Crucial Conversations When Online Learning is The Right - But Maybe Not the Popular - Solution to a Problem
We love to brainstorm solutions to sticky problems in schools. Sometimes One Schoolhouse can be part of the solution. Even when we don’t have the answer, our collective experience in a range of schools makes us a solid sounding board when a partner needs to work through options with a trusted colleague. Because there is a human element to every change, it is often useful to have someone who isn’t connected to the personalities involved to process options and outcomes.
So who are the constituent groups and how do you handle conversations when the solution includes putting students into online courses? Let’s be honest: A lot of people have negative preconceptions about online classes. Families may perceive that they are impersonal or aren’t rigorous; teachers worry they will change or take away their jobs; administrators think it may be another thing to manage. Let’s assume these concerns are the starting points for conversations, and diffuse anxiety by addressing them head-on.
Families: Most families choose independent schools for two primary reasons: college readiness and personal relationships. Sharing our college list along with anecdotes about how online learning promotes college preparedness by increasing academic maturity can help alleviate concern around rigor. So does describing the One Schoolhouse faculty, most of whom teach in top independent schools around the country and hold advanced degrees in their fields. Our faculty have the same goals that your faculty have: to understand the goals and needs of every student and to help every student find success.
Primary communications goal: Convey that online learning is an essential piece of a college prep education and One Schoolhouse is your trusted partner because we share your independent school values.
Teachers: Independent school teachers care deeply about their subjects and their students. In this moment of accelerating change, some are less inclined to adopt new innovations or are even fearful. Obstacles arise because teachers worry that new pedagogical or curricular initiatives will subjugate content and one-on-one time with students, or because they worry that the online option will eliminate their position or that of a dear colleague. Transparent communication about the school’s decision-making process reduces fear, which often surfaces because teachers don’t have the information that they need to understand what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Primary goal: Don’t be afraid to make your thinking visible to teachers as you process challenges - it prevents the toxic behavior of assuming the worst.
Administrators: No school administrator needs one more thing to manage, we can’t build a different school to address every single parent complaint, and we all want our school to be fully enrolled. Circumstances such as these conspire to back us into a corner. Here are a few real examples from when I worked in face-to-face schools. There were moments we lost students for all sorts of reasons that were largely out of our control, but that could have been resolved with One Schoolhouse’s help:
One Schoolhouse isn’t always the right solution to every problem. But we can help you think about how to handle course issues, especially those involving sensitive relationships or high financial stakes. We’ve seen communication go smoothly; we’ve also seen moments where you’d give anything for a do-over, and we’ve learned a lot about what makes the difference. Bottom line: when you’re preparing for crucial conversations around online learning, make us your first call.
There is general acknowledgement across our industry that we have to continue to hire more people in our schools. We can look back almost twenty years to 2000-2001, when schools had 5.5 students for every one full time equivalent employee. Today, it’s 4.5 to one. Back in 2000-2001, there were 9 students to every one FTE teacher. Today, it’s 8 to one. The assumption has been that our schools have added more employees in administrative positions, not teaching positions in the last twenty years. That was true in the 1990s, but it hasn’t been the casein recent years. We’ve added teachers, and often we’ve added teachers to teach smaller numbers of students.
As our partnerships with schools deepened, we learned that online education provided an innovative opportunity for schools to add programs: per student rather than per faculty. This allowed schools to increase opportunities in more cost-effective ways and without making huge up-front investments in either spaces or people. also provided an opportunity to shift low-enrollment courses online to reduce costs without sacrificing the breadth and depth of their offerings.
Consider this program expansion scenario from one of our schools. This girls’ school in a tight market was looking to increase STEM opportunities for students, and considered two paths: traditional staffing (Option #1) or an online partnerships (Option #2). They chose Option #2 to allow for greater depth to their program at a lower annual cost and no capital expenditures.
Ten years ago, there was a lot of thought in the independent school world that online learning could be used to create new revenue. Those predictions have not come true. More importantly, however, independent schools can use online education to manage expenses, by adding value and increasing opportunities without having to add staff.
For a deeper dive, explore some past blog posts or check out the professional development courses offered in partnership with the National Business Officers Association:
As teachers, we all have our own flavor of innovation, and we leave for summer with ideas (or, if you’re like me, a stack of haphazard notes in a drawer) to revamp our courses for next year. Sometimes there are new tools we’ve heard about that we want to test out, and sometimes we have a new course to design. Whatever the motivator, teachers are lifelong learners and we seek to grow professionally. I’ve noticed two essential ingredients that are necessary for this growth. First, teachers need time and space for expansive reflection. Second, they need a structure to guide the process of designing for a reimagined learning experience. Here’s how we’ve taken these challenges on.
Meredith Mikell, One Schoolhouse Astronomy and Marine Science teacher, has to refuel each summer because, in her words, she teaches “intellectual recklessness.” Concerned that so many good science students have a fixed mindset, Meredith spends her summers pursuing her own passions - including attending the annual Star Trek convention! - so that she can shift the learning paradigm for her students. By designing activities that allow for creative application, Meredith’s projects allow students to “discover” basic science principles. For example, the null hypothesis is a notoriously tedious topic to teach because it is so abstract. But Meredith’s Astronomy students uncover its true meaning when they are asked to determine whether their teacher is actually an alien. Far from the rote experimental design question, this crazy origin story inquiry pushes students to the brink of what science can answer, and therein lies the lesson. (Her home planet is earth, in case you are wondering). If Meredith didn’t take her own growth and rejuvenation seriously, she could never conceive of the wild ideas that promote brave discovery in her classes. Even if you have to leave this galaxy to clear your mind, make this part of your professional growth; protect it like your students’ learning depends on it--because it does.
Structure to Guide Design
Given the frenetic pace of the school year, summer is the only time when teachers have time to think. This is why we believe that the best formula for teacher growth is summer planning. Here’s an outline of what transformative summer professional development might look like:
Improve your practice this summer and register for upcoming professional development at One Schoolhouse - courses start July 15, 2019.
Building Leadership in Schools for Boys
Introduction to Boys' Schools
Introduction to Girls' Schools
Introduction to Independent Schools
Mastery Practice in Teaching Boys
Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer at the National Association of Independent Schools, talks about the importance of continual learning for faculty and how that happens best online.
Learn more and register for upcoming professional development at One Schoolhouse here - courses start July 15, 2019.
Once upon a time I had a summer job at a Girl Scout camp on Martha’s Vineyard, and my first season there was happiest of my life to that point. I found a community, good and lifelong friends, and an ethos of caring for an ideal, an enterprise of the heart and soul, that introduced me to the ways that “mission-driven” and “values-aligned” can shape lives.
I was staggered to discover, on the last day of the season, that the final night campfire of the final session was one of the most emotional events I had ever experienced. Later, when my late spouse and I worked together at Girl Scout camps she directed, this closing ritual, with weeping campers and weeping counselors, remained a powerful, often wrenching reminder of the strength of a community of purpose. As the last embers of the fire died out, the words of one song would hit me especially hard, and they have stayed with me: “This is so long, but not goodbye.”
For the Independent Curriculum Group, this newsletter is our final campfire. It’s a time to remember the great times we’ve had, to express our gratitude and deep affection for those who have supported us, and to make a wish. It’s also a time to look forward, to reassure ourselves that the mission and values of “independent curriculum” abide—not just in our hearts and minds, as touchstones of what the future of education ought to look like, but in the ongoing work and purposes of our new partners at One Schoolhouse.
So thank you, thank you all: to the educators and friends of education who have found resonance in our ideas; to the schools whose leaders have seen fit to join in our work; to those who have worked with us at our events and made common purpose with us; to all those whom I have gotten to know at Academic Leaders Retreats, at our conference presentations, and through our correspondence and conversations on policy, practice, big questions, and big ideas.
I also thank those who have given of their time and energy over the years first as the steering committee behind the body that became the Independent Curriculum Group and then as members of our board. Without your dedication, I would not be writing this almost twenty years after the idea of independent curriculum was born.
Above all I thank my predecessor, Bruce Hammond, whose idea the ICG was and who as executive director molded a loose bunch of starry-eyed idealists into a strong and purposeful nonprofit that has contributed much to the educational conversation. Along with Mark Salkind, our founding board chair, Bruce made the ICG a reality.
And in the spirit of looking forward, I must thank Brad Rathgeber, head of school at One Schoolhouse, and the One Schoolhouse board for recognizing our common bonds and for your willingness to help sustain our ideals into the future.
In accordance with final night campfire tradition, I offer a wish: I wish that our highest ideals as educators and their essence as expressed in the ICG’s Principles of Independent Curriculum might one day come to define the educational experience of every child, in every kind of school, everywhere.
The Vineyard Sailing Camp is closed now, but when old campers or staff get together we remember and honor what made the place and our times there so special. We can still sing the songs and feel the power of their words to take us not backward but deeply into ourselves and the sources of lifelong hopes and dreams that still energize and give purpose to our lives today and will continue to do so as long as we live.
This is so long from the me at the Independent Curriculum Group, but this is in no way a goodbye to the community of purpose we idealists have been and will ever be.
You will hear from us (and from me) and our ideals again, through One Schoolhouse surely, and perhaps even in the songs from your own past that still bring you hope and joy.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO