Sunday, October 25, 2020

Give and Take Ideas to Support Teachers

The pandemic has really put a strain on educators, yet they continue to rise to the occasion on behalf of kids. This has come at a cost both mentally, socially, and physically. Something has to give. There has been a great deal of conversation lately about what can be taken off the plates of teachers.  I have to commend those administrators who are working to find ways to put their staff more at ease in these challenging times. While removing specific responsibilities to reduce stress and anxiety is a great start, we must also consider what can be given to them to provide multifaceted support. Giving can be just as, if not more, powerful than taking away, which is typically the more straightforward option. 

Below are some ideas that I have. Some are more doable than others, but all are realistic.


If there is one thing that teachers consistently ask for, it is time to plan, create videos, grade, conference with remote students, update the LMS, etc. I don't want to belabor this point as I recently wrote about the topic. You can view the post HERE. The main takeaway with time though is to develop ways to give it unconditionally to teachers and not schedule or mandate anything else in its place, such as meetings or PLC's. 

Eliminating Meetings

Let's be honest for a minute. No one truly likes meetings, and the value of them is open to interpretation. I, for one, did not find value in them when I was a principal and eliminated most while reducing the time of the ones that were kept. Now I am not saying that all meetings don't have value, but while the pandemic rages on minutes and essential information can be emailed to staff or made part of a collaborative Google Doc. 

Coaching and Feedback

There is a difference between wanting to be left alone and a desire to grow. The majority of educators fall into the latter. Even in the midst of challenging times, growth is necessary to meet the needs of diverse learners. Now is not the time to revert back to traditional observation and evaluation protocols because, quite frankly, they will not result in improved outcomes.  Taking this away and replacing with non-evaluative strategies consisting of coaching and feedback will go a long way towards creating an empathetic environment.  

Prioritize standards

It is unrealistic to try to cover the entire curriculum as educators are implementing hybrid models for the first time, and increasing COVID cases is forcing some schools back to remote learning. An emphasis on priority standards can significantly reduce teachers' burden while streamlining other pedagogy aspects, such as assessment. Other elements to consider are aligning formative tasks and checks for understanding to those prioritized standards so teachers can monitor the learning of students. In the end, more manageable conditions are created for teachers. 

Grading grace periods

There is inequity when it comes to grading, as some subject areas require a great deal more time because of the nature of the content. Additionally, many teachers are still getting used to tasks and assessments in a hybrid environment. Even though deadlines are needed showing a little grace will always be appreciated.

Cover classes

Some districts and schools are hiring substitutes. Others are seeing their administrators offer their time and that of other non-teaching staff members. No matter the route taken, this strategy is sure to build up morale. There should be no catch when a class is covered, and it should be up to the teacher as to how he or she will use this opportunity to either grade, prepare lessons, attend professional learning, observe peers, or just put up their feet and relax. 

Eliminate non-instructional duties 

Many contracts have teachers assume a duty either during the school day or after. These can include cafeteria, hall, in-school suspension, extracurricular, or athletics, where there is no compensation. If possible, try to eliminate all of these. If you can't, consider developing a schedule where administrators and other support staff can fill them in lieu of teachers. 

Choice in professional learning

Forcing educators to engage in one-size-fits-all professional development at this time will tend to be hit or miss depending on the person. Mostly miss as there is a definite need for practical strategies in the areas of remote, hybrid, and blended learning facilitated in practical ways. Growth and improvement are of vital importance, but it needs to be something that educators want to engage in at a time when there are so many challenges. Consider providing different choices such as face-to-face, virtual, blended, or asynchronous options. It is also wise to gather input from staff to determine what they feel is needed. 

Communicate norms to families

One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers when I am coaching is that they can't keep up with all parent emails that come in after school hours, mostly from remote learners and parents. I have gone as far as to recommend that teachers state they're out of office on their email each evening from 5:00 PM until 7:00 AM. Establishment of, and then clear communication of, norms can go a long way towards taking away some emails and messages, especially late at night and early in the morning. In Digital Leadership, I lay out the importance of using a multifaceted approach to meet stakeholders where they are while reinforcing the vital message at hand. Develop the norms with teachers and then "pound the pavement" with digital communications. 

Mental health days

With a substitute shortage, this could be a bit dicey, but the overall impact far outweighs the short-lived frustration of covering classes in a pinch. Based on the size of a district or school, a determination can be made as to how many of these days can be realistically given to each teacher. 

Empathetic leadership is critical to helping staff get through challenging times. Using a give and take strategy and lessening the burden will create a culture of empowerment.  As people have different needs, it is crucial to consider various options as there is no one right way to help people at any point in time. Work to take things off educators' plates, but also consider what you can personally give. In the end, powerful relationships will be formed, and that benefits everyone.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Important Lessons Learned During the Pandemic and How They Can Drive Needed Change

There is no shortage of challenges that have been leveled on schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. After some time, we have seen an initial move to all remote learning, depending on where you live, a shift to some sort of hybrid model.  A spike in cases has led to buildings being closed again and a resumption of remote learning in some locations.  Uncertainty and a lack of continuity have had a heavy toll on teachers, administrators, students, and parents. 

As educators continue to grapple with these challenges, lessons have materialized that can pave the way for needed change. Even though it is difficult at the moment to provide the time and energy to focus on these, it is essential to begin to lay the foundation. One day the pandemic will be over. Education can ill afford to revert back to the way things were done in many districts and schools. If the pandemic has taught us one major lesson, it’s that the system has not worked for many learners. The time is now to seize on the opportunity to do something about it while it is fresh on everyone’s minds.  

Below are some topics where vital lessons have been learned. Even though some have been prevalent prior to the pandemic, there should be a renewed sense of urgency to right the ship sooner rather than later.


The lesson here is that many learners have suffered from inequity because of socioeconomic status, inefficient resources, or insufficient pedagogy. If all kids are doing the same thing, at the same time, the same way, and in the same place, a red flag should be raised. Equity is about providing learners what they need when and where they need it. A move to real personalized learning at scale is the most logical step. At the same time, the digital divide has to be tackled where all learners have equitable access to a device, reliable WIFI, and quality resources.  


Health and safety are of utmost concern right now. When the dust settles, long term planning should commence to install or upgrade air filtration systems and make hand sanitizer stations permanent. New classroom furniture that is flexible should be considered that can be arranged in ways to support collaboration and blended pedagogies that were implemented remotely.  As many schools decided to purchase devices for students as a means to ensure equity during remote learning, investments will likely need to be made to boost WIFI throughout buildings.  

Humans Crave Social Interaction

Social distancing and remote learning shined a light on the importance of interaction.  It is the foundation of which relationships are built and sustained.  A lesson learned is how critical it is to develop virtual experiences that incorporate discourse and collaboration.  We must also look for opportunities to increase human interaction in face-to-face settings.

Use of time

One of the biggest challenges for educators during the pandemic was time, especially when it came to implementing a hybrid model.  A lesson learned through this ordeal as we advance is to rethink how time is used in the classroom and innovative ways to give educators more of it during the workday. Both pathways require taking a critical lens to current practice and reflect on potential improvements. It is also vital to think about moving from traditional requirements such as the school calendar, seat time, and Carnegie Units (first rolled out in 1906, by the way) to competency models.  

That’s the way we’ve always done it (TTWWADI) inhibits change

Everyone has been presented with a clean slate. In the midst of an unprecedented period in education, the pursuit of innovative practices that break from the mold of what has always been done should be the imperative. Now, this is not to say that some “traditional” methods won’t still have value. It is up to each school system to determine what should be continued, which particular practices need to be shelved, and areas of focus that will benefit all learners. This includes digital pedagogy that consists of purposeful use, a move to personalized learning through blended strategies, use of data to differentiate, innovative assessment, and performance tasks. The big shift overall is to make a move from low to high agency methodologies. 

Importance of a learning management system (LMS)

Before the pandemic, many districts had an LMS (Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom), but its uses varied greatly.  Many have realized how vital they were to continuity in learning, whether it was remote or hybrid. The key is to continue to ensure systemic use K-12 to support pedagogically-sound blended learning, self-paced activities, and the continuation of quality learning during extended school closures. It can also set the state to the creation of a viable virtual learning option for students who prefer this model.

More relevant professional learning

If there was ever a time to transform professional learning, it is now. The majority of educators will agree that one and done, as well as drive-by days or events, don’t lead to meaningful changes to practice at scale. One important lesson learned is the shift from this to job-embedded and on-going experiences. Another critical change is how professional learning is structured as well as the areas of focus. On the first point, there is a need to create or replicate the conditions that are reflective of the environments teachers and administrators work in currently. This should then be connected to relevant ideas and strategies that can be implemented in a practical way.  

SEL and our own well being

Social and emotional learning was a hot topic prior to the pandemic. It is even more imperative now as learners are grappling with social isolation, parents losing jobs, family members becoming sick, and a great deal of time spent on technology. We might not know for years, or ever, the full impact all of this has had on learners, which is why a proactive approach is needed that focuses on SEL competencies. Professional learning can fill this void. We can’t forget about the adults and what they are currently dealing with, especially teachers and the time being put in to manage and implement hybrid learning.  Although not directly tied to pedagogy, consistent efforts need to be made in the areas of mindfulness and health for all. 

I am confident that many of you reading this post could add numerous more lessons. Please consider adding them in the comments section below. You will also notice there is not much depth above. I only added a few suggestions in each category where vital lessons have been learned. It is up to you in your role to reflect on each and begin to take the required action in relation to your current situation. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

How to Create Effective Learning Playlists

Educators have been working valiantly to make either remote or hybrid learning work. In the midst of this challenging time, we have seen innovative practices embraced more at scale. These represent new methodologies for some, while others are now applying what they had already been doing to the current situation in the form of blended learning. It is essential for me to reiterate what I have been saying for years as there is still some confusion as to what this actually entails:

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace.

Thus, just using Zoom or Google Meet is not blended learning if content is just being shared. The same could be said if all learners are using Kahoot of Quizizz as part of a synchronous lesson. Another critical aspect of pedagogically-sound blended learning is some form of personalization. If all learners are doing the same thing at the same time the same way, then one can deduce that this is not a personal experience. If equity is the goal, it’s time to flip the script by giving students what they need when and where they need it.

Past posts have explored blended strategies like station rotation and choice boards, which make learning more personal in remote and hybrid environments. Playlists represent another great option, but I have yet to elaborate on how educators can implement these effectively, until now. The premise behind these is quite simple, as learners are presented with a series of tasks that they complete in any order they want. Personalization occurs through path and pace. Unlike choice boards, where only a set number of options have to be completed, learners are accountable for every playlist activity.

The following guidelines outline some best practices for creating effective learning playlists:

  • Provide direct instruction prior to introducing new content either through a mini-lesson or flipped approach.
  • List tasks in a learning management system (Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom) and use a Google Sheet for students to color in once a task has been completed. In cases where digital equity is an issue, these can be listed on paper for distribution, while any activities involving technology would need to be replaced.
  • Scaffold questions and activities to bump up thinking.
  • Build-in relevant problem-solving to instill a greater purpose while providing an appropriate challenge.
  • Use data to provide one-on-one or small group support.
  • Ensure there is a balance between tech and no-tech options.
  • Integrate adaptive tools that respond to strengths and weaknesses while providing data that can be used for groupings and shifts to instruction. 
  • If possible, differentiate by providing multiple versions that address the specific needs of learners while provided different paths.
  • Create a simple formative assessment for learners to complete after they have finished all activities in the playlist. This could consist simply of 3 scaffolded questions. Not only does this provide closure, but it will also provide insight as to whether the kids engaged in all the tasks.

The image above provides an example of what a well-structured playlist looks like, as it includes an array of activities that challenge students to think and play what they have learned in different ways. It also affords the teacher an opportunity to work with kids that need the most support. Once a task is completed, the learner colors in the cell under their name in a Google Sheet.

Playlists are a fantastic blended learning strategy that can be used to personalize learning, differentiate instruction, and free up the teacher during class time. They also represent a viable option for both remote and hybrid learning environments.  The key to remember is that there is no one right way to create them. It is up to the teacher to determine the right number of tasks and the overall length of time that learners will have to complete them. This could range from a single period or block to a few days or even a week. When all is said and done, the goal is to use time more effectively while developing a more equitable learning experience for all kids.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Time is What Teachers Need Right Now

At first glance, this post's title might be perceived that hybrid learning is not working in many districts and schools.  I can state unequivocally that it is based on firsthand experience coaching in schools the past couple of months. I have seen incredible lessons and activities that have both engaged and empowered learners through the purposeful use of technology, sound pedagogy, and personalized strategies. However, this is not the case at scale, and it is not the fault of teachers.  For virtually everyone, hybrid learning represents a monumental shift from what has been done in schools. No one was thoroughly prepared for this transition. Now we must accept this fact and work to get it right until the pandemic subsides.

Teachers need time, plain and simple, to make this work. There is no way to skirt around the issue. The current course in many districts and schools has created conditions and a workload that is just not sustainable.  I have had heart-wrenching conversations with teachers on this issue. As I have asked them what I can do to support them, the uniform response is to have more time.

Build it into the schedule

If you have not yet moved to a hybrid schedule, now is the time to think about how it can be integrated weekly or daily.  Many schools have implemented some variation of a flex schedule where an entire day is allocated for teachers to plan and catch up, typically on a Wednesday or Friday. During this day, students are all remote and working on asynchronous tasks. For more information on various hybrid models, check out this detailed piece from Education Week.

If you are already in a hybrid model, time can still be added with approval from the Board of Education. Another possibility is to look at other ways to free up time each day. I did this for my teachers as a principal. Since each teacher had a non-instructional duty by contract each day, I cut these in half, freeing them up multiple periods per week to pursue innovative practices. We called this the Professional Growth Period (PGP). If I were still a principal under these current conditions, I would have released them totally from their duties, which would have given them an entire period each day to prepare.

Dedicate specific teachers to remote learners

Another option to help alleviate some pressure is to assign remote learners to specific teachers. Ideally, this is done before a hybrid model is implemented. However, it can be done at any time. In this scenario, teachers are not responsible for both face-to-face and remote learners simultaneously, which turns out to be a huge relief.

Move to blended strategies

Another way to get back some time is to look at how it is being used. Implementing pedagogically-sound blended learning can free some up to manage both groups of learners better or even catch up on tasks. A teacher can work with smaller groups during a targeted instruction component with a modified station rotation model. Remote learners can be placed in the same rotation to eliminate the back and forth that often occurs when trying to teach both groups simultaneously.  Check out this post for more details on how to implement this successfully. More independent strategies such as choice boards and playlists can free up time for the teacher to monitor as needed, but also try to catch up a little bit. Since many teachers were already using these strategies prior to the pandemic, the foundation is already in place, with only a few tweaks being needed. By no means does this solve the issue entirely, but it can lead to less time being spent on the weekends and late at night.

Develop a coverage schedule

If you are an administrator reading this, hero status can be achieved by working with your leadership team to develop a coverage schedule. Thanks to technology, your office can be a classroom, and you won't miss a beat. As part of an alternating process, one leader could be in the main office to attend to any issues. Other administrators and support staff who are not involved in daily hybrid teaching can lend a hand to give teachers the needed time.

It is important to note that no matter the strategy used to free up teachers' time, there should be no strings attached. What I mean here is that this has to be their opportunity to plan, grade, conference with students, create videos for flipped lessons, or engage in professional learning. They should not be mandated to attend meetings, participate in PLC's, meet with parents, or attend professional development. For it to work to alleviate stress and anxiety, they should have full control as to how the time is spent.

For more remote and hybrid learning strategies and resources click HERE.