students. This principle applies to principals too.

Be the squeaky wheel. Your learning community depends on your voice.

Avoid being the squawky principal. You’ll likely see limited resource increases. And your reputation will may just limit the supports your students desperately need.

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 3 of 3: Schedule for Equity

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

Catch up on this three part series:

  1. Becoming Competency Based
  2. Multiple models for Learning
  3. Schedule for Equity

It’s becoming clear that a return to school will not include the entire student body, at one time.  In fact, recommendations from the San Diego County Office of Education advise a phased in approach to welcoming students back on to campus. While this approach will provide safeguards for students and staff, I think it will provide educational benefit to students who thrive with small group instruction and personalized, differentiated support.  This article suggests students may be more focused, productive, and primed for learning, given a shorter school day.

What if student “time on campus” was dictated by their need for individualized support?  We now know that all students can access a lecture, multimedia presentation, or primary source documents on their own, as they do now during distance learning.  But some students need more space and opportunity to discuss viewpoints, revisit articles, and frame arguments.  

What if the reason students came to campus was clear, purposeful, and targeted?  Imagine a group of twelve students, working in groups of three to conduct a chemistry lab, then returning home for a write up.  Consider a group of fourth grade newcomers, gathering with their teacher for a twenty five minute designated ELD lesson.  Perhaps a group of first grade emerging readers comes to school for a guided reading lesson Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and stays for a writer’s workshop lesson, with a different guided reading group that overlaps in time?

Schedule for Equity

As we plan a return to the school house, I propose we schedule for equity. Specifically, we should re-design targeted support systems so that students who need the most, get the most. 

Here are a few considerations we should make in designing targeted support systems that take individual student needs into account:

Acknowledge that educators are still our best resource

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king.  Nothing beats the connection, care, encouragement and expertise that teachers offer our students.  True, we can approximate some of those benefits through recordings, live meetings, calls, and written messages.  But we will never get away from the empirical reality that teacher effectiveness is the most predictive factor in student achievement and growth.

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king. 

Justin Phillips

Since teacher presence and support is powerful, we need to prioritize who gets access to this resource, and how often.  This resource is even more potent, given the reduced ratios of students to teachers that will be limited in a phased return to school. With equity at the center of our design, students who need the most should get the most.

Prioritize SAI for students with disabilities

Perhaps the most detrimental impact of COVID on education, when all is said and done, will be the impact on students with unique learning needs, those who receive specialized academic instruction (SAI).  When we design systems of support for students, these learners should get priority.  Even with modified schedules across the school, we should be able to deliver supports that strong enough to see achievement of standards based goals.  

One positive result of distance learning, is we are seeing special educators (Ed Specialists, Related Service providers, and paraeducators) engage creatively to support students in new ways.  On our school  team, staff members are collaborating at even higher levels to ensure students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are receiving the highest benefit possible.  This looks like speech pathologists attending synchronous online classroom meetings, ed specialists co planning lessons that are posted on the Google Classroom, and paraeducators being leveraged as supportive in new ways.  Let’s build on this progress so that students experience inclusive, supportive learning for each and every student.

Provide dedicated space and time for emerging bilingual students to grow in their language skills

English Language Learners across the nation, and at our school, will likely emerge with large gaps in learning, with increased ground to make up, when health threats are eliminated.  During ‘normal’ times, students were battling to access grade-level curriculum that is delivered in language that is less than accessible to them.  A 30-40 minute period of designated English Language Development once provided space to explore language, and (often) a revisiting of material that was presented just once.  Now, in first weeks of the distance learning launch, this support looks like extra support materials posted on a learning platform like Google Classroom or Seesaw. To make things worse, while sheltering in place, too many are trapped in homes where fluent English isn’t spoken, to no fault of their own.

What ELLs need is dedicated space to explore language.  They deserve this dedicated time.  They need to hear models of English fluent speakers.  They need low pressure opportunities to pronounce, and mispronounce words.  They need to see writing exemplars, and be prompted with sentence frames.  Some need phonics support and others need guided reading.  We must prioritize this group of learners as we design systems of support that provide the most support to the students who need it most.

Guard against developing tracks of remediation

Our instincts in response to this break in educational continuity will be to assess and remediate.  And while it will be important to see where students are at, we are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.  We are learning a lot about how to increase 1)colaboration 2)communication 3)crtitical thinking and 4) creativity during this time. Our methods are advancing such that students will be increasingly engaged in relevant problem solving and learning.  But these approaches are not, and should not be reserved for more accomplished students only.  All students deserve access to engaging challenges that require the use of 21st Century skills.  Drill and kill and “sit and get” approaches should not be redirected to learners with the most gaps.  These students too, deserve relevant, rigorous, and excellent learning experiences.

We are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.

Justin Phillips

Use what we already know about individual student engagement in distance learning

One of the most maddening, yet exhilarating challenges facing us is the challenge of designing a system that works for all, while conditions are variable.  The National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) uses a concept “VUCA” in describing the reality 21st Century School Leaders face.  “VUCA” recognizes that variability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity  are realities that threaten progress, but can be overcome with persistence, calm, and calculated approaches.  Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Justin phillips

The good news is that we have valuable data that can help us plan a way forward.  Our profession is comfortable with action research.  And action research promises the most viable way forward. We have objective information about overall participation rates.  We have spreadsheets, by school, class and student that tell us who still faces barriers to logging on.  We can pinpoint where computer and internet connections are in place for students.  And we know which students are engaging at deep levels.  We need to use what we know to inform our design going forward, even if we learn more in the future and make future 

True, there is a lot we don’t know yet.  We don’t fully understand factors impacting student motivation.  There are realities in homes that we are still don’t fully see. We don’t know why a small percentage of students are still missing from our virtual classrooms.  We don’t know how equipped or able families are to partner with us in the learning.  We don’t know yet how to best position resource staff for maximum impact over the long term.  

To approach answering these questions, we need to find ways to get proximate, for the most pressing challenges we face.  This is challenging, given the current state and county health recommendations. But it’s not impossible.  Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student.  Teachers also hold valuable insight.  Each of their interactions and attempts to reach students will tell us something.  While we are compelled to move with expediency towards a plan, we have to remain vigilant in getting proximate, asking good questions, listening well, and capturing subjective data to light the way forward.

Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student. 

Justin Phillips

This is a moment in public education, pregnant with opportunity. Because it is a large and vexing adaptive challenge, we shouldn’t be looking for the one correct solution. On the contrary, there are multiple solutions to adaptive challenges. The past few posts have explored three such responses that I believe we should consider seriously. We haven’t thrown in the towel on the promise of public education- to reach and teach every child in the United States, regardless of demography. We remain committed to breathing life into the dream that all God’s children will gain the ability to pursue a future of life, liberty and happiness. Equitable access to quality education is a precondition for that pursuit. And we can use this moment to pave a smoother onramp for some of our most promising, yet vulnerable students. Let’s get to paving that road!

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 2 of 3: Multiple Models for Learning

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  Our efforts to pivot ‘on a dime’ beginning mid-March have been impressive. Basic needs are being met in high volumes, in collaboration and through school delivery systems. Our district just surpassed 1 million meals distributed to students experiencing food insecurity. Devices and connectivity have made it to the vast majority of homes throughout our city (100% at our school). But the dust is settling. And barriers to authentic, meaningful and consistent learning are becoming clear. Beyond that, inequities that have plagued our practice persist. The achievement gap is widening and we must act. Now is the time to dream, to take risks, and to keep our most vulnerable, promising students at the center of our designs.

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

In the previous post, I argued that now is the time to make moves towards implementing a competency based system, that honors student interests, individualized pacing, and more precise support for students. While this proposed shift is major, it holds promise for increasing student autonomy, competency, and ultimately preparedness for a 21st century that is beyond what we are able to imagine today.

A second seismic shift that deserves exploration and possible implementation is:

Let’s offer multiple/ blended models of learning in the short and long term.

Let’s offer multiple/ blended models of learning in the short and long term.

Across our nation, state, and state we will be forced to rethink how we gather for learning experiences.  Today, our district publicized preliminary plans to allow all students to return to campus, in different configurations. More resources are needed and being sought from the state however. With the need to keep gatherings small, schools will likely be forced to offer alternating days of in-person instruction.  This article details a few versions of rotating schedules that may allow for a safe opening of schools.

Recognizing that we face a multi-dimensional challenge, providing some choice to parents is the right thing to do.  Based on marital status, employment realities, and childcare options, families are bound to have clear needs and strong opinions about what may work for them.  Considering health realities and vulnerabilities, some families may delay returning students to traditional school settings.  A number of our families may opt for a distance learning (exclusively) model until an effective vaccine is discovered and widely distributed. We should accommodate and honor families in these situations.

To pull this off, we’ll have to identify “musts” and “mays” for both students and educators. We’ll have to be ready to shift all three categories of resources: land, labor and capital.  And we’ll have to innovate supportive structures, like childcare centers by area, so that teachers with young children can give our students their undivided attention.

In the short term, student and staff safety will drive priorities and limitations. This makes sense. Long term, we will have to respond to the fact that many of our students are excelling because of the shifts. Last week, key teacher leaders on our site instructional leadership team shared some encouraging new realities that are worth finding ways to preserve:

  • Numerous students who were once passive and quiet are showing up to small groups, asking deep questions, showing signs of increased motivation and actively seeking support.
  • Numerous students are turning in work with increased quality, due to the flexibility they are provided.
  • Struggling students are benefiting from modifications and adaptations to assignments that are possible through new technology platforms and increased teacher prep time.
  • Parents are increasingly knowledgeable, involved, and supportive with their children.
  • General education and special education teachers are collaborating at levels.
  • Teachers are becoming more targeted with their teaching objectives, focusing on critical concepts and leaving behind less relevant material.
  • Teachers are growing exponentially in their skills and abilities, due in part to a new reality.

We can and should hold on to what is working for students, parents and teachers. Going back to “school as normal” would undermine efforts to reach students in new and meaningful ways. In the short term, because public health realities are variable, we should offer multiple models of schooling for our students. In the long term, because students learn differently, we should offer multiple models that provide choice and promise increased motivation for learning. It will, no doubt, impact learners we once struggled with. And this may be a doorway that leads to more equitable outcomes across our student population.

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 1 of 3 Becoming Competency Based

It’s becoming more and more clear that we will not return to “school as normal” in the short term.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it. While none of us signed up for such a drastic and sudden transformation of our educational delivery system, we have stepped up to the challenge.  By many measures, we are succeeding. Staff have gained skills in short time. High percentages of students have devices and connectivity, prerequisites for distance learning.  Collaboration is multifaceted and growing.

If we are honest though, the “COVID crash” is a real thing.  Most alarming,there will be a widening of the achievement gap, which leaves too many of our promising children behind.  In reality, even disparate outcomes for historically underperforming students persisted at sickening levels even when we were conducting school in a traditional context. But now, things are getting even worse; Students who struggled in face to face settings, are struggling mightily with digital learning.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  In a reflexive response to a sudden pandemic, our implementation of distance learning has been less than consistent across states, counties, districts, schools and classrooms (In our district, teachers are provided three implementation options for delivery of instruction).  And while public health models project varying scenarios for our next two years (see “This is the Future of the Pandemic”), now is the time to dream, to take risks, and to keep our most vulnerable, promising students at the center of our designs. 

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

1. Move to a competency based system of advancement towards a meaningful high school diploma.

Our efforts to educate every young person in America are rooted deeply in the belief that all men (and women and young people) are created equal with inalienable rights to pursue life liberty and happiness. We, perhaps too easily, assent that all children have this opportunity.  The problem is, publicly reported achievement data suggests otherwise. We see too many students dropping out before they complete high school.  We see disproportionate levels of students of color underperforming, compared to white peers.  We see English language learners making less than expected progress.  And we see students matriculating through grade levels, even conferred diplomas, without demonstrating baseline prerequisite skills that we, as a system, agree are important.

Since we (prek-12) have over thirteen years time to position students for success in a world we cannot yet see, we must be honest about some of the assumptions we are making along the way.  Too easily, we assume that:

  • Seat time is paramount.
  • Learning is a linear process that mimics the pace of standards introduced at each grade.
  • Smart is performing well on assessments.
  • Brilliance must be communicated and demonstrated through English speaking and writing.
  • Students deserve about the same amount of support.
  • College is accessible to everyone.

Many of these assumptions are weaker than the US economy during the shut-down.

I believe we can proactively challenge them by implementing a competency based educational system, paired with highly targeted systems of support.  A bold move like this will double-down on our belief that all students CAN learn.  A bold move like this will force us to think of students as individuals, on unique paths towards meaningful graduation.  A shift like this will relieve educator shame associated with not having every student at the same place by May of every academic year.  A move like this will add healthy pressure to educator teams to innovate.  Additionally, it will give educators freedom to try on new approaches with students.  As a correlation to the medical profession, it will mean having educators shift self perceptions, from being general practitioners to specialists trained to address unique symptoms of patients (students).

An approach to competency-based education is one in which students advance, based on mastery of content, rather than time on a topic/ in a grade.  This approach acknowledges that students are at different places in their understanding, yet gives them the agency to make decisions about their learning experience.  Support for students in this model is individualized, because it must be, accounting for unique learning needs.  

The National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST) identifies “focusing on understanding and mastery” as one of the key practices that improve student achievement for all students. Following robust research and experience in high performing schools, NCUST defined and delineated what a focus on mastery looks like. It is NOT “covering a set of concepts, skills, or pages during a period, day, or unit.” Instead, it is “focusing on getting students to understand specific content or skills.” CompetencyWorks estimates 6-8 percent of school districts in the United States are currently implementing competency-based education at some level. This shift is, and must, come. Now is a perfect time for us to make great strides in this direction.

As a nation, we’ve been consciously and subconsciously wedded to a factory model of education. We send students through lessons, units and grades as widgets on a factory belt. To break away from this, we will have to get increasingly comfortable with having students at different places and paces. But shifting autonomy to students holds promise for increased relevance and motivation for learning. If we are able to adequately support students along the way, students will make it through “learning pits” and have real reason to celebrate their success (Zaretta Hammond).  Beyond that, we will have complete assurance that our graduates are ready to take on some of the world’s most vexing challenges.