Effective school leadership in the age of COVID: How to support teachers and help kids grow

Douglas Fisher knows how powerful it can be for students when school leaders create the right support infrastructures for teachers. He’s an education professor at San Diego State University and also chair of the educational leadership department. In The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders, which he co-authored, he combines his expertise in building systems to impact teaching and learning with his experiences with educators during COVID-19. The book details what’s working in the virtual classroom and how leaders can adapt to the current moment to help students thrive.

Dr. Fisher, along with co-authors Nancy Frey and John Hattie, plus NWEA researcher Chase Nordengren, will explore this topic further in their October 28 webinar, “Leading instruction and assessment from a distance.” I recently spoke with him to learn more about the biggest opportunities facing school leaders as they adapt to new learning models. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Fisher, thank you for speaking with me!

I’m happy to be here.

Let’s start by talking about some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing school and district leaders face in the era of COVID-19 and distance learning. How are they meeting those challenges?

Well, the biggest challenge leaders are facing is teacher well-being. We’re seeing really good instruction. We’re seeing really good lessons. But how do you keep well-being front and center?

Emotional check-ins are important! Social-emotional learning (SEL) has always been part of our job, and the pandemic has really heightened that and the need for well-being check-ins.

If I were a school leader, where would I start if I wanted to build a check-in system?

A colleague of mine took the number of teachers and divided it by the number of administrators, so each administrator had a group of teachers to check in with. They were asked to check in with 10% of their teachers each day, so every two weeks, everyone gets an emotional check-in with their administrator. Then, after a month, the administrators traded groups.

[T]he biggest challenge leaders are facing is teacher well-being. […] Emotional check-ins are important!

The appreciation I’ve seen for a system like this is huge. It helps leaders see what their teachers need. Sometimes they need tools or help with a project. Sometimes they ask for big things. There was a teacher, a single mom with a couple young kids at home, and early in the pandemic she was afraid to go grocery shopping with her kids. She was nervous about having two young ones there and felt the same about getting a babysitter. So the school rallied, and some other people did her grocery shopping for a few weeks. I’m seeing schools rally to support their teachers because of the check-ins.

And for teachers, I’m seeing this foster loyalty and allegiance. Teachers who say, “I’m so impressed with what the leaders did to take care of me. I’m never leaving this school.” It’s been really impressive to watch.

Knowing that every school district is unique, I’m going to ask a bit of an unfair question: What’s one thing that every district administrator can do or focus on to meaningfully support their principals and teachers as they advance learning?

We need high-quality professional learning: experiences that show us how to reach kids. Early in 2020, we made some mistakes by focusing on the tools, like “How to Use Google Classroom.” The tools aren’t the point. My message is this: We didn’t forget how to be teachers! We know how to teach. What we need is access to our learners.

If we can connect teachers with the right professional learning—and help them design learning around their new contexts, engaging their students, and setting their own goals—then they’re able to do what they do best: teach.

How might district and school leaders consider using their assessment data in late 2020?

I’m a little worried that we’re all focused on “the gap” and learning loss. Human nature will be to admire the problem, and I’m concerned we’re creating a deficit mindset. I don’t want to be in denial about these things, but I wonder if it’s healthy to continue to beat ourselves up on that and potentially lower expectations.

We do need good assessment data about students, and one question leaders might ask is, “How can we use it to focus on remediation?” There’s some evidence that kids spend 40% of their time in school on things they already know. So we have an opportunity to accelerate learning. Teachers need to know where their kids are, and we need to be collecting data as evidence of learning—what sticks and does not stick. But we also need to be careful about the mentality. I would love it if we could focus on growth. How much are they growing? Short-term and long-term. Let’s focus on growth; let’s focus on acceleration. If we can do that, we’ll be in a very good place.

If we can connect teachers with the right professional learning—and help them design learning around their new contexts, engaging their students, and setting their own goals—then they’re able to do what they do best: teach.

Knowing that distance learning brings up new concerns around equity, how can school and district leaders support their teachers and one another to address the learning needs of all students?

Start basic. Do kids have technology and Wi-Fi? Can they access the learning environments? Do they have food? Do they have learning materials? Start by making sure they have the basic materials for learning. After that, I think it’s about creating strategies to maintain engagement. Are we monitoring who shows up and completes the work? Are we figuring out ways to have more small-group and individual learning? Are we reaching out to families when we notice their kids aren’t in class? Are we re-recruiting kids or noticing patterns when they check out?

I’m also seeing innovations around differentiating instruction to help address equity issues. For example, if a teacher is using Zoom, they’re creating small groups and using breakout rooms for collaborative work, or using it to have students do independent work. I’m seeing less and less whole-class Zoom meetings that are just talking and more teachers taking the opportunity to differentiate instruction. I’m seeing some really cool asynchronous use of video, too, where students can watch a lesson as many times as they need. In physical school, we could never do that. You can’t rewind the teacher! It’s exciting. We’re moving past pandemic teaching to designing learning experiences.

Your work discusses how important it is to set clear expectations around learning outcomes. How might leaders apply this idea to their own roles and provide guidance to teachers around goal-setting with students?

When we have professional learning sessions with teachers, we leaders need to be clear on what teachers need to learn and what success looks like. Teachers are expected to be able to have their students answer questions like, “What will I learn?” “Why am I learning this?” “How will I know that I’ve learned it?” If that’s an expectation that students receive, then we need to apply the same expectations for teachers at learning events. That doesn’t mean giving away the learning intention at the start—discovery and inquiry are important—but at some point, learners, whatever their age, deserve to know what it is they’re supposed to learn and how they’ll know if they’ve learned it.

We have to build teachers’ agency. We have to show them that their efforts are resulting in good things.

At the same time, there’s a range of what teachers need. There are teachers who are struggling with technologies like videoconferencing and teachers who have amazing ideas about inclusive, universal response opportunities, like waterfall charts. So we need to provide options for people. I’m seeing, more than ever, leaders having individual conversations with teachers about their individual needs. They’re asking questions like, “What do you want to learn?” and “What would be useful for you?” That’s changing perspectives.

The pandemic has really highlighted the different needs that different people have, and that gives us an opportunity to differentiate instruction in a way that we haven’t before. And it’s helped us identify the specific needs that we can connect with focused professional learning.

What are the most important things for school leaders to be focusing on right now?

We have to build teachers’ agency. We have to show them that their efforts are resulting in good things. The narrative right now is about what’s not working, but there are successes out there. If we focus on the negative, our efficacy and engagement decline, so it’s important to draw the line between their effort and the impacts they’re having. It’s in our DNA to reach every kid—and we can’t forget to celebrate the little wins we’re having along the way.

Thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you for the opportunity!

Hear more from Dr. Fisher. Register for “Leading instruction and assessment from a distance” on October 28.

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