In my job as the Assistant Head for School Partnerships at One Schoolhouse, I’m privileged to be in touch with independent schools across the country. I love the ability to see the big picture and identify the patterns and trends that are affecting school communities across the country. In the past few weeks, however, those patterns and trends have been exhausting to hear and process. That’s because what I’m hearing, almost without fail, is how worried educators are about their students.
The patterns and practices of typical schools serve as protective insulation for our students’ well-being. They spend time with peers and caring adults. They get physical activity. They have reassuring routines in their daily schedules. In hybrid and distance learning, most--if not all--of these protections have evaporated.
In a study from April 2020, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, investigators found that students in Hubei province (the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in China) who had experienced school closures and lockdown had a significantly higher incidence of depression and anxiety than the general population. The Lancet published an article, also in April 2020, that described a survey of teens and young adults with pre-existing mental health conditions; 83% of the respondents said the pandemic had made their conditions worse. This information is scary enough at a first read, but it’s terrifying when you realize these articles describe the state of mental illness less than two months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some of our students have now been off-campus for more than three times as long.
Knowing how vulnerable our students are right now, what can we do to help? We can focus on the same mission and values that we hold dear every day on campus, and learn the different strategies we use to express them online. There are three key steps that every educator can take to protect their students’ mental health in distance learning environments:
Most frequently, trauma is a discrete event. It has an end: the fire is put out, the car comes to a stop against the guardrails. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, just keeps going, exposing us to chronic stress and anxiety. There are very real consequences for this chronic stress, and there are also resources for individual support. As a community, schools and educators can help to protect our students by providing warmth and structure. Together, we can help our students build the resilience and connection they need to weather the storm.
Looking for a dive deeper on more ways to support student mental health this school year? Join us for an upcoming webinar and online course:
How do we know that our academic program is any good? In a normal year, this isn’t a terribly difficult question to answer. But, this year, with at least some portion of the school year online, we’re operating in uncharted territory. My colleague Liz Katz likes to say, “In the online world we have different data than is available on campus.” She’s right. So, in this hybrid world, what is helpful to observe and know, in addition to whatever we may be lucky enough to observe on campus?
1) Listen to the kids! As academic leaders and educators, you have a sense of how students are perceiving their online experiences, but you’ll want to make sure that your assumptions match the students’ lived experience. At One Schoolhouse, we survey students five times a year, using the same questions each time and collecting that data centrally (rather than having teachers “own” the data). This lets us set baselines, so we can measure growth over time (school-wide and on a departmental and teacher basis). We ask students about mission-aligned competencies--things like real-world application, change in worldview, and academic maturity. If the data isn’t trending in the right direction, you’ll know it’s time to ask follow-up questions and make sure that teachers have the support and coaching that they need.
2) Spend some time in the LMS. For better or for worse, online learning is far more transparent than on campus classes. This allows academic leaders to take a deep dive into a course’s online presence. Design and curation are essential elements of top-notch online learning experiences, so they need to be included in your evaluation process. Make sure that: 1) courses are easy to navigate; 2) resources are available and accessible; and 3) students have a clear sense of how the assignments and assessments tie to course competencies and outcomes. For synchronous work, it’s possible to observe a course in real-time, but that practice tends to disrupt the flow of the class. Ask teachers to record a live session so that you can provide evaluation and feedback.
3) Use rubrics to ensure consistency and to create shared understandings of expectations. Creating a rubric for evaluation allows you to identify your priorities for online coursework and sets clear expectations for teachers. In the classroom, lesson design and delivery are almost identical, but in the online space, they’re two very different skills. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve developed a list of standards for both course design and instruction at One Schoolhouse that help us ensure that every course we offer meets expectations and aligns with our mission. To help the independent school community prepare for this school year, we published course standards and teaching competencies for hybrid learning that being used at hundreds of schools.
Want to dive deeper into assessing and adjusting your school's hybrid program?
Assessing and Adjusting Your School's Hybrid Learning: Fidelity to Implementation: This school year is continuing to present unique challenges. Now is the time Academic Leaders should be assessing and adjusting their school's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This course will help you identify key markers of success, establish data-gathering procedures and create communication plans for your hybrid program going forward. Course dates: October 26 - November 1, 2020
Two weeks ago at One Schoolhouse, we took the community's pulse on a crucial question: "How concerned are you about faculty morale this year?" A sobering 92% of survey respondents reported feeling moderately or extremely concerned about their faculty's morale this year, with good cause. A recent EdWeek poll found that “as teacher morale declines, there’s a likelihood of a rise in resignations.”
Teachers are exhausted, overwhelmed, and isolated. We’re worried about our teachers’ morale because these are some of the tell-tale signs of burnout, and we’re seeing them on campus and in our video calls. What causes job-based burnout? Chronic stress. You might remember that in June 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases. Burnout isn’t a buzzword. It’s a real phenomenon that can take a toll on both physical and mental health.
Schools are used to seeing teacher burnout at the end of the year, but October is usually an energized time as school is moving into full swing. This year, burnout is popping up just a few weeks into the school year. That means we need to act now to neutralize the effects of chronic stress. You’ve heard One Schoolhouse—along with dozens of educational and academic leaders—shout “Maslow before Bloom!” over the past six months. Basic needs include safety, love and belonging, and esteem, and we need them in order to grow and learn. That’s not just true for kids; it’s also true for the adults in our community. We need to take care of teachers, and each other, or none of us will be able to take care of our students.
There’s a lot that none of us can change about how this pandemic affects our work, but there are ways we can care for ourselves and our colleagues. I keep coming back to the bedrock of all transformational teaching: building relationships. We thrive in communities of meaningful connection. Before the pandemic, that meaningful connection was reinforced by spontaneous and informal moments, in line at the salad bar or in the faculty workroom: “Need to talk?” “What can I do to help?” In hybrid and online spaces, interactions almost never happen serendipitously. To strengthen our relationships with the adults in our communities, we need to develop systems of connections just like we do for our students.
I know there’s a fear that creating a system makes these interactions remote and inauthentic. I’d argue with that! If we say that strong relationships are the hallmark of our school, we need to prioritize the time it takes to build them. Humans also tend to build connections most easily with the people who are most like them. Creating a system helps us to ensure we’re connecting with everyone and that we don’t allow bias to infiltrate our networks of relationships. And these systems don’t have to be complex—all you need is some time you reserve to nurture connections and a list of your faculty and staff. Short notes—“I love the video you posted,” or “I’ve been thinking about how the news might be affecting you”—can make a difference in opening conversations and affirming the meaning of the work our teachers do each day.
We can’t change the conditions of this academic year, but we can change the way our communities respond and how we take care of each other in the midst of all we face. In schools, we are masterful at building systems that address deficits. Now, we need to turn that skill to supporting our strengths. We’ll survive, thrive, and emerge stronger by taking the time to nurture what matters most: our compassion and our connections.
Ways To Engage:
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit—Virgil. “Perhaps someday it will be a joy to remember even these things.
We’ve been talking a whole lot lately about the “new normal.” Having been down New Normal Road a few times since someone coined the term just in time for the Great Recession, we’ve been wearing out its pavement since the COVID crisis began to affect North American schools last March.
Weirdly, though, the COVID-19 “new normal” is proving to be as malleable as a ball of wax. It means whatever the user wants it to mean in the moment. The new normal is an ephemeral narrative meant to serve its purpose in the moment as it allusively invites us to imagine what the old normal might have been, as if there ever really was such a thing. But it doesn’t add much to the discourse on its own.
Narratives have a way of outlasting generations of “normals”, a fact we can discern by looking at the names bestowed on historical eras and at the stereotypes we associate with these. The Roaring Twenties was about flapper dresses and motorcars; the Atomic Age was all duck and cover and tract houses made of ticky-tacky; the Civil War Era was whatever your regional and political affiliations want it to be, with the added frisson of hundreds of thousands of dead, maimed, and missing people. Each of these narratives has become a kind of received truth that smooths the rough, often lethal edges of experience and memory.
In each school the COVID-19 crisis has precipitated a whole raft of new practices, some adopted in the moment or planned by an administrative crash program. Many simply appeared one day, either to persist or to disappear the next. Who even remembers, or cares? So what? That was in April (or May or June or July or August).
But in three or four years, assuming the virus has been tamed and some semblance of order or at least predictability restored to the world, what will your school’s COVID narrative be? What will keep the predominant memory, and thus the predominant narrative, from being anything but a recitation of “the year that wasn’t”, or worse, the failures, stop-gaps, complaints, and disappointments?
We know that there have been plenty of the above, but there have also been good things, even great things, happening. Creative teachers have discovered ways to use familiar and even previously suspect tools to bring about new, good enough, and sometimes even better kinds of learning. Some students whose experience on brick-and-mortar campuses has been, er, humdrum have flourished in the online space. Old dogs have learned (and learned to enjoy doing) new tricks, and whole new ways and reasons to make curricular and pedagogical decisions have emerged. Given the added impetus of a wakening spirit of social justice and social and political relevancy, teachers have found themselves trying—even against the prevailing grain—to create learning experiences that have real significance in the lives of their students and their communities.
Who is recording and tracking the positives? Has your school appointed or identified an archivist or recorder to document what has been happening—to write down what decisions were made or actions taken, how these came about and who drove them, and how they turned out, for better or for worse? Has your school been thinking about the questions it should be asking, even now, in order to learn the key lessons—their forms not yet fully framed—to create from our current pandemic hell a post-pandemic program that draws on the positive lessons learned and to inspire a narrative not of “we lost, we failed” but of “we learned, we handled this, we saw and seized these opportunities.”
Of course there will and must be the larger, awful COVID-19 narrative of suffering, inequity, and loss, because these have been heavy and universal and will properly drive the story as our decade’s parallel to the tragic plagues of the past.
I truly and deeply hope that at each school someone has been paying attention and writing things down so that affirming lessons will not be lost in the fog of this crisis. The annals of the COVID era at St. Basalt’s School might yet be sifted and analyzed to help design and sustain a whole new way of thinking about how it educates kids and helps teachers build the capacities they need to do this well.
If you haven’t got this archivist, this on-campus Venerable Bede at your school, now’s the time to designate one. Maybe it’s a compulsive diarist who has been tracking these things on their own through the window of their own experience, or maybe it’s a diligent staffer or faculty member with a good memory and a belief in the better purposes of history.
We’re in a dizzying cycle of change, unasked for and generally unappreciated, and we can’t say how or when it will end. But tracking the experience as we live it and then learning from the process can help us make the best of it, to create a new normal for 2025 that isn’t just a rush to fill the vacuum left by 2020 with the same old stuff. If each school can articulate a COVID narrative that is hopeful and future-focused and not just a litany of recrimination and regret, what lies ahead will feel and work a whole lot better for all of us.
(And thanks to the late Pliny H. Hayes, my eighth-grade Latin teacher! It is a joy to remember those days!)
Want to dive deeper into the topic? Dr. Damian Bebell, Assistant Research Professor at Lynch School of Education; Boston College, (and facilitator of our upcoming course, Assessing and Adjusting Your School's Hybrid Learning: Fidelity to Implementation) joined our August 26, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on evaluating fidelity to mission. Dr. Bebell shared his insights on research into how schools live their missions in their programs. Damian's slides can be found here.
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.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)