The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated just how vital a focus on the student experience and open lines of communication are — so student learning can continue, even with the disruptions. And that starts with our leaders at the top — leaders like Jeff Pelzel, the superintendent of the Newhall School District in Santa Clarita, California.
Jeff spoke with Dr. Anneke Markholt, associate director of the Center for Educational Leadership, about what it means to lead a district at this time, how he's remained focused on his vision for student learning, and how he's planning for the school year.
(The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.)
What being a leader means today
Well, I think when at the core of who you are is a leader in my case, that just doesn’t go away, no matter whether you’re in a brick-and-mortar building or you’re in a virtual environment, your passion is around teaching and learning and ensuring that kids are learning at high levels at all times.
And now, through our partnership with the Center for Educational Leadership, we've built capacity.
Our principals and assistant principals have been taking a cohesive approach to figuring out what teaching and learning need to look like. And so instructional leadership is part of who we are, not something that we're doing.
"No matter whether you’re in a brick-and-mortar building or you’re in a virtual environment, your passion is around teaching and learning and ensuring that kids are learning at high levels at all times."
In terms of our leadership team, we still meet every Friday, like we would have normally, but we're meeting virtually in a Zoom setting. We have our prepared agendas and we're still right now looking at indicators in the 5D framework, those kinds of things.
We’re in the process right now of coordinating with one of our school sites to actually go on a virtual learning walk, and we're just so excited about that opportunity and that we have an instructional leadership team that really wants to dig in and say, “Here’s where we’re at. How can we grow our practice with a lot of uncertainties of not knowing what next year is going to look like?”
So, I think that it’s just going to be a great learning opportunity for myself as the superintendent and the rest of our executive leadership in this work.
Educators must be ready for myriad educational situations come fall
For us right now in California, there are just a lot of uncertainties — not only with the pandemic itself, but budget issues and budget crises. And what we're beginning to think about is that we want to gather feedback from our parents. We want to get our parents involved and hear from them around what's working, what's not working, what are the challenges in a distance-learning model while also having regular meetings with our teachers and gathering feedback from them.
We just wrapped up our fourth week, and my assistant superintendent of instruction and I held Zoom meets: one with our primary teachers for an hour and a half where we talked about what's working, what's not working. And then we did what with our upper grade.
You have to have that constant feedback and engagement with your folks so you can really hear from those people that are — I don’t want to say “on the ground,” because we’re not on the ground, we’re in the cloud right now — really creating a plan that’s going to work because there are a lot of things that you have to think through: childcare, social distancing, other things. What do these look like? So, you’re going to have to be flexible in this planning process moving into next year.
In some ways, distance learning has actually increased communication between parents and educators
We’re still holding a lot of meetings with our parents and getting feedback from them. Before we went out on the school closure, every month I would hold superintendent chat meetings around the district and have an opportunity to meet with parents.
I would usually hold those once a month, and they were in the morning, on arrival with school so parents could drop their kids off and then come meet with me and hear about what’s going on.
Now, in the Zoom environment, I'm holding one in the morning and one in the evening so that parents on both ends can participate in that, and I can hear from them around what's working, what's not working. We have surveyed parents two times already now to talk about what are the successes, what are the challenges, what are the questions you want to pose to the superintendent using that information to really guide what’s going on.
Actually just last night at board meeting, we adopted a Parent/Caregiver Appreciation Week resolution. We just had Teacher Appreciation Week, but our parents have really become pseudo-teachers on levels that they never thought they would have to do in the past, so making sure that their voices are heard are really critical in this process.
Coaches and administrators have remained in the loop remotely
As we built our classrooms in the Google Classroom, we ensured that our principals and assistant principals were a participant in every teacher's classroom. So, they're going in observing what's happening in the classroom so that they have an idea of what's working, what's not working and how to support teachers.
Thankfully, we have really strong instructional coaches who helped laid the groundwork for this work, and they are partnering and providing ongoing professional development in an area where we didn’t have as much flexibility before. It might be a half day here or a half day there or after school.
Now, because of the flexibility and what the day looks like, we're able to provide professional development based on that teacher voice and choice in what they want.
Distance learning has forced administrators to rethink their ingrained instructional practices
There are just a lot of unknowns when we transitioned into a distance learning model, like teacher evaluations. We really didn’t get a chance to wrap those up this year, but as we start to plan for next year, we have to think about what that teacher-evaluation piece is going to look like as we launch into next year because we could have some that are operating at school, some operating virtually or a hybrid of both.
So how do you gather evidence connected to your instructional framework, and how do you keep that work moving forward? When you've been so grounded in that for the last three to four years, you've just got to seize the opportunities and capture what's working and empower your people to take ownership of their work and listen to what they’re saying to you, so you can make shifts and adjustments.
"We have an instructional leadership team that really wants to dig in and say, 'Here’s where we’re at. How can we grow our practice with a lot of uncertainties of not knowing what next year is going to look like?'”
I think that's what we have been doing throughout these last four to five weeks: each week opening up things and making these adjustments that make sense because this is a significant change not only for kids but for our parents.
We’re just fortunate that we have such amazing teachers in our district who just jumped in, and I love hearing from parents that the transition was sort of seamless in this process. Yes, there’ve been lumps and bumps, especially with your primary kids and figuring this out, but we’re getting better at our work.
It's not perfect, but that's our job: to reflect and learn how to grow and try to set up structures, so if we have to launch into this in the fall, we’re even better than where we are.
Would you like to be part of a small-group virtual learning experience to help bring your team together on behalf of students? Please join us for Developing a Vision for Student Learning. This two-part workshop will meet on Zoom, starting June 2.