Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Message to School Leaders

A great deal has been written on the heroic efforts of teachers during the pandemic. I, for one, have penned my fair share of posts that highlight the exceptional work they have and continue to do under extraordinarily challenging conditions.  They continue to overcome daily obstacles as every day feels like a trial by fire ordeal. It’s tough to understand the challenges they are going through unless you walk in their shoes for a day. We owe them all a debt of gratitude that should extend well into the future after the virus has been controlled.

Flying under the radar in many cases are school leaders.  The pandemic has also placed immense stress on them as they balance support for teachers and meeting the demands of stakeholders. As I work with schools on hybrid learning, I see firsthand the immense pressure on leaders to solve what seems like endless challenges that come from every direction.  During a recent coaching visit, the time was spent strategizing ways to support students who are struggling as well as figuring out how to get remote learners to attend classes. These issues are not new by any means but have been amplified as the pandemic has worn on over time.

Many leaders are desperate for ideas that can help their staff and students.  You might not see it, but many are at a breaking point. Here are both a message and recommendations based on what I have witnessed and learned firsthand in schools since the onset of COVID-19:

  • Don’t think you need to do it all yourself.
  • Prioritize time, standards, and SEL needs.
  • Continue to advance learning and equity in your schools with professional development.
  • Know and appreciate the impact you have.

No one has all the answers or even the best ones.  Keep in mind that strong leaders ask for help and admit when they don’t know something. In this day and age, it is critical to rely on our best resource – each other.  Leveraging other leaders, both externally and internally, to assist with overcoming challenges just makes plain sense.  Consider tapping into the expertise of a global network through a Personal Learning Network (PLN). When appropriate, delegate tasks to build capacity on others while lessening the load on yourself. Finally, focus energy on the most vital tasks.

Keeping our sanity while reducing both stress and anxiety are paramount.  Prioritizing what is truly important sends a powerful message to teachers.  In a recent post, I outlined specific give and take strategies that can be used to free up time, focus on the most critical standards students need right now, and address mental health concerns.  The latter is so important for teachers and students.  When looking out for others, please don’t forget to address your own social and emotional needs.  Taking care of yourself allows you to do the same for others, but your own family will greatly thank you for it.

In the midst of adversity, opportunity arises.  We have seen so many educators innovative their practice in such a short period of time, especially regarding the purposeful use of technology.  Many valuable lessons have been learned during the pandemic that has set the stage for scalable change that benefits all learners. One of those is the embracement of more personalized approaches to ensure equity where all learners get what they need, when and where they need it.  While progress has been made in many schools, there is always a desire and a need for job-embedded professional learning that is practical and on-going, something that I emphasize in Digital Leadership.  Learning is the fuel of leadership. Effective leaders engage in it continually while also providing options for their staff to do the same.

Finally, it is difficult at times to realize the impact that a leader has when every decision either doesn’t feel right or is second-guessed.  There are no easy or straightforward solutions.  Focus first and foremost on creating a nurturing environment for all kids.  Ensure you are there for your staff by listening to concerns and addressing them to the best of your ability.  Take needed action on behalf of those who you serve.  Showing up and trying is more important than you know.  Believe in your abilities and the impact that you have. You might not see it, but the rest of us do.  Thanks for your efforts, and keep up the great work.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

All Hands On Deck Approach to Connecting with Families

The pandemic has brought to light numerous challenges, many of which were known prior to the rapid spread of COVID-19, that have rocked our world.  Equity, primarily digital, might be at the top of the list. More than ever, schools realize that to facilitate learning in equitable ways, they must provide all learners with personalized supports.  Another pressing challenge is engagement both in and out of the classroom.  Having the right pedagogy in place is a critical step in keeping those who are attending classes, either remote or face-to-face, engaged. However, it is impossible to overlook the need to assist further those who are currently failing or not showing up at all. 

A great deal has been researched on this topic over the years and has provided some crucial aspects to remember. Regardless of family income or background, students whose parents are involved in their schooling are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Engagement strategies need to start early and be sustained. During elementary school years, parent partnerships build a strong foundation for student success and future engagement opportunities (Dearing et al., 2006). The goal is to have kids engaged in class, but we need to ensure that they are actually attending.  Even after accounting for grade level and previous absences, students with engaged parents report fewer days of school missed overall.

There is a great deal more research out there that makes the connection between student outcomes and family engagement.  As leaders are experiencing difficulty with engaging families across the globe, an “all hands on deck” mentality in terms of the strategies utilized should be embraced.  In a recent post, I provided some detail on ideas that have gained traction during the pandemic.  While these are definitely useful, I am always on the lookout for even more to assist the district and schools I work with on an on-going basis.  Below are some additional strategies to employ for your consideration:

  • Houses of worship
  • Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTO’s)
  • Local businesses
  • Alumni networks
  • Mainstream media
  • Tips from learners who are thriving

Houses of worship are an untapped resource. While many families are not engaging with their schools, they are still attending religious services. Herein lies a great opportunity to provide important messages for families that the leader of the service can read. This idea also solves a problem with language barriers as many houses of worship speak in the native language depending on the denomination.  Another community resource is local businesses.  When I was a principal, I always left paper flyers on the checkout counter and even asked to display some in the windows.  If you have not tapped into these two resources, I hope you now will.

PTOs and alumni groups are also excellent pathways to get information out. Since each group has unique relationships with families, I leveraged them to distribute emails, paper flyers, and social media posts.  While each group was impactful in its own way, the mainstream media had a different type of influence that could not be overlooked. As such, I was always reaching out to newspapers, radio stations, and televised news networks to get powerful stories out there that would improve connections with families.  Do you know what makes a great story that can be shared with the media and through your own channels? Tips and ideas from learners who have excelled during the pandemic!  Getting their insight is invaluable, in my opinion.

Digital leadership calls for a multi-faceted approach to engage families where they are the leads to some form of two-way communication.  Please don’t discount any strategy that can help make a connection, as the impact could be priceless if it helps our learners. I hope you will consider sharing in the comments below specific actions that you have taken that have led to a positive outcome with families.  Stay safe, everyone, and know that your work really matters. 

Epstein, J.L., & Sheldon, S.B. (2004) Getting Students to School: Using Family and Community Involvement to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism. School Community Journal, 14, pp 39-56.

Dearing, E., Kreider, H., Simpkins, S., & Weiss, H. B. (2006). Family involvement in school and low-income children’s literacy performance: Longitudinal associations between and within families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 653-664.

Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Modeling Hybrid Learning to Support Educators

Hybrid learning continues to be on the minds of schools and districts.  Either they are beginning to get ready to shift from remote learning, or challenges have arisen after meticulously planning for a smooth rollout. In either case, I commend them for seeking out assistance for staff to ease concerns and ensure sound pedagogical practices are in place.  These models were never meant for K-12 education, and there is no definitive playbook available as things seem to be in a constant state of flux during the pandemic.  Educators have admirably risen to the occasion, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve continuous support, practical strategies, and timely resources. Investments now will serve to provide needed assistance while paving the way for sustainable changes to pedagogy in the future. 

To this end, I hit the ground running to begin the new year by traveling to Oklahoma to work with Sapulpa Public Schools. Like virtually every district and school, educators were experiencing some challenges with hybrid learning. During my first session of the day, I worked with administrators to best support their teachers.  As I was on-sight with them in a socially distanced cafeteria, I facilitated a more traditional workshop.  I combined practical strategies aligned to the current situation combined with multiple opportunities to discuss essential questions and then share responses using digital tools. However, something was off as I felt that I really wasn’t showing them the reality of what their teachers were expected to do in their classroom with remote and face-to-face students simultaneously. Thankfully this changed for my next session.

I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to work with all district teachers on hybrid learning and encouraged them to attend the session as well. In my mind, this was the perfect opportunity to model pedagogically-sound hybrid learning in a way that was manageable yet effective. The scenario turned out to be perfect as I had approximately 200 teachers join remotely on Zoom and had another 50 or so socially distanced in the auditorium. I was pumped to do my best to replicate what teachers experience currently in their classrooms with hybrid learning in order to address challenges and lessen anxiety.  I cannot overstate the importance of modeling strategies for teachers and administrators under the same conditions that they deal with daily.

Using a toolbox of ideas and strategies developed during the pandemic in my work with schools, I facilitated the workshop using effective instructional strategies, essential questions, breakout rooms, and digital tools in ways that I outlined in my last post.  I stressed how I wasn’t doing anything radically different from what successful teachers did prior to the pandemic throughout each activity. For example, I chunked the content shared and infused numerous interactive tasks for discourse and collaboration. As they worked in groups, I moved about the room and monitored progress physically while also checking in on the remote learners.  After a set amount of time, all of the attendees shared their responses and reflections using various digital tools. After focusing on practical pedagogy, we ended with some ideas on transitioning to more personalized approaches through blended learning.

The feedback afterward presented validation for how I structured the workshop.  First and foremost, I wanted everyone to understand that the key to any hybrid learning model is creating an equitable learning experience.  Whether an attendee was with me remotely or face-to-face, they all were engaged and empowered through the same activities.  I can state how critical this is for our learners. We need to make them feel a part of the lesson. The second takeaway was not to overthink things but to keep it simple, as outlined in this post.

All in all, we get what we model.  Educators desperately want and need support with hybrid learning. The best way to get results is to model both expectations and strategies while also creating norms to ease anxiety levels. If you need additional support here in the United States, look no further than available Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title II and IV funds. The criteria stipulate the use of technology to improve learning outcomes. Feel free to reach out at any time ( to discuss the work I have been doing with schools and what I can do for you. Keep up the excellent work, everyone! 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Making Headway with Remote and Hybrid Learning

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it is now time to focus on the present with an eye to the future. Many difficult lessons were learned during the pandemic, and a few more are sure to materialize over the next couple of months.  Even though educators have been challenged like never before, they faced adversity and stepped up to the plate admirably for their learners.  While a great deal can be written about the challenges experienced and those still prevalent, I want to focus on some of the good that has come out of the COVID-19 nightmare. Remote and hybrid learning at scale was never meant for K-12 education, but the fact remains that each has been a catalyst for some exciting changes that have long been overdue.

As I recently worked with leaders from Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey, during a coaching session, I asked them to take a few minutes, and each share something positive that came about as a result of the pandemic.  Too often, we tend to dwell on overcoming hardships that we forget to celebrate both small and large wins. With morale at a breaking point now more than ever, teachers and administrators need validation for all they have done recently. These can become critical building blocks for sustainable change. 

As each leader presented their views on positive shifts to practice, you could see their pride swell.  They shared how teachers got better using technology, reached out more for feedback, collaborated more, and improved classroom management. They also shared that the facilitation of professional learning improved, a greater reach was achieved thanks to technology, previously unknown teacher strengths were unearthed, and there was the ability to get into more classrooms. All in all, these are all great examples of progress in difficult times. How has your practice or those in your school/district changed for the better?

As the new year begins, schools, for the most part, are still where they were in 2020. That is why it is imperative to celebrate success in any form and provide further support for teachers and administrators. Instead of dwelling on all that hasn't worked, energy should be spent on all that has during the pandemic. Consider these questions from your lens. What are your exemplars of effective remote or hybrid teaching and learning, and why? How are you sharing these with colleagues and staff or using them for professional learning and feedback? While these provide ample opportunities to reflect, further headway can be made by focusing on the following:

  1. Continuity and consistency – Keep it as simple as possible. Embrace a learning management system (LMS), settle on a video conference solution that has breakout rooms and integrate one digital tool that aligns with effective instructional strategies. Then be sure to use consistency and ensure there are continuities either across your school or K-12.
  2. Lesson structure – The key here is to ensure there is a balance between synchronous and asynchronous activities both with and without technology.  Other considerations include chunking how content is presented, utilizing routine checks for understanding, providing brain breaks, and incorporating movement activities. Engagement issues arise when it is entirely direct instruction, or learners are expected to be on technology the entire time. HERE are some ideas on how to balance things out.
  3. Relevance – Learners need purpose. Without this, the willingness and desire to learn dwindles. An anticipatory set at the beginning of every lesson is a great start, but they're also should be at least one opportunity to apply thinking in a relevant way.  Kids become intrinsically motivated when they know why they are learning something and how they will use what has been learned outside of school.
  4. Rigor – Any remote or hybrid experience should challenge students to think. Consider how questions are scaffolded and the way in which knowledge will be applied to solve complex problems.  The ability to think, pandemic or not, is the best way to future-proof learning for all students while setting them up for success.  
  5. Purposeful use – Technology has played a considerable role during the pandemic and will continue to well after.  However, just using Zoom to "deliver" instruction should not be the goal and does not constitute effective use. Now is the time to focus on purposeful use aligned to sound instructional strategies (review of prior learning, checks for understanding, closure, assessment).  From here, it is about empowering students to use technology to learn in ways that they couldn't without it.
  6. Blended learning – One of the best ways to incorporate all of the above is through blended pedagogies.  Often, though, there is confusion as to what this really is. Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace while also having voice and choice. Consider practical strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons.
  7. Leverage your superstars – There is no better way to make headway with remote and hybrid learning than to put the work of your trailblazers' front and center. Consider sharing what they are doing in email blasts and through social media. Not only can they serve as motivation for teachers who yearn for practical strategies, but their work can also be shared with stakeholders to showcase what is working. Your superstars can also lead professional learning.

What we have and continue to learn during the pandemic will pave the way for sustainable changes to practice that will positively impact kids. Don't sell yourselves short. In the midst of immense challenges and struggles, you have all stepped up in ways that illustrate how amazing educators are. Remote and hybrid learning can work because of your efforts. Continue to keep things manageable while also looking for opportunities to reflect and grow.  You don't have to have all the answers or solutions. It is a sign of strength to admit that you don't know or need help in these cases. If this is your situation, please feel free to reach out as I am more than happy to help in any way that I can.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Strategies to Accelerate Family Engagement

With all its challenges, the pandemic brought to light the need to either rethink or improve various aspects of practice.  When it comes to leadership, the importance of effective communication skills to engage and empower families moved to the forefront.  There are many reasons for this, but the most pressing was the need for information related to COVID-19, especially during the early months of the outbreak.  The move to remote learning, then a hybrid model, and frequent back-and-forth changes necessitated the need for timely and accessible information. 

Over time the emphasis shifted to getting messages to families that student engagement had become a critical issue as the pandemic raged on, even with the approval of two vaccines.  Headline after headline acknowledged that tens of thousands of students had yet to log on to any remote classes during the school year.  Overall attendance was a major issue as concerns over increasing learning gaps grew. If things weren’t challenging enough, the added stress of a lack of engagement by remote learners on video calls compounded things further.  As I write this post, leaders are still currently dealing with these issues. 

There is a need to embrace an all-hands-on-deck approach to engaging families right now.  A focus on solely traditional methods will not cut it, unfortunately.  The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results. Right now, time is of the essence, which is why leaders need to critically reflect on their actions in order to improve the outcomes of any messaging strategy.  Below is a quick list of ideas to consider:

  • Social media
  • Video streaming (i.e., Facebook Live)
  • Notifications (SIS, email, Remind, LMS)
  • Virtual events
  • Games
  • Flyers 
  • Infomercials and public service announcements
  • Yard signs
  • Town Halls
  • Testimonials

In Digital Leadership, I wrote about the fundamental need to meet stakeholders where they are and engage them where they are using a multi-faceted approach.  Herein lies why social media has to be a critical component of any strategy. However, leaders must also look beyond Twitter and Facebook and begin to utilize more popular tools now being used by families such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest.  Each of these has the ability to harness the power of images and videos to capture attention while delivering powerful messages. Any tool with video capacity can be used to push out infomercials that highlight both positive aspects of current school culture or pain points.  Consider having students help you create these. Many leaders have turned to live video to not only get information out but to engage families on a weekly basis through the facilitation of town halls where questions are answered. 

Testimonials from students and parents on successful remote or hybrid learning practices can also be shared using social media. With virtual events, leaders can provide insight into how remote and hybrid learning is just as meaningful and challenging as face-to-face. Consider using this strategy as an open house of sorts. Another tried, and true technology option is messages sent through both your student information system (SIS) and learning management system (LMS) as well as Remind. Each can be set up to send out both email and text messages. Back when I was a principal, we embedded critical information on student report cards using our SIS. 

The list above also includes some non-tech options to engage families. It is important to note that digital equity is still an issue, and we cannot assume that everyone can be reached using email or social media.  Paper flyers still have value. Sending them through the mail is always an option, but those whose students continue to either not attend school or be disengaged try taping them to the front door. I know this might seem a bit unconventional and a hassle. However, the fact remains that all options need to be on the table. Some schools have gone as far as installing yard signs to hammer the point home that kids need to attend classes and complete schoolwork. Another idea is to use games such as bingo with incentives such as school swag for families that participate. The example below could be adapted in such away. 

The list I provided outlines a variety of strategies leaders can use at any time to improve family engagement.  Keep in mind the importance of creating messages that resonate. In BrandED, we outlined the importance of promise, result, and image when developing an engagement strategy.


... A compelling core connection to the value we guarantee to our community


...A consistent reason to believe by our community 


...Identity that grows awareness of the good we accomplish 

As you work to craft both a communications and public relations plan that includes the above elements remember to use the power of stories. Storytelling impacts the brain in ways that make it easier to remember critical messages by tapping into emotions. It also aids in getting important information out to diverse audiences. Beyond the emotional connectivity, strategic thinking about messages shared enables leaders to set measurable goals that establish and ensure long-term trust. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. There is no better time than now to become the storyteller-in-chief!

As I work with leaders across the globe, family engagement is consistently one of the top challenges that they face.  The ideas in this piece are only suggestions.  When it is all said and done, it’s how these and other practical ideas are put into practice and lead to success.  For more strategies, consider getting your hands on both Digital Leadership and BrandED