Sunday, May 31, 2020

When Reopening Schools Safety Must Come First

As more and more states and countries reopen their respective economies, schools will soon follow. Early lessons can be learned on how to do this successfully where this has already happened abroad.  Even though remote learning might continue in some form preparations for in-person learning have to be made. In a recent post, I outlined eight specific focus areas that should be considered as part of any re-entry plan.  The theme of health and safety was weaved throughout, but not emphasized in the image I had created.  After receiving feedback from several educators on social media, I rectified this oversight, but it also got me thinking a great deal more about what is on every educator's mind. When school does reopen will it be safe?

Safety is at the top of everyone's mind. A poll conducted by USA Today sheds some light on what essential stakeholder groups are thinking.
In an exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations. While most teachers report working more than usual, nearly two-thirds say they haven't been able to properly do their jobs in an educational system upended by the coronavirus. A separate poll of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 finds that 6 in 10 say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children this fall. Nearly a third of parents, 30%, say they are "very likely" to do that. 
Reassurance that schools will be safe has to be backed up by action, and planning must begin in earnest now.

I want to take my original question a step further. When schools and districts reopen will it be safe for everyone? Up to this point, the majority of conversations I have witnessed on social media, news pieces, and articles have focused on students' health and safety. It goes without saying that this is an extremely important group and should be emphasized. However, we must not forget all of the people that support kids both directly and indirectly, such as teachers, administrators, secretaries, instructional aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, groundskeepers, and other support staff.  The planning and step-by-step process of reopening have to be inclusive of, and sensitive to, everyone who plays a role in the functioning of a school or district.  

Even though those in power are ultimately responsible for developing a re-entry plan, successfully implementing it relies on all of the groups listed above.  Not only does it take a village in this case, but empathy and understanding need to lead the way. People need to feel valued, and the key is to have all stakeholders be an active part of the planning process so that health and safety concerns are not only addressed but acted upon. Below are some critical areas to consider as you or others lead a process to reopen schools safely.


It is vital to create opportunities for all stakeholders to be active participants in the planning process. If face-to-face meetings and town halls are not an option, set these up virtually. Also, consider creating polls or using tools such as Google Forms and social media to elicit input.


Engagement only matters if people feel that they are actually being listened to. The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to act in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction. Share minutes and poll results. Respond to questions and pertinent comments on social media or through email. There will be times during the process when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. Listening is a lost art that needs to be embraced. 


The purpose of the engagement and listening process is to develop a list of action items to be considered.  When it comes to the health and safety of all, many valid ideas should be considered. Nonetheless, they will need to be prioritized in order of importance with health and safety given top billing.


Sometimes decisions have to be made at the drop of a dime, but this does not. For the big decisions that will dramatically alter school culture post-COVID19, it is imperative that all stakeholders be represented, and their input is taken into consideration. Consensus means coming to a general agreement with those who have offered their perspectives and voices on how to open up schools safely.

All means all

No stone can go unturned when it comes to developing a course of action that impacts every person in a school or district. Inclusivity and equity need to be emphasized with a laser-like focus on the foundational levels of Maslow's Hierarchy, of which health and safety fall into. There will also be unseen issues that staff are grappling with. Sound plans must also account for the mental health needs of kids and adults.

Opening schools back up requires a team effort. People must not only be invited to the conversation, but their input has to be valued. The best way to do this is by following the guidelines listed above and show them that their concerns and contributions have been threaded into a re-entry plan.

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Work Smarter, Not Harder

I have a secret to share. In my humble opinion, I am not very smart.  While others might disagree, such as my mom, I pride myself on being extremely resourceful. However, this was not always my strength.  During my years as a teacher and principal, I would spend countless hours planning, researching, and attending professional learning events to hone my craft in order to become a better educator.  In all honesty, though, I was just doing what I was taught, and thought were the best ways to grow. The amount of effort put forth resulted in me working much harder than I should have been.

Over the years, I began to delegate more and build capacity in others.  I established hiring practices that resulted in the hiring of a lot of smart educators. By investing in, and trusting the people around me, more time was freed up to focus on innovation and large-scale change initiatives to improve school culture. Now, this represented an excellent first step, but probably the most impactful shift to the way I not only thought but worked, came in the unsuspecting form of a little blue bird and a tool called Twitter in 2009. Here is where I finally learned the biggest secret to working smarter, not harder, through the formation of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). The image below illustrates another secret that I have to come clean about, but one that also represents the ultimate power of connected learning.

All of us are limited to the people we surround ourselves with in life.  Social media has completely disrupted that and, in the process, removed barriers such as time, geography, and money.  As I have mentioned for years, the true power of a PLN is not how many people follow you, but the quality and expertise of those with whom you choose to connect and engage with online. No matter the tools used, what results is anyone and everyone can take advantage of collective intelligence. Here is why this matters to everyone regardless of title, position, and power:

  • Knowledge, skills, intelligence, and resources are an increasingly valuable currency in the digital world. Why would you not want access to all of these when they are readily available?
  • We can now teach each other and learn something we previously had no knowledge of through diverse expertise anywhere, anytime, and from anyone.
  • Life is all about choices. So why not embrace the strengths and skills of others around us, and, as a result, create more opportunity to influence others and to disrupt current thinking? 
  • Connecting with those who are doing or leading the work provides needed context and motivation to do the same.
  • It’s all free with a device connected to the Internet.

Every leader, including students, teachers, administrators, community members, and parents, can benefit from a PLN. HERE you can access a quick-start guide.

Connect yourself to the smart people then help your peers, co-workers, and those you serve do the same. To be more effective, we need to realize that there is a wealth of human resources at our fingertips that can help us all do what we already do better. They can push us to take a critical lens to our work, deliver essential feedback, answer questions, and provide support when needed.  Together we are better.

Always remember that there is someone out there smarter than you. Admitting this is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you genuinely want to get better, and not work harder in the process, connect with these people using digital tools.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

8 Key Focus Areas for Developing a Re-Entry Plan

The COVID19 pandemic has radically disrupted both society and education as we know it. The chances of many things going back to the way they were are slim. I can say with confidence that a mentality of TTWWADI (that’s the way we’ve always done it) will not serve many people well going forward.  Hard lessons have been learned as countries have shut down their economies.  Sacrifices have been made on an unimaginable level. Questions remain as to what the future holds. Through it all, though, we have seen triumph and perseverance that serve as powerful motivating forces that can be used to collectively develop a new normal that might even be better.

Obviously, education is at the top of my mind since it is the profession both my wife and I are a part of, and my kids currently attend public schools in Texas.  Both the lessons learned and tolls from the pandemic serve as reminders that we need to be thinking critically about what schools will need to focus on as they re-open in the near future.  The bottom line is that re-entry planning has to begin now even though there are still many unknowns. Challenges that might seem insurmountable now have to be addressed. Many will remain well into the new school year, but detailed planning now can help to both mitigate and overcome many of them. New ones will most certainly pop up, so the focus should be on not developing the perfect plan, but instead the best one for your situation.

During the crisis, we have seen digital leadership strategies embraced and innovation take hold despite roadblocks. Successes with remote learning have to be built upon and integrated across the curriculum.  In particular, we have seen some kids flourish in this environment. Going forward, a sound plan should be developed so that all learners have a positive educational experience that meets their needs. Below are some key areas to focus on when developing a re-entry plan for the upcoming school year. 

Please note that there is no significance or reason behind the numbering above. It is just a general list. Safety is also weaved throughout.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

There might not be a more critical area of focus than SEL.  Many students have been traumatized over the past couple of months as a result of inadequate access to food, social isolation, parents being laid off, and in some cases, the lack of a caring adult in the home.  Schools, as they have always done, will serve a vital role in getting these kids back on track. The challenge is that we do not fully understand the severity of the impact during the pandemic yet. Hence, it is crucial to start to develop critical supports now.

Addressing and Closing Learning Gaps

Many people are saying that the summer learning loss will pale in comparison to what educators will see when kids return to school.  While many schools have valiantly continued with remote learning, some decided that it just wasn’t working.  Those that implemented their plans with fidelity still could not fully ensure that all kids completed assigned work, let alone learned. Strategies to help all kids, no matter where they are, will need to be emphasized.

Blended Learning

We have seen schools make considerable investments in technology during the pandemic. Such a blended pedagogy has become an integral component of remote learning plans. Schools can seize on the opportunities inherent with the purposeful use of technology aligned with high-agency strategies to create a more personalized experience.  


COVID19 has unveiled the harsh reality of the inequities that plague learners in virtually every country.  Where you live, in particular, has had a direct correlation to whether or not remote learning has been successful in many schools.  The “haves” have tended to prosper while the “have nots” have suffered.  We can ill-afford not to address this fact. Additionally, the digital divide is wider than many perceived. Access to devices and reliable WIFI needs to be emphasized.

Flexible and Innovative Schedules for Social Distancing

There is no guarantee that when schools re-open that social distancing guidelines will be relaxed. This will vary from state to state and country to country, but pre-planning for this now makes sense as remote learning will probably be needed in some form to begin the academic year. There might very well be limits on how many people can be in a classroom or building at one time, and rooms have to be reorganized to keep kids and adults six feet apart. The need for flexible and innovative schedules that address this, as well as remote blended learning for kids who are not in the building on certain days, will need to be prioritized.


It is difficult to sugarcoat this one.  Many states and countries will be making deep cuts to education.  It will take creativity during the planning process to reallocate funds for routine cleaning, screening for COVID19, hygiene, devices, improvements to bandwidth, professional development, and needed programs, all while retaining current staff. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) just recently released guidelines for schools that can be found in this decision tree. Unfortunately, difficult decisions lie ahead, similar to the Great Recession from 2007 - 2009. Rest assured, schools will emerge stronger and better prepared to meet the needs of all learners.

Professional Learning

For all the previous focus areas listed above to be addressed and implemented successfully, professional learning will be needed. How this is accomplished will vary depending on finances and internal resources. It is essential to identify and map out what specific supports will need to be outsourced and those that can be addressed internally with fidelity. At Aspire Change EDU, we have a comprehensive plan to assist districts and schools with re-entry. 

Community Engagement

For any re-entry plan to succeed, relationships with stakeholders are critical and something I discuss in greater detail in both Digital Leadership and BrandED.  Communicate excessively, but also consider eliciting feedback from parents and the greater community to develop the best possible course of action. Embracement by all is crucial to success.

I am sure there are other elements that will be considered. As you map out your plans, keep them generally focused on safety (student and staff) as well as learning. Together we are better and will get through this challenging time. 

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Vital Role of Digital Leadership in Transforming Education

Education will not be the same.  Now before you think that this is a “doom and gloom” outlook, let me elaborate.  The COVID19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our world more than we could have ever imagined. In the case of schools, there has been a dramatic shift to remote learning that has allowed all of us to reflect on where we are, but more importantly, where we want and need to be in the near future. There has been a myriad of challenges that have, and will, continue to be overcome. Through all this adversity, educators have risen to the occasion and have begun the tedious process of redefining education and what real learning really should be.

In times of chaos, opportunity arises. That is how we must look at the present situation.  We can ill afford to go back to a mindset of that’s the way we have always done it (TTWWADI) as our learners and educators deserve better. The lessons learned from this crisis can empower us all to chart a new path to create cultures of learning that provide kids with the competencies to succeed in a post-COVID19 world.  What this will look like is truly anyone’s guess, but the one thing I know for sure is that the ability to think, regardless of what’s going on in the world, will best serve our learners.

So, where do we begin? The answer is and has been right in front of us, and that’s digital leadership.  The thing though, is that it can no longer be optional or just aforethought. Here are some of my thoughts from 2013, which have aged nicely:
Digital leadership considers recent changes such as ubiquitous connectivity, open-source technology, mobile devices, and personalization. It represents a dramatic shift from how schools have been run and structured for over a century, as what started as a personal use of technology has become systemic to every facet of leadership. Digital leadership can thus be defined as establishing direction, influencing others, and initiating sustainable change through the access to information, and establishing relationships to anticipate changes pivotal to school success in the future. It requires a dynamic combination of mindset, behaviors, and skills that are employed to change and/or enhance school culture through the assistance of technology.
I must say that the definition and description above align seamlessly with the environment we are currently experiencing. In a previous post, I outlined the Pillars of Digital Leadership that included key considerations. Below I will address these through a new lens from which we can begin to transform teaching, learning, and leadership in a post-COVID19 world. 

Student engagement, learning, and outcomes: How will learning change in ways that better meet the needs of all learners? The pandemic revealed a harsh reality that a good number of educators already knew, and that was the fact that in many cases, education was preparing students for a world that no longer exists. The purposeful use of technology and sound pedagogy that empowers kids to think through relevant applications should be the drivers. Learning going forward should be anything but common

Innovative learning spaces and environments: How will the environment and conditions under which kids learn change to more adequately reflect the reality of the world they live in? Remote learning has brought to the forefront the need to develop pedagogically sound synchronous and asynchronous strategies, especially in virtual environments. The “space” during the COVID19 pandemic hasn’t been a brick and mortar school, but a home. Investments in flexible seating should continue, but a more concerted effort to personalize learning through high-agency practices such as blended learning is needed at scale. Many kids have flourished during remote learning as they have been able to follow a unique path or learn at their own pace. This might be one of the most valuable lessons learned during the pandemic and can be a catalyst to re-envision learning when schools re-open.

Professional learning: How will professional learning change to better emulate the conditions where kids are now expected to learn? This question also takes into consideration the support that teachers and administrators need based on lessons learned from COVID19. Let’s face it - many schools were caught off guard and were not prepared to implement remote learning. While educators across the world stepped up and have made it work, support now, and in the future, has to be prioritized.  When it comes to professional learning that leads to improved outcomes, the research is pretty clear in that it should be job-embedded and ongoing. We can now add that it should also be more reflective of the current landscape. You can’t re-envision or transform education if professional learning doesn’t change. A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a must in a remote learning world. 

Communication: How have you effectively and consistently given stakeholders the right information at the right time through a variety of digital and non-digital pathways?  Excessive communication during times of crisis is a must and is greatly appreciated by all members of the community.  The key is to leverage a variety of tools, but also be cognizant that not everyone might have access to or even want to use technology.  Finding a balance and sweet spot should be the goal. Consider taking risks with different mediums and media to better connect with those who you serve and support. 

Public relations: How are you sharing remote learning successes and forging relationships with the mainstream media? As I have stated for years, if you don’t tell your story, then someone else will.  Social media is a great tool that everyone has access to use. However, we cannot forget the power of television, newspapers, radios, and other traditional sources. Not only do they still have value, but also, in some cases, they resonate more within and beyond a community. Digital leaders understand that a strategy has to be in place, and it will be crucial to garnering support for a new normal of learning. 

Branding: How does our messaging resonate with stakeholders while building relationships in the process? The “brand” is your work that is shared through communication and public relations strategies. Anything shared works to create a presence, either positive or negative. Digital amplifies this process. The key is to embrace a brandED mindset

Opportunity: It is vital for leaders to consistently seek out ways to improve existing programs, resources, and professional learning opportunities. It requires a commitment to leverage connections made through technology to take advantage of increased opportunities to make improvements across multiple areas of school culture. Improve the work, share the work, celebrate the work, and the process of change will take hold. There is no better opportunity to re-envision and transform education than now. 

Here are a few points to keep in mind. Leadership is about action, not title, position, or power. Teachers are just as, if not more, important than administrators in terms of ushering in change at scale. Autonomy, selflessness, support, and a growth mindset are critical. The most effective leaders are not in it for themselves. They are great because they build capacity, promote the success of others, provide needed support, and always give credit where it belongs. 

When it is all said and done, the embracement of digital leadership can, and will, lead to the creation of schools that not only work better for kids but also leave them better prepared if and when another crisis occurs. 

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Protecting Kids During and After Remote Learning

With more and more schools either extending school closures or completely shutting down for the remainder of the academic year, a focus on remote learning will continue into the foreseeable future. While many schools and districts have had to grapple with digital equity issues, their focus will continue to be offering a blended approach to meet the needs of all learners best.  However, a good amount of schools were either well-prepared before or purchased devices and WIFI for all students at the onset of the pandemic and, as a result, have been able to leverage technology to meet specified learning goals. In both cases, I can't commend enough the efforts of teachers and administrators for rising to the challenge.

For the sake of this post, I want to focus on keeping kids safe when they are engaged on devices as part of a remote learning plan.  It is imperative to know the laws in each respective country to ensure student safety. Here in the United States, there are two in particular that I am going to focus on briefly.  I go into more depth on these in Digital Leadership. Each is designed to ensure that identities and information of minors are protected.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) - A Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. As with any other "education record," a photo or video of a student is an education record, subject to specific exclusions when the photo or video is: (1) directly related to a student; and (2) maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution. You can review the entire FAQ's as it relates to photos and video HERE.

The Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA): A law that gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids. It outlines explicitly how websites, apps, and other online operators collect data and personal information from kids under the age of 13. Schools can grant COPPA consent if the tool is used solely for an educational purpose. The information collected must be "for the use and benefit of the school, and for no other commercial purpose." It should be noted that this can be a slippery slope for schools. For more information, check out this article from Common Sense Education.

Here's the bottom line. During synchronous instruction using Zoom or Google Hangouts, don't take pictures of kids and post them to social media. Even if waivers have been signed, it is better to err on the side of caution. The same can be said about recording and sharing a video with kids' faces displayed.  When it comes to COPPA, make sure students meet the age requirements for any tool that you plan to have them use. I know that this might make some educators unhappy, but Zoom is not COPPA compliant. Below is a snippet from the Zoom Terms of Service:
You affirm that You are at least 16 years of age and are otherwise fully able and competent to enter into the terms, conditions, obligations, affirmations, representations, and warranties set forth in this. The Services are intended for business use. You may choose to use the Services for other purposes, subject to the terms and limitations of this Agreement. Zoom is not intended for use by individuals under the age of 16 unless it is through a School Subscriber (as that term is defined in Exhibit A) using Zoom for Education (K-12). Individuals under the age of 16 may not create accounts or use the Services except as described herein.
That's it in a nutshell when it comes to keeping kids safe during remote learning.  There is, however, another aspect of this new normal that needs some attention, and that is helping to ensure student safety when kids are online in general.  Gaming and social media use by kids has risen dramatically during social distancing. Thus, it is vital to remind parents and students to be vigilant online.  Below are some important considerations when it comes to keeping kids safe online.
  • Utilize strong passwords
  • Regularly update software
  • Upgrade the security of your home network
  • Always back up files both offline and online
  • Manage social media profiles
  • Get passwords to all of your kids' accounts
  • Diligently check security and privacy settings
  • Never open up suspicious emails or attachments
  • Don't friend anyone you don't know
  • Use devices in common areas of the home
  • Invest in a VPN and anti-virus protection for all devices

The safety of our kids and abiding by the laws set by our respective countries is of utmost importance as learning continues during the pandemic. However, many of the tips shared in this post will be just as important as schools begin to move towards some sense of normalcy when they reopen.  The role of technology to personalize learning through blended approaches will only become more prevalent.  Stay vigilant my friends and keep up the great work.

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series.