The 2020-2021 school year has been nothing near normal. I’ve listened to seasoned educators describe it as one of the most chaotic years they’ve ever seen. Teaching amid a national crisis is daunting--a seemingly never-ending exhausting barrage of new guidelines and expectations. Coaching amid a national crisis requires nuance, compassionate understanding, and a proactive wherewithal that just hasn’t been necessary prior to this event.
My ultimate goal as a coach has always been centered around the ways that I can support my teachers so that they can support our students. Right now, with so many aspects of our lives completely out of our control, I’ve constantly redirected myself--and my teachers--to what is within our control. In order to stay grounded, I’ve tried to focus my coaching around two questions--Where are you right now? and Where do you really want to go? These questions help me think about the immediate needs of my teachers, to help them think about the activities they want to create, to determine the ways to adjust those activities to a variety of instructional models, and to shape reflective practice for everyone involved.
A LITTLE CONTEXT: WHERE ARE WE AND WHERE DO WE WANT TO GO?
My district’s school year has taken on many different forms. At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, my district presented two instructional options to students and parents: full-time virtual instruction from certified teachers in our district, or traditional instruction with a phased return to in-person school. Because so many districts have varying definitions for the terms they use to discuss instructional models, this is what it means for us:
VIRTUAL (Virtual Students) - fully at-home learning delivered through Microsoft Teams as the LMS
HYBRID (Traditional Students) - two days face-to-face on campus, three days at home
REMOTE (Traditional Students) - fully at-home learning delivered through Microsoft Teams as the LMS
When we began the year, our schools did not yet have 1:1 capability, so devices on-hand went to students who chose virtual instruction. Students who opted for the traditional model began the year remotely with printed instructional materials and virtual support from teachers hosting sessions on Microsoft Teams. As of October, our district achieved 1:1 status, so the variance in instructional models became a bit more practical. In November and December, our district went through a series of shifts between hybrid and remote instruction for traditional students in response to COVID trend data.
In a county that hovers around a 10% hospitalization rate and 3% death rate for COVID-positive cases (source), our district’s Pandemic Response Team has made frequent instructional model shifts in an attempt to alleviate this COVID-induced strain. As a coach, this means lots of things for me. I’m constantly adjusting my coaching strategies and my support. I support K-8 traditional and virtual teachers. My traditional teachers turn into virtual teachers when students are on a remote schedule. To support teachers and students in frequently shifting instructional models, I have had to branch out my coaching skills. Part of this includes thinking about our end goals: what do we really want out of this year?
I think, ultimately, everyone would agree that we want this year to be as normal as possible--even though normalcy is not even a remote possibility at this point. We know that good teaching is good teaching, but supporting teachers in how to shift traditional styles of instruction to the demands of the virtual environment is tricky. We want consistency--an understanding of expectations, a prioritization of interaction and engagement, a solid presentation of standards-based instructional content. Normal things, right? That’s the goal. What the goal looks like in execution is vastly different, though, and this execution looks different from class to class, grade to grade, and subject to subject. As a coach, that leads me to this: what do my teachers need from me so that they can effectively support our students.
THE BIG QUESTION: HOW CAN I SUPPORT MY TEACHERS SO THEY CAN SUPPORT OUR STUDENTS?
When I think about the ways I can support (and the ways I have been supporting) my teachers, I’m drawn towards three focal points. While these are ultimately coaching goals under normal circumstances, I’ve had to tailor the way I approach them to COVID-specific times:
- WELCOMING ORGANIC COACHING OPPORTUNITIES - This is such an important aspect of my coaching this year. Often, administrators and coaches get so caught up in the idea of coaching cycles and documented support, that we lose sight of what teachers truly need us to be. This year, more than ever, teachers need an open-door sounding board. Teachers need quick access for quick questions. Teachers need the ability to have a coaching conversation without a pre-scheduled appointment or meeting time. Teachers need me to be available, not just during my “office hours.” What this looks like differs from teacher to teacher, but when I think about the organic coaching conversations I’ve had with teachers this year, I am amazed at what we’ve been able to accomplish. Sometimes, a teacher calls me into an online meeting during the middle of instruction. Sometimes, I have a virtual call with a teacher to walk through a particularly tough day. Sometimes, my phone rings off the hook with questions, needs, and requests. And, sometimes, a teacher walks through my door and we just talk. The simplicity of an open conversation is truly powerful, and it has been in these conversations that I have seen some of the best reflection and opportunities for growth in my teachers.
- PROVIDING FREQUENT OPPORTUNITIES FOR DIRECT SUPPORT - This year, I feel like I am providing more direct, intentional support than ever. I have started to really focus on my teachers individually, because everyone is in different places at different times. As a coach in a K-8 school, I support 9 different grade levels and all content within those grade levels. In terms of the types of coaching and support I’m providing this year, I can think about three broad areas:
Technology needs: To help teachers with technology needs, I have been creating tutorials for the “easy” things that teachers might have questions about. I collect these on a hyper-doc that’s shared with teachers. They can find tutorials on everything from converting a PDF to a JPG to creating content that works as an interactive assignment in MS Teams. Teachers also know that if they are having tech issues in the middle of class, they can call me straight into their Teams meetings.
Instructional needs: Our school has intentionally refocused our common planning work this year. We’ve broken into smaller groups so that conversation can be more focused, and we’re really working to use our Instructional Leadership Team’s strengths to support our various content and grade areas. Because of this deliberate approach, teachers have been more open--willing to share, willing to help, and willing to take the lead on supporting each other in classroom instruction. Most of our common planning sessions have been held virtually, which has actually been a great positive. In the virtual setting, I’ve actually found that my teachers have more willingly shared what’s working for them.
Virtual assignment needs: Because so much of our school year has been in flux, I’ve tried to gather various types of virtual assignments that teachers can use as “grab and go” activities that they can tweak for their specific content or grade level. Sometimes, the availability of material that’s floating around can be overwhelming. Often, an activity that a teacher purchases from an online store might or might not work the way they want it to in their classroom. By giving teachers some easy options that are based on things that they might typically use in their classroom (which means they easily translate to printed activities for our students who may lack internet access and need paper copies of materials), I’ve tried to alleviate some of the stress that comes with the constantly shifting instructional models.
- USING SPECIFIC SURVEYS TO GAIN SPECIFIC UNDERSTANDING - While I normally use surveys to gather feedback on coaching, what those look like has shifted this year. Instead of requesting coaching feedback right now, I’m frontloading my coaching with questions about teacher needs. I’ve added more specifics about supporting virtual instruction and provided opportunities for teachers to communicate their level of need, and my school’s instructional leadership team sent out an additional request for specific coaching needs before we left for Winter Break. By constantly checking the pulse of our immediate teacher needs and offering tailored options for support, we are able to proactively support teachers as they navigate their constantly shifting instruction.
While the chaos of the 2020-2021 school year does not seem to have any real end in sight, managing the chaos is possible. Taking deliberate approaches, focusing on what’s within our control, and relying on what we know to drive what we want to do provides a sense of calm in the uncertainty. If I can keep holding on to these things, I think we’ll be ok.