How principals can think outside the box to support students and teachers after school closures

How principals can think outside the box to support students and teachers after school closuresDuring this time of uncertainty, we’re all overloaded with questions about the future. When will we be back in our school buildings? When we do go back, will school look the same? What if remote learning continues long past September?

Administrators and educators are dealing with so many contingency plans that I’m sure it’s hard to know Plan A from Plan M. What is certain, regardless of where we are physically in the fall, is that we will need to have a differentiation plan for instruction when classes resume after summer break. We cannot start our curriculum in the same place we usually do at the beginning of the school year after being out of our traditional settings for twice, if not longer, than a normal summer vacation period.

The latest research from NWEA indicates that mathematics will be the subject most impacted by learning loss. Knowing this is one key area schools should focus on does not lessen the impact of school closures on other academic and social-emotional areas our students will need support in. There will be many ways we will need to be there for our learners, our colleagues, and our families in the new school year. In this post, I’m going to focus on some key strategies—from flexible grouping to scheduling—to help administrators and educators deepen the details of their contingency back-to-school plans.

Where to start? With a human connection.

We know that students cannot show us what they know academically if they aren’t in a good mental and social-emotional space. Schools should anticipate and plan for extended time for morning meetings or advisory periods each day that can address social-emotional needs, and they should plan on integrating these skills into academic areas, like math. The website for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a great place to visit for resources to support these efforts.

What is certain, regardless of where we are physically in the fall, is that we will need to have a differentiation plan for instruction when classes resume after summer break.

A lot will depend on everyone in your school community feeling seen and heard. Students and staff will come back experiencing levels of stress and uncertainty and fear that many leaders will not have seen before. As a building leader, how will you reach students? How will you plan to help your staff balance and manage challenges themselves? What you focus on will grow in your school, so consider getting to know everyone on a deeper level by connecting with them in meaningful ways. Helping staff in particular feel connected, safe, and mentally stable will be felt in the building and will make its way down to students.

Here’s an idea for fostering connections during the first professional development days for the year: Set aside 10–15 minutes each day to focus on rebuilding connections with your staff and between staff members. Pair people up and offer a conversation starter. For example, you could ask people to share something good that happened over the summer. Or encourage them to seek out a colleague they haven’t connected with and ask what they’re most looking forward to during the new school year. Conversation starters help reluctant staff have something to say to one another.

These strategies are great to continue during the school year as well when you have faculty meetings. Allowing it to be OK for staff to connect about something other than school will model doing the same in classroom conversations with students. It also strengthens staff connections. These exact activities are ones I’ve implemented in my building over the past two years, and they have had noticeable impact in how we are all interacting with each other, trusting each other, and being willing to reach out when we need help.

What’s next? Assessment and teacher collaboration time.

Once you’ve established some firm foundations within your building and have had a chance to get to reconnect with your students and team, it’s time to encourage teachers to formatively assess learners. Formative assessment will help teachers know where their students are academically, which is key to creating those responsive lessons that are differentiated to meet learners’ needs.

Your message as a leader about your vision and focus for the 2020–2021 school year should be clear so everyone can get on board.

We also use MAP® Growth™ at my school, and results in math and reading help my teachers know even more about where their students are, what they are ready to learn next, and how to group students with like learning goals. We call these groups “like ready” groups, and when a skill changes, our groupings change. These flexible groups of “like ready” students allow us to provide instruction at different levels and different paces.

When we differentiate by level and pace, we have found that our students respond better to their teacher, the instruction “sticks,” and students take more ownership for the learning journey. If you use MAP Growth, too, have teachers check out the class breakdown report by subject and goal. It’s a fantastic resource for “like ready” groups and, when paired with the learning continuum, it will help teachers know what each group of students is ready to learn.

Early in the school year, you may find that you have more students who are going to need instruction that does not match the grade-level standards your teachers are used to teaching. Administrators should plan on providing time for teams to meet with their vertical counterparts at least twice a month once school resumes in the fall. Or, if you’re able, provide summer work time for vertical teams to collaborate before school starts. This will ensure that staff have a clear understanding of skills before and after the grade levels they are familiar with. Spending time thinking about the what will also help your teachers with the how and when of each instructional area.

How and when does it happen? Rethink scheduling.

When thinking about the unique needs the new school year will have, consider handling the master schedule a bit differently from normal. Is there a way to carve out additional time for specific social-emotional learning work? Do you have the flexibility to shave off five minutes from all areas (core and specialists) to create 20 minutes of “just what I need” time every day for students? Your teachers can make a big impact with both. Here’s a sample schedule showing how you might be able to make all of that happen.

Fall 2021 modified schedule

Those 20 minutes of “just what I need” time will require flexible grouping and allowing for students to get mixed up into other classrooms. For example, the entire fourth grade team can look at all 100 students and divide them up into the following groups: needs just math, needs just reading, needs both subjects, needs independent choice. Each teacher is then assigned a group.

Differentiation table

Closing thoughts

Change isn’t easy, and neither are such uncertain times. Be prepared for educators to be upset about scheduling changes or additional team meetings by leading with confidence. Your message as a leader about your vision and focus for the 2020–2021 school year should be clear so everyone can get on board. Maybe your message looks something like this: We, as a collaborative community, ensure academic growth while guiding social-emotional learning for all students. The “we” is everyone! Are you all in to help all your learners? If so, small changes can make a big difference.

I know we can make the 2020–2021 school year amazing for our students and our staff with a bit of pre-planning and a focus on what is really needed. Go team!


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