Every school year has a pattern--the thrum of excitement in September, the fatigue of November, the jittery speed of May. When you teach online, you observe patterns, too. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve learned that the cadence of the academic year is a little different.
On campus, the third, fourth, and fifth weeks are some of the best of the year, because you’re still coasting on the energy of coming back to school at the same time you get to dig deep into your course material for the first time. Online, however, the pattern shifts, and students can sometimes run into a tricky spot.
When people encounter a new technology tool, they’re eager, and that feeling drives engagement and adoption. Think about a time you tried a new meditation app, or a fitness tracker--you’re excited to use it! After a few weeks, or maybe even a month, however, it’s not quite as exciting. You stop using it regularly, or maybe even altogether.
That’s the novelty effect--when you adopt a new tech tool, you invest energy and time in it. In the vast majority of situations, however, the novelty effect wears off. In an online learning environment, the timing of this effect is especially important. That’s because the novelty effect wears off just as the course ramps up to its full level of challenge. Students get an energy bump from trying new things, but once they know how the system works and what the expectations are, they settle in and can lose momentum.
In those weeks when students are most excited about new challenges, teachers are typically reviewing. This gives students the chance to learn how to learn, before they’re responsible for new material. The time to start learning the new content, however, is generally at exactly the same time that the novelty effect wanes: three to five weeks into the school year.
That means that many schools are now in the time frame when students need to rise and meet this challenge. Our resilient students take the opportunity to lean in and push through. Students--especially those who are accustomed to quick success--may get discouraged fast and say, “I can’t learn online.” What they really mean is, “I am uncomfortable and this is harder than I expected.” Most of our students did school just one way until last spring: in person, on a schedule, and with classmates. When a student takes a class in a different format, the familiar markers and cues just aren’t there. Different doesn't mean better or worse; it just means it's a new experience, and new experiences are often uncomfortable.
Encourage your students to persist through the discomfort and to see it as a necessary step in learning: “This is challenging right now, but if I keep trying, I will get better at it.” Challenge their assumptions that they can’t succeed in the online space. The fastest way to get better is to video conference with the teacher-- these meetings are more effective than email or messaging, because they allow students to get real-time feedback and solutions, and they reinforce trusted relationships. Finally, make sure your school has identified the advisor, teacher or administrator who’s responsible for checking in regularly with a struggling student. When students know they’re not alone, it’s easier to build confidence and competence.
We’ll be discussing safeguards and structures for student support at the start of the year in our live Academic Leaders webinar on Wednesday, September 23 at noon ET. In this webinar, we’ll talk about the best ways to help students navigate new learning modalities and environments. Sign up to join us here.
It is now six months to the day when many of our world’s were flipped upside down by the coronavirus into a seemingly never ending cascade of changes to our lives: new normals, new-new normals, unprecedented challenges, and precedent setting opportunities. At first, we all thought that on-campus schools would have to move online for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. Next, we realized that the rest of the academic year would have to be online. And finally, we realized the 2020-2021 school year would be like no other.
Over the last six months, we’ve helped our 229 consortium schools and hundreds of other schools with a transition to distance learning and now to hybrid learning. Thousands of educators took our professional development courses. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with school heads, association leaders, and academic leaders. In those discussions, I’ve noticed themes emerging; I thought I’d share them today, the start of school for so many.
It’s Like Running a Start-Up
In conversations with colleagues, I hear comments such as: “We tried this out; didn’t work. Had to try something else. That worked for a while, but then went to plan C.” We’re in a state of constant iteration. Trial, failure, another failure, marginal success, more failure, more success. Many schools are in a better position to work through this development cycle because they have implemented design thinking strategies at their school. And yet, this is different from typical design work in schools, because this situation was forced on us.
Eleven years ago, I helped to found what is now One Schoolhouse. For the first two years, there were many sleepless nights, constant second-guessing, numbers swimming around in my head trying to create a business model that would work, learning that some who I thought were allies weren’t, and developing new bonds with colleagues. I was constantly learning and growing, and I was constantly distracted by work, which took a toll on relationships and friendships. The high points are higher; the low points are lower. It was exhausting. Sound familiar?
Everyone is working hard right now, but patience is running low. Last spring, there was a palpable feeling that “we’re all in this together.” There was grace and gratitude from families who knew that distance learning is not what we set out to do. These days, grace and gratitude are gone.
We’re Changing, Fast
When a start-up is successful it changes the status quo -- what were accepted norms are no longer boundaries. We see that today, too. It’s almost as if the changes we imagined five to ten years out are now the reality today.
The successful post-COVID school isn’t asking itself, “How can we get back to normal?” It is asking, “How should we implement what we’ve learned to be different and better moving forward?” Online learning, for example, is here to stay. Schools will need to consider the extent to which hybrid options remain in a post-COVID world, asking questions like:
Colleges and universities have learned over the last ten years that just because there is a physical campus in Cambridge or Chapel Hill or Berkeley, it doesn’t mean that all learning from that university has to take place there. Successful independent schools are learning that lesson today (if they hadn’t already).
This summer, we trained thousands of teachers to prepare for a hybrid learning school year. I’m sure many teachers thought they were coming to us to learn a new technology or learn how to be better on video. But instead, they learned that hybrid and online learning is not about technology or bells-and-whistles; it’s about planning and purpose and connection and mastery--all skills and habits that are essential to good classroom teaching, too. The successful post-COVID school will help teachers transfer newly developed skills into their on-campus classrooms, transforming knowledge acquisition, assessments, reflection, and mastery for the next generation of students.
Where We Can Provide Structures, We Should
Back at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we encouraged schools to follow three general guidelines: be calm and pause; be straightforward and clear; and create simple solutions. These tenets still hold. In times of increased stress and anxiety people cannot process information in the ways that they normally can. Systems have to be simple, and to the extent possible routines should be established.
My friend and colleague, Lisa Damour, made this point in her fantastic new parenting podcast, Ask Lisa. She notes that one of the keys to parenting during the pandemic is to offer your child incredible warmth and steady structures. For classroom teachers, it is important to keep this in mind, too. Develop a trust relationship built on each student knowing that the teacher is a partner in the learning process, using easy to follow structures that help a student navigate through a course. This summer, we advised schools to build a course template and learning cadence that could be followed across an entire school (or at least a division). These types of structures are incredibly important for creating normalcy and allowing students to find success in uncertain times.
It seems this advice, warmth and structure, can apply to ourselves, too. We need to be kind to ourselves as the pressures mount and change. And, we need routines, including and especially routines for self-care.
I’ll be sharing more thoughts in our Academic Leaders Webinar next week on September 16 at 12noon ET - recording posted below! I’ll hope you’ll join me then. Register for our webinar series here: https://bit.ly/3jVnJyC
I’ve been working with students for close to twenty years, and even though I don’t work in a physical classroom any more, I still treasure the notes I get from students and parents. The best piece of mail I received this year was a note from a parent in June: “Without your help, graduating wouldn’t have been possible.” In my role as the Director of Student Support at One Schoolhouse, I worked with students with a wide range of learning profiles and accommodations, and helped to devise and implement plans for success. These plans often made the difference between surviving and thriving in an online course. And although I can’t talk about this from the perspective of an educational psychologist, I can tell you what I’ve seen work in our online courses, and what challenges students with learning differences frequently encounter. Here, I’m sharing the four most important things I’ve learned.
The best online courses are designed to support a lot of standard accommodations. Some of the most common accommodations--for example, written instructions, recorded lectures, and work plans--are standard best practices in online courses. In addition, students may be more willing to accept differentiated support, because it’s much more subtle (and often private) in the online space. Because course content lives online, students aren’t time-bound. They can access work any time it’s needed, and take as long as they need to absorb it, which means that students with slower processing speeds don’t have to worry about missing information. The best online learning environments give students a guide to progressing in a linear fashion, which supports executive functioning challenges. Moving seminar-style discussions to online discussion boards gives everyone the chance to participate without relying on interpreting social cues, a skill that can be especially challenging for students on the autism spectrum.
Extended time is just as important online as it is in the classroom. Just like in your classrooms, assessment strategies vary widely in online courses. For the most traditional assessments--time-limited and closed-resource--students who receive extended time still need that accommodation. In fact, they may need more time if online testing is a novel environment. The changes in format can lead to increases in anxiety or decreases in attention regulation, which may put an added burden on students’ cognitive load. Most learning management systems allow teachers to add time to individual students’ accounts or tests. If you’re assigning traditional summative assessment, it’s a good idea to require a reflection after students complete it, so you can get a sense of how students perceive their experience of testing in the online environment.
Executive functioning deficits may need additional support. Asynchronous work requires a whole suite of executive functions, including self-awareness, self-motivation, planning, and problem-solving. For students with identified challenges with executive functioning, it’s important to engage explicitly with how students are learning, not just what they’re learning. Many times, these students have developed their own systems to compensate for their challenges; when school moves online, those systems may not be as effective, and students will need help adapting them to a new setting. We use a host of tools (both analog and digital) to help us understand what students’ patterns are in order to help them make changes. For these students, it’s often helpful to bring paper resources into the mix--printing out assignment lists, adding them to paper calendars or planners, and writing out daily work plans or playlists.
Teachers have transformative powers, both online and in person. We all know that strong relationships between teachers and students correlate to higher achievement in the classroom. The same pattern is true in online courses. When a student believes that a teacher authentically cares about their experience, they deepen their engagement. Demonstrating that caring is second nature to most teachers when they’re in the classroom, but it may feel awkward or antithetical when teaching online. It’s not! Meeting with students regularly on videoconferencing gives teachers the opportunity to ask the same questions they’d ask in the halls: How’s your sports season going? Seen any good tv lately? If a student is having a hard time mastering material, start by strengthening the teacher connection.
We’re going to be talking about effective online student support--including helping to provide accommodations--in our Academic Leaders webinar on September 2 at noon ET. In this webinar, our student support team will share the strategies they use to assist students who are enrolled in a wide range of courses at very different schools. Sign up to join us at https://bit.ly/2JnNrf2
Interested in learning more about supporting students in this coming year? Join us for in Steady in the Storm: Protecting Student Mental Health in Hybrid Learning Environments with Dr. Lisa Damour and Liz Katz
This fall, teachers are being asked to teach in new ways that feel foreign to their educator identities. Students are sitting in desks that are not to move from the spots marked on the floor. Masks and social distancing play out differently, depending on the age of the students. In kindergarten, there will be no tying of shoes or letting an exhausted, tearful child snuggle for a moment. High school teachers will not be able to lean over a struggling student’s shoulder to gently offer assistance or have students work in groups around a lab table. Adding to their stress, some teachers are uncomfortable as they are asked to broadcast this “not best” version of themselves live for several hours a day and simultaneously engage remote students in class.
What’s concerning with this scenario is that it impedes the progress schools are making in becoming more learner-centered, with a more personalized approach to learning. When a teacher is responsible for simultaneously instructing remote and present learners, instruction may very well end up being focused on the teacher’s voice. We may move backwards to personalized teaching this year, and if that is the case, we need to be mindful of that and do our best to ameliorate this unwanted shift.
Add in a necessarily heightened responsibility for social emotional support of students, and best-practice pedagogy may get shoved aside. Research tells us that students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe and connected. There is nothing more important for teachers to do in these early days of school than to ensure that all students, no matter their location, know that they are safe and that they matter to their teacher. (Note: the same might be said of the support academic leaders need to provide for teachers.) Social emotional safety is the snowplow and rock salt on the highway of learning in a blizzard.
How can academic leaders support teachers in these scenarios? One thing they must not do is assume that teachers can “figure it out” with some tech training. Once again, you need the tech, but it’s not about the tech. Teachers need augmented reality skills (we know they can already see behind them with the eyes in the backs of their heads, but now they need to see into multiple students’ laptops, too) and tools to: supervise multiple break-out groups, design rubrics that provide formative feedback instantaneously, provide differentiated pathways for learning that meet each students’ abilities and interests, and the list goes on.
Is it any wonder that “how to teach in-person and online simultaneously” turned out to be the largest webinar we’d ever hosted? Large enough that we exceeded our account settings and encountered some challenges in sharing the video. We want to thank Lindy Hockenbary, author of a viral post, for joining us to present her thoughts. We’ve shared the recording and her slides here. There are thousands of teachers in informal social media groups of educators asking the same question.
This is new, but we have some knowledge to draw on. For example, telepresence robotics have been around for a while to assist students who are (usually temporarily) learning from home. Yes, most teachers have never worked with a split model in these numbers, but many have had a student video in for a class or two. In addition, there were some predictions and models developed by the Christensen Institute around blended learning that can be useful to school leaders. There are shades of Disrupting Class (2008) in the NAIS job board postings for “remote learning supervisors” who will partner with teachers this year.
What the limited experiences we’ve seen so far (from international schools and schools opening early this year) suggest is that students (learners?) experience more success when they are actively engaged in learning experiences designed by teachers, no matter what their location. This is not a surprise, since active learning has always been a key component of independent schools’ programs.
What can be shared among all students, regardless of their location, is the digital space—whether it is an asynchronous discussion board or a small group breakout session. When teachers design for active learning for students, the trappings of “all eyes on me and my slides” can fall away. Instead, the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous is driven by the school’s mission, values, and culture as student learning moves back to the center. Teachers can design jigsaw activities, pair students, hold office hours in which students work independently while in a video conference, and design countless other ways to provide “just right” learning experiences.
Ultimately, it’s not about finding what teachers can do in the classroom that works for students connecting digitally, it’s designing what students do, whether it’s digital or not, that leverages the shared digital space for connection and feedback. When students are engaged in activities designed by a teacher, grow in response to feedback, and can communicate how they’ve learned—that’s excellent teaching...no matter the venue or mode.
A recurring theme in some of our classes for school administrators this summer has been reluctance to interfere with the “autonomy” of teachers by asking them to systematize practices and structures. In our own work we’ve learned that this systematization, which does not seem to impede creativity or content selection, works in the interest of better communication with students and families in an online learning situation. But at some schools administrators seem afraid to ask teachers to engage in consistent framing of expectations, work collection, and offering of feedback. But is dodging this work actually making things harder for teachers and setting them up for more stress?
Autonomy is often touted as the big reward in independent school teaching—no rigid state standards or testing, no iron hand of arbitrary coverage expectations. One might still teach to a test or to some other external standard, but it’s the school’s choice to let the teacher do that.
But autonomy comes with its unfortunate side, too. When pressed, many independent school teachers—including me—will confess that being left purposely alone in one’s early career was isolating and professionally unhelpful; some direction and some feedback might have served us and our students well. I’d even call this very common scenario neglectful. It can certainly be isolating, building cultural wall between teachers and their colleagues and too often between faculties and professional learning.
Isolation and neglect aren’t really much of a reward. If some teachers compensate by becoming professorial caricatures or petty tyrants, or by dismissing “professional development” or evolving school policies and practices as an imposition, it is understandable.
In the COVID Spring of 2020 teachers were sent home to figure out how to run their classes online. The preparatory training many received may have been dismissed or ignored in the name of autonomy; guidance offered in practice or tech tools may have fallen on unhearing ears. As problems in communication and presentation emerged, what happened to the confidence of these autonomous teachers?
And who was there to help them, beyond technical issues—much less with any issues of self-doubt and anxiety? Not leaders whose hands-off policies were born not so much of principle but of fear of meddling with cultures of autonomy.
The glue that holds independent schools together and the fuel that powers them are the same: relationships—being known, cared about, and supported. We talk about this all the time in the context of students and admission, and we like to throw it around when we’re hiring.
But what relationship exists to support the dispirited, exhausted autonomous teacher? Do your job and all will be well; we’ll not interfere with your work or inflict on you our perhaps well-meaning but (we understand) unwanted support and guidance; you’re autonomous!
Autonomous, like a Mars rover, millions of miles from home and connected to any chance of support and repair only by a tenuous radio link.
It’s time to scrap cultures of autonomy. If school leaders are timid about confronting this, start by going relational. Your autonomous teachers are probably still feeling pretty down after Spring 2020, and they need personal, emotional support. What can you offer? Not further isolation and neglect. Counseling? Mentoring?
You might start with a confession: “We inherited and sustained a culture of autonomy that didn’t support you in being your teacherly best in this global crisis. It’s gone on way longer than we could possibly have imagined, and we have to do more for you. We’re offering you tools that are designed to be helpful, but it’s even more important that we know and care for you better as people and professionals. We left you autonomous and alone when there was way too much alone-ness. That stops now. We’re in this together, and we need to support one another, as a unit and with the love and caring that characterizes this school.”
Alone in their Zoom spaces or plexiglass pods, will your autonomous teachers burst into virtual applause? Probably not. But you will have laid out your case for supporting them and for welding them into a team and not a display of miscellaneous tin soldiers on a shelf.
Have you the courage needed to make this plan stick? Only you know that.
Note: This September, One Schoolhouse is offering a course designed to guide academic leaders in developing and practicing strategies that build healthy and supportive trusting relationships with teachers. The result is a professional culture that mirrors the schools’ concern for and support of students. Find out more.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO