Every September since 1980, I started a new school year as an educator; different roles but it always felt as the best time to have freshly sharpened pencils, clean notebooks and, if I was lucky, a new book bag to carry my treasures back and forth. This past month, was different for me and other educators and, more importantly, for students. In Canada, most students returned face to face to start the school year but schedules are adjusted and not every student is in school everyday. In the United States, it varies from state to state with some schools hosting only virtual classes while others are working through a face to face model. Many schools are boldly trying to hold both simultaneously.
Luckily, I was still able to provide leadership coaching to several schools and districts from my home. It isn’t the same as sitting side by side with a teacher or walking the hall and classrooms with a principal however we are all making the best of it. And, as always, there were lessons learned from the inspiring educators who I am so fortunate to spend time with. Here are a few of my take-aways this month.
First of all, despite the complications of opening schools in 2020, school and district leaders have amazed me with the successful plans and problem-solving that continues to be part of day to day operations. They are building the plane as they fly it and ensuring that students feel safe and welcome in a new learning environment. Classrooms, cafeterias and hallways may look different but the relationships and support to students is what comes first and I am so proud of how they are keeping this at the top of their priorities, no matter what.
Secondly, as the dust has settled in the first few weeks, conversations about student learning deepened. Through collaboration, teachers and leaders are using evidence to ensure that they understand the learning gaps students have come back with and they are working diligently to meet them where they are at, moving learning forward and at the same time, providing interventions to support what is needed. Sounds like quite a balancing act, right? Yes, it is and it is what teachers do! It was so energizing to spend time with collaborative teams and school leaders as they looked at student work to decide what to do next. There were so many conversations about root cause that my heart was singing! I know students are getting the best from their teachers when the conversations are that intentional.
One of my very favorite “lessons” this month actually came from several schools. More than once I heard a principal or teacher say, “COVID may be challenging us and changing how we work, but it is not an excuse! Student learning has to be our priority.” Leaders have the important responsibility to keep this as a focus and at the same time, look after the health and safety of the students and adults in the building (s). All a tall order in 2020 and I am thankful that so many have risen to the challenge.
As we head in to October, I can not help but think that an intentional focus on a few priorities will be the most important task for teachers and leaders this year. In the classroom, this means that teachers truly understand what the most essential learning outcomes are; what they absolutely need students to master in their grade and this is where time and energy must be spent. Leaders have to keep distractors away from this work and support with intentionality. It is not the year for brand new shiny coins; in other words, we do not need new initiatives and programs… just lots of time spent deepening the work of improving schools. It seems to be a great year to really get good at a few necessary instructional and leadership strategies that focus on collaboration, learning and results. These are the three big ideas of the process of professional learning communities and, in my opinion, never has it been more important for schools and districts to be clear on what is important and work together.
In our book, Leading with Intention, we end chapter one with a reflection tool to help leaders stay focused on the right work. Here is the link to the template- https://www.solutiontree.com/ca/free-resources/plcbooks/lwi#. It might be a great time to refocus and clarify your intentions. Thanks again to all who are teaching and leading in these challenging times! I have never been so proud of our profession.