Sunday, June 28, 2020

Leading in Uncertain Times

The concept of leadership hasn’t changed, although the conditions under which leaders work and learn sure have. Prior to COVID-19, the vast amount of uncertainty in education lay in societal changes resulting from the 4th Industrial Revolution. The world of work was being disrupted right before our eyes. A rapid evolution in artificial intelligence, automation, and advanced robotics should have served notice to anyone in the education space that things needed to change. No longer did a “this too shall pass” mantra carry any weight.  In the end, though, scalable change resulting in a transformation of teaching, learning, and leadership was more of an exception as opposed to the rule.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down on the world.  Schools were not prepared, as nearly no one could have envisioned the mass closings for extended periods of time.  Triage resulted as educators valiantly put remote learning plans in place while attempting to overcome a myriad of challenges.  Curriculum must be revised, assumptions are taken head-on, and a school culture that focuses as much on equality and equity as it does everything else.

The bottom line is that the world has been turned upside down, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In times of uncertainty, strong leadership is needed more than ever.  

Embrace vulnerability

It is a misconception that being vulnerable means you are weak.  On the contrary, it is a sign of strength. Brene Brown shares the following in Dare to Lead, “vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It is having the courage to show up, fully engage, and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.” Leaders use this as a tool to build strong relationships with the people they work alongside by making known what is going on in their heads. As the saying goes, …sharing is caring.

Demonstrate empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I shared the following in a previous post, “As leaders, it is important for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the decisions that we make.” Empathetic leadership builds trust and helps to create a culture where change will be more readily embraced in uncertain times. 

Exhibit courage

Now is the time to challenge assumptions, tackle bias, take risks, and make bold decisions. To move forward with needed change, we need leaders who are able to persevere in the face of uncomfortable situations and not back down when things get difficult. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

Be a great listener

There are many ways to earn respect and build trust, both of which are needed to get change efforts off the ground. Active listening helps to accomplish both while opening up a leader to new ideas, strategies, and feedback. Research has shown many positive outcomes associated with excellent listening skills.

Health & safety first

As we continue to move forward in unprecedented times, the pandemic has made painfully clear that health and safety must supersede everything else.  Closing achievement gaps and addressing learning loss will always be critical, but in challenging and disruptive times, leaders must emphasize Maslow’s over Bloom’s.  

Model the way

Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It’s about taking them where they need to be. Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself. Empowerment rests on leading the way through observable actions. Modeling helps to instill belief.

Ask questions

No one has or will ever have all the answers. To assume as much is unrealistic, to say the least. One could even say that there are no definitive answers in uncertain times.  The best leaders ask questions, and the more of them, the better. Developing, asking, and following up on the right questions can lead to answers that will help usher in the changes that are needed now and in the future.

Provide support

Support can come in many forms, such as resources, time, and professional learning opportunities.  It can also manifest itself through many of the points listed above, such as showing empathy, listening, putting safety first, and modeling.  Leaders need to determine what types of support they can readily provide as well as those that need to be acquired, such as needed professional learning on personalized/blended learning, purposeful use of technology, relationships, Tier 1 instruction, and digital leadership, to name a few areas.

Relentlessly communicate

You will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. It’s all about getting people the right information at the right time through the proper means. During uncertain times you can’t communicate too much. Digital leadership is essential, and it compels us to meet our stakeholders where they are while employing a multi-faceted approach.

Learn from the past

A great deal has been learned since the onset of the pandemic and the social justice movement. We can ill afford to continue to do what we have always done and expect a different or better result that aligns with reality. Critical lessons have been learned, which can lead to new opportunities to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  Leaders need to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.

None of us know what the future holds in the face of these unprecedented times.  What we do know is that schools and educators need leaders to guide them in ways that help to subdue the fear and confusion that naturally arises during uncertain times. Leaders set the tone, and they are needed more than ever to step up and accept this responsibility.

Want to learn more? Check out the presentation I did on the topic below. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Moving to a Hybrid Learning Model

We don’t know for sure what education will look like in the future, but one thing is for sure, and that is the need to adapt and evolve.   The pandemic shuttered schools across the globe, and lessons, some of which were very hard, were learned.  As re-entry planning either begins or continues in earnest, the priority must be to transform learning in ways that provide kids with the best experience possible while ensuring the safety of all.  It goes without saying that this is no small feat. In a previous post, I outlined eight specific focus areas, in no particular order, that can help to usher in a new and better normal.  Now decisions must be made as to what this will actually look like in reality.

Business as usual just won’t cut it.  The lessons learned during COVID19 provide opportunities to re-envision what schools can be.  Now efforts have to be made in developing a practical path forward.  So, what might this look like going forward? My thinking as of late has been around a hybrid learning model.  At this point, they are just thoughts, but each can be a powerful catalyst to initiating and sustaining a transformation of education at scale. The premise though is to not only incorporate what has been learned up to this point during one of the most disruptive times in history but also to perceive what might come next. Failing to prepare for the unknown or addressing the slew of challenges that arose when schools were closed means that nothing was learned.  

The premise of a hybrid learning model is to combine traditional and non-traditional methodologies to improve education while ensuring that high-quality learning for all kids is the gold standard.  To start, a workable definition must be established to begin creating a vision for this model.  Take this definition from Learning Technologies:
Hybrid learning combines face-to-face and online teaching into one cohesive experience. Approximately half of the class sessions are on-campus, while the other half have students working online. Although that may sound like a cut-and-dry formula, a lot of planning is needed to ensure that hybrid works well, allowing its two formats to capitalize on each other’s strengths.
There is a lot more detail in this report that they developed. Hybrid, in the context of this post, represents the combination of two or more different things. Some might argue that education has always embraced this approach. Yes, to some extent, but definitely not scaled in a way that has led to system-wide transformation.  With the inherent challenges ahead, a uniform hybrid model is necessary for success.  The image below begins to visualize what this could look like as schools begin to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  


It’s not a matter if, but when kids return to school. The most powerful relationships for students form through interactions with teachers, administrators, and peers. In most cases, the consensus is that high-quality instruction and effective pedagogy are facilitated best when educators are physically with their students. The key is to utilize the time better. 


Personalized learning represents a movement from the “what” to the “who” as a means to facilitate student ownership of the learning process. It consists of high-agency strategies that focus on voice, choice, path, pace, and place both with and without technology. Check out this post for more detailed information.

Blended Learning

One of the best strategies to personalize the experience for students is blended learning. Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace.  The key is to focus on sound pedagogical strategies that will help to ensure improving student learning outcomes. 

Adaptive learning tools

The success of a hybrid model does, in part, rely on the purposeful and strategic use of technology. These can be instrumental in providing needed or supplemental support to close achievement gaps, provide independent practice, and help learners move ahead if they have already mastered the content.  Blended pathways are the best options for the seamless integration of adaptive learning tools. 

Social distancing

With new and potential clusters of COVID19 appearing, many schools across the globe will be mandated to implement social distancing measures. A hybrid model accounts for this fact, and its success relies on budgeting, existing space redesign, and professional learning support. 

Flexible schedules

The premise behind any hybrid-learning model is altering the “traditional” school day schedule (and calendar for that matter) to make the best use of time and resources. The literature on this goes way back, and it just makes sense. Flexible scheduling patterns address the concern for more appropriate learning environments for students and respond to the need, not for schools to be more organized, but to be more flexible and creative in their use of time (Spear, 1992). Flexible scheduling allows schools to optimize time, space, staff, and facilities and to add variety to their curriculum offerings and teaching strategies (Canady & Rettig, 1995). Pandemic or not, this is long overdue.

Remote Learning

Distance and virtual are appropriate where all kids have access to a device and the Internet. Remote, on the other hand, focuses on both digital and non-digital pathways to keep realistic learning going. With social distancing and flexible schedules having a considerable role in any hybrid learning model, the need to adequately prepare for and implement remote learning while ensuring equity is paramount. For more information, check out my entire remote learning series

Health and safety

I will echo what many others have said, “Maslow’s before Bloom’s.”  Above all else, we need to make sure each and every person in a school system feels safe, and measures are taken to both prevent and address any COVID19 issues.  For more specifics, refer to this post

As I stated previously, these are just some ideas that are floating around in my head. What I do know is that learner and educator success going forward will rely on a hybrid-learning model. Business as usual in the face of current challenges and those lurking in the shadows down the road has given us all a golden opportunity to transform education. My hope is that schools take it. 

Canady, R. L. & Rettig, M. D. (1995). Block scheduling: A catalyst for change in high schools. Princeton, NJ: Eye On Education

Spear, R. C. (1992). Middle level team scheduling: Appropriate grouping for adolescents. Schools in the Middle, 2(1), 30–34. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Upgrading Family Communications

As technology continues to evolve, it will continue to become an even more embedded component of society. With that being said, it is essential for school leaders to meet their stakeholders where they are at and engage them in two-way communications. Digital leadership calls for a multifaceted approach using both traditional and new-age strategies to ensure that the right message reaches stakeholders in a timely fashion. We can't assume communication staples such as snail mail (i.e., paper mailings), newsletters, or websites are the most effective or the only way to get information out.

In an article for ASCD, I laid out three specific areas that are critical to effective communication:
  • Transparency - Leaders can tackle the constant perception battle by providing more frequent and accurate updates about the daily work occurring in schools. 
  • Flexibility - A multifaceted digital communications strategy allows all stakeholders a choice as to how they want to consume information and interact with the school.
  • Sharing the good news and important information - In a time when the good news about schools is hard to come by in the mainstream media, school leaders can now become the storyteller-in-chief. It is also vital to get needed information to stakeholders quickly and seamlessly.
The COVID crisis has laid bare opportunities to improve how we communicate between schools and parents. Budgets are under stress, so why invest in a mess of multiple communications applications and paper? I'll tell you that I have personally experienced this as a principal and seen in many districts school staff who are asked to print, collate, distribute, collect, read and process all kinds of paper forms and documents. Often these are in multiple languages! School teachers and other staff spend countless hours on this work, and it is taken for granted. Students are then asked to act as couriers carrying paperwork to parents during the school year. The whole chain of communications, when paper is used, involves staff, students, and parents. Is this even effective? It sure is costly in both money and time.

What do parents experience? Almost all districts and schools have multiple ways to connect to parents, including paper, email, phone dialers, portals, websites, etc. Is it any wonder that parents are often confused and frustrated with how their districts are communicating? What is this all costing? Now in the COVID era, keeping parents informed and engaged is more important than ever. Furthermore, given the need to reduce costs and unnecessary labor, districts and schools must commit to simplify and become fully electronic in their communications. It is now possible to finally simplify and enhance parent communications, get rid of all the paperwork they have to complete while saving time and costs. But how do we get to this utopia of simplicity, lower costs, and achieve more effective communications? It may not be as hard as you think. Of course, you will hear and face a number of issues within your district or school:
  • You may be told or feel that parents won't use an electronic system. This is inaccurate. Yes, there are always a few that will not adopt new technology, but smartphone statistics show that 95% of adults with school children have at least one smartphone at home. Are these really the people who won't connect electronically?
  • What about parents with no internet? The good news is that parents with smartphones do have internet even if they don't have cable internet at home.
  • You have staff that are reluctant to change. Yes, there is always inertia. On the other hand, who likes paperwork? Does this push-back outweigh the costs?
  • You may have too many apps already. Many districts and schools over the years have indeed adopted multiple systems, each solving a specific problem. It's also true this has led to higher costs and more confusion amongst parents and staff. So, the opportunity here is to clean house, simplify, and save costs.
I am reminded of a school communications application I discovered years ago as a principal that directly speaks to these issues. ZippSlip is a cloud-based, mobile app that supports all communication sent from the school to parents like student registration, athletic waivers, permission slips, mass notifications, dynamic use of video, and the list goes on and on.  ZippSlip in one platform that includes multiple types of communications: electronic forms, multimedia, text, and recorded voice, all in multiple languages. The broad set of capabilities will help you consolidate and simplify.

ZippSlip saves costs in three ways:
  1. Eliminating paper, printing, and distribution.
  2. Replacing other applications such as the mass/emergency notification system, survey tools, email tools, workflow apps, and other communications tools. ZippSlip provides a comprehensive set of communications features for administrators and teachers.
  3. A considerable reduction in time spent on paperwork by staff.
There are other issues you may be dealing with consistently. While many schools now commonly use social networks to inform the community, these come with drawbacks. Some adults shy away from social media, making it tough to get high adoption rates.  I am not saying that you shouldn't use these valuable tools, but the goal should be to connect and engage with as many stakeholders as possible.  As a robust alternative to social media, ZippSlip supports ZippGrams. These are multimedia, multilingual newsletters, which include text, video/images, and polls. A regular newsletter complemented with digital assets such as video sent by the principal or superintendent will go a long way in keeping the parents involved. You can even include a poll to elicit quick feedback.

Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, schools should differentiate their communication efforts if we want true partnerships between home and school. Leaders have the power to shape the culture of our schools. Using a solution like ZippSlip as a lever, you can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, financial savings, and communicating for all members of your community.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Are Schools Ready for What Comes Next?

At the beginning of 2020, no one could have foreseen the impact of the pandemic.  In the face of a myriad of obstacles, educators have stepped up to implement remote learning to get through the remainder of the academic year.  Now schools are either winding down or starting back up depending on where they are located in the world, as the pandemic still has a grip globally. A post-Covid19 world will be here eventually, but it is anyone’s guess when that will actually be.  As schools grapple with the unknown questions and challenges at the top of everyone’s mind, here are a few that I hope resonate:
  • Will school be safe for everyone?
  • Will parents send their kids to school?
  • Will teachers come back?
  • How will social distancing work?
  • How will you focus on mental, just not physical, health of students and staff?
  • Will the lessons learned during the pandemic be applied to create a better learning culture for kids?
  • What happens if we open up school, and we are asked to shut down again because of a new outbreak?
  • What will the schedule look like?
  • How will reduced budgets ensure safety, hygiene, and needed professional learning?
If you are not thinking about these questions and others that pertain to your current or potential future situation, begin to now.  There are no easy or straightforward answers, unfortunately. That’s why planning now is critical. Along the way and during implementation, constant reassessment and pivoting will be needed to ensure success.  In my last post, I addressed some strategies that can be used to address the health and safety of all kids and adults.  

There is another pressing issue that schools need to be prepared for, and that is how they will step up to address systematic racism. Tragedy after tragedy here in the United States provides a stark reminder that not much has changed.  George Floyd might be the latest unconscionable murder, but as everyone knows, it wasn’t the first. We need to make sure it is the last. It is not the sole responsibility of African Americans to tackle these issues.  All of us must combat racism whenever and wherever it occurs. It is our collective responsibility.  Individually, we all have to do more, myself included.

Education can be a powerful tool to help turn the tide, but where and how do we begin? Venola Mason, my friend and colleague, shared this vital perspective with me.
"This is a delicate issue that can be highly charged with emotion and has a deep historical context.  For institutions to recognize that some of the practices in our schools systematically put some students at a disadvantage is difficult to admit. However, now is the time to examine local and state data to bring to light any inequities that may exist to ensure that all students learn in a space where they feel safe and welcomed and have access to a high-quality education."    
Cornelius Minor recently penned an article titled Why #BlackLivesMatter in Your Classroom Too. I highly recommend you give it a read. In the piece, he outlines different types of racism but also crafts a narrative that compels schools to take action. Below is one section that really stood out.
All of our students matter, but in a society characterized by its dogged refusal to treat all kids and their families equally, it is our moral imperative to affirm that black lives matter. If outcomes continue to be bleak for large groups of people, it diminishes the quality of all our lives. When there is massive disenfranchisement fueled by widespread failure and incarceration, the safety of all our communities is compromised.
Cornelius goes on to identify five specific ways educators can take action in classrooms and schools while providing a series of questions to guide the change process. He then ends the article with this powerful statement:
There is no right answer; rather, it’s the questions that help us think about what actions or changes might lead to better outcomes for all of our students, particularly those who are underserved by traditional schooling. Being an advocate for black lives does not mean that I am an advocate against any other lives. When we make the conscious decision to address persisting injustices, this broadens access to justice for everyone.
Dwayne Reed stated it well.

Discomfort, as well as ignorance, are no excuses.

Silence and inaction just won’t cut it. Our actions define who we are and what we stand for. The same can be said about inaction.

My purpose as an educator, at least how I see it, is to provide practical strategies, advice, and support and know when to lean on others who are more experienced and knowledgeable than me. When it comes to the immense challenges facing not just the United States but all countries in the battle to combat racism, we need to not only emphasize but listen to and get an understanding of the unique experiences of people of color and work together to develop solutions to create a better world.

What comes next will be determined, in large part, by the actions that are taken now.  Schools have to be prepared to address racism and educate kids in a current or post-COVID-19 world.