On March 13, 2020, after weeks of speculation, memos, and meetings, 26,500 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, 33,000 staff, and 730,000 students were told to be off-campus for two weeks due to COVID-19. Teachers and staff diligently collected a few important items and prepared to teach online for about ten days. On that fateful day, we naively thought that we would be back on campus soon, just in time for spring break, when we would get another week “off.”
Unbeknownst to us, we were walking into a steep learning curve that would go on for months. Teachers worked to quickly recalibrate and retrofit their pedagogy and curriculum to fit the paradigm that we all thrust into, seemingly overnight. We learned new terms like distance learning, hybrid instruction, synchronous and asynchronous. Colleagues “met” via video conference to plan lessons, and exchange strategies and links to online tools. The professional stress of adapting to distance learning was acute, especially for the tech-phobic teachers among us who were crippled by anxiety and even fear. As if this weren’t enough, teachers’ stress was compounded by safety concerns regarding the pandemic itself, along with the challenge of wrangling work-family balance as they taught classes online while they managed their own children at home, all at the same time.
Now, nearly a year later, we are still practicing distance learning as a district. The current situation is not ideal; we all want to go back to work as soon as it is safe to do so. Yet, we have acclimated to the demands placed upon us, and have come a long way from where we started just a few short months ago. We are still in the midst of this new normal. We don’t quite have the full advantage of retrospect yet, but I have come away with a few realizations thus far an instructional coach:
1. Teachers Are Human, Too
Teaching is a profession that requires empathy and human connection. To put their best foot forward for students, teachers must refuel their social emotional repertoire. Yet, the stressors of the pandemic have made this challenging.
The pandemic is forcing educators to retool their practices quickly and effectively. There was widespread appreciation and gratitude initially. Teachers deserve raises, they said. Teachers are heroes, they exclaimed.
As the start of the new school year loomed, the virus raged, and school shutdowns were extended. Teachers then faced a backlash from some segments of the public. Americans began to experience pandemic “fatigue.” Eager to go back to some sense of normalcy and restart the economy, public opinion started to sway. People wanted schools to reopen. The virus would continue to surge, and these demands were generally deemed unfair and unrealistic. And distance learning would continue.
Since the start of distance learning, educators have been working through their own emotional states of exhaustion, stress, uncertainty, and anxiety both personally and professionally, all while trying to maintain community expectations of competence and efficacy with brand-new techniques and tools. Some many argue that many people in various professions struggled with these same demands, and that may be true. However, I would argue that since teachers are entrusted with children, the level of burdens and expectations placed upon them during distance learning was unique. And teachers persevered.
Social emotional learning is now an important facet of the classroom. However teachers are often not extended this grace in the current landscape of education. This seems obvious, but bears repeating--teachers need support and compassion, especially now.
Schools are dynamic places buzzing with teaching and learning, activities, events, deadlines, meetings, etc. On my campus, we have about 3,500 students, 150 teachers, and 100 staff members. Teachers are generally extroverts, engaging with dozens of students and colleagues as they move through their day. The drastic interruption of social interaction brought on by the pandemic halted these daily interactions.
In coaching teachers during this unprecedented time, I approached them with appreciation and care for their well-being. "Please" and "Thank You For All That You Do" took on greater significance in my emails. I injected humor into my communications whenever possible--perhaps a relevant GIF or meme in an email, or a picture of snacks during my virtual professional development sessions (since teachers know that I always provide snacks for them when I facilitate meetings). I made it a point to check in with teachers before any video coaching conference or professional development session by asking them how they are doing, how their families are feeling, how online teaching is going, etc.
In a normal time, these simple questions may be perceived as good manners at best, or banal exchanges at worst. However, during the pandemic, these interactions offered people a chance to engage and commiserate with their coworkers. In fact, teachers often seemed surprised to be asked how they were feeling.
2. 1, Not 100
In the initial days of distance learning, there was a flurry of resources and professional development opportunities that were offered to us by our district. In addition, colleagues shared tips, links, files, and resources. The intention was to give teachers options, but the unintended consequence was that teachers were flooded with too many new things to learn quickly and implement successfully. I found that teachers were often exasperated and irritated. Especially impacted were the tech-averse staff members who felt as though their profession was reconfigured overnight, and they were left behind.
Offering teachers too many resources & tools can be overwhelming and even annoying. Teachers don’t need an avalanche of countless new technological resources. Instead, they need a few new digital tools to choose from that align with their pedagogy, coupled with ongoing support and coaching to develop their competence and confidence.
When coaching teachers during this time period, I consider variables such as their level of confidence with technology, teaching style, and the rapport that we have with each other. Differentiation for the subject that they teach is also very important to avoid the perception that they are being inundated by options. For example, a math teacher may be more interested in a digital whiteboard whereas an English Language Arts teacher would be excited to learn about a way to provide comments digitally to students on their essays. I assume a somewhat removed stance by offering options and presenting the benefits of how each tool can make teaching easier, as well how to embed each tool into their existing practices.
Once a teacher decides to move forward with a given resource, the major thing I keep in mind are the individual needs that he or she may have. I make myself available to support them as they practice implementation. Depending on the needs of each teacher, this may mean that I join their video conference class session to assist in real time with students. Or, it may mean that I coach them by preparing a screencast to help them get started on their own.
3. We Are All 1st-Year Virtual Teachers
With distance learning, we are all novice teachers in a sense, and we are learning together. Learning new things can be challenging and tiring. We can feel awkward when we learn new things, especially if we haven't felt like a novice in a long time. But learning new things can also be immensely rewarding and empowering! Through coaching, I am able to reframe the stressful moments as anticipation for how technology can improve our practice--if we keep an open mind and are willing to try.
For example, teachers expressed frustration with having to repeat directions and procedures to their students during synchronous instruction and then having to post the directions on the learning management system, only to have them ignored or unread. I suggested that they use screencasts as a quick and meaningful alternative to announcements, posts, and emails that students tend to overlook. I then coached teachers to use screencasting programs and apps, and worked with them to post on our learning management system.
For these teachers, the prospect of incorporating screencasts into their pedagogy was daunting. However, once they were led to visualize how screencasts could streamline their teaching, they were committed to the learning process and the work became manageable for them. By reframing new learning stressors as opportunities to refine practice and enhance workflow, I essentially persuaded teachers to grow their skill set and feel empowered!
4. Personalize & Customize
Distance teaching confirmed my mantra as an instructional coach: my role is to meet teachers where they are, and work with them to develop their competency with a resource that they feel will benefit their instruction. Not every teacher will mesh well with every resource.
I view myself as a kind of curator and moderator of resources and strategies. By knowing my stakeholders strengths, level of experience, and confidence with technology, I am able to find or create technology resources, pairing people to the pathway that will meet their needs.
We have to get to know our teachers. We cannot pigeonhole them as there is such variety and range in their personalities and outlooks. For example, a new teacher with limited experience may enthusiastically adopt an online reading comprehension program into her practices. Her colleague in the department, however, is a seasoned teacher of 25 years, and is ambivalent about using a new program due to his fear of technology, even if distance instruction has changed the paradigm of his work. Yet a third member of the department is also an experienced teacher, but she appreciates innovation and enjoys learning new digital ways to amplify her distance instruction. These teachers do not view technology the same way. They are all in the same department, tasked with the same job, and have to collaborate, and yet they exemplify varying degrees of willingness and preparation to enhance their distance instruction with new tech tools. This variability in our teaching staff is something that we as coaches must negotiate as we try to bring them into the fold.
Lastly, a word about language. I am generally a direct communicator. However, in my coaching work, whenever possible, I use tentative language to persuade and suggest, such as:
- “What do you see as the biggest need in your classroom?”
- “You may want to look into this tool…”
- “Might I suggest this program?”
- “What if you consider this program?”
- “Can we change our lens to see it another way?”
- “Should you need help with this app, let me know.”
These phrases are invitations for teachers to process and embed distance learning tools into their instruction. As a coach, I have no power to mandate, and even if I did, I get more mileage from teachers by finding ways to build community and invite their participation. During this time of anxiety, I am not looking for their commitment to roll out a new tool in their distance instruction seamlessly. Instead, I want to pique their curiosity so that we may begin the process of building capacity over time.
5. Rapport & Trust
Now more than ever, rapport and trust underscore my work. Successful coaching is based on solid relationships. In the absence of a physical school where I can get to know people casually over time, working my way up to class visits, co-teaching, demo-lessons, etc., I have had to find other ways to connect with teachers:
a). Teacher Support Group in Our Learning Management System
Creating a group for teachers allowed me to connect with them by posting links, lesson plans, and other relevant content that they can peruse on their own.
b). Professional Development
I enjoy bringing new content to teachers since they don’t have the time to explore on their own. This, in turn, opens the door to new coaching cycles as teachers dabble in new tools and need support.
Teachers are saturated by emails, especially now. However, checking in to say a quick “hello” during this time of isolation greatly impacts rapport.
d). Video Conferencing
Coordinating a time to meet one-on-one with a teacher who needs support is essential to building relationships and skills.
When a teacher wants to know how to do something online, I have been sending short screencasts in place of emails and handouts. Teachers are so appreciative to have the steps “shown” to them. I like to think of screencasts as the virtual equivalent of taking my laptop to a teachers’ classroom to walk them through the steps.
f). Assist with Data Collection
Teachers have access to various dashboards and metrics, but they generally don’t have a lot of spare time. I will pull data and study it to form instructional groups that can be targeted to improve scores. This alleviates pressure and builds dialogue with teachers.
g). Small-Group Instruction via Breakout Rooms
Data analysis allows me to support teachers by offering to visit their online class to work with students in targeted groups. This is no different than co-teaching in an in-person classroom. I will say that this practice is predicated upon the teacher trusting you as the coach; this trust, in turns, grows even more once the teacher works alongside you.
It is now November 2020. We are still in the midst of distance instruction. However, now we have a degree of hindsight. We have not only survived; we are thriving and evolving. We are not the same teachers who started this journey on March 13, 2020. We have developed into distance teaching practitioners.
Now, teachers are not afraid to dabble in new resources, armed with the awareness that one does NOT need to be an expert to use a digital tool--we learn by doing. Now, colleagues are partnering and collaborating to share tips and tricks, finding comfort in their relationships with each other. Most inspiring are the tech-phobic teachers who are negotiating their relationship with technology, entering on the margins and inching forward every day.
If and when we do go back to in-person instruction this academic year or even the next, I firmly believe that we will do so with a major technology component embedded into our practices. We will take with us the best of what we have learned during these trying times. Though we are all craving going “back to normal,” we will do so with a refreshed approach and an eye to the future.