Instructional Leadership in Action

The Importance of Relationships During Distance Learning

by UWCEL on Jun 15, 2020

Sean McKenna

 

As schools began to transition to a new system of distance and remote learning, the initial focus was naturally on the nuts and bolts: How will we ensure students have access to the technology they need? What video platforms and tools should we use? What’s the right amount of screen time?

Once the reality of distance learning set in, however, educators like Sean McKenna, the principal of Vale Elementary in the Cashmere School District, found that addressing students’ and parents’ emotional needs was just as important.

Sean spoke with Greg Sommers, the chief impact officer at the UW Center for Educational Leadership, about giving teachers, parents and students a voice during COVID-19; what lessons we can bring from distance learning into the classroom; and how feedback surveys have served as a vital tool to learn what’s working and what’s not.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Acknowledging the importance of relationships is a positive first step

When we first released the students to go home, it was a pretty emotional day. But we knew we needed to take a pause on the learning and reestablish what our new relationships were going to be for distance learning.

We took the first week to make personal phone calls to every family and just started establishing relationships in regards to what's in the home as far as technology, internet — how we are going to communicate with the kids, and we did the same thing with staff as well. We had to take a pause as an admin team. We couldn’t just keep pushing the gas pedal forward.

 

“The step in the right direction was the relationship piece, which we took the time to do and didn’t just focus on the technology needs and academic needs of our kids.”

 

So, we spent a good week just really establishing routines with kids and staff to home in on the new emotional needs of our students. We quickly realized that we now needed to see to the parents’ emotional needs too.

The step in the right direction was the relationship piece, which we took the time to do and didn’t just focus on the technology needs and academic needs of our kids.

That all helped us land where we are today, which is doing the best we can possibly do in a unique situation.

 

Communication is key — especially if you have an agenda and focus on quality, not quantity

Teacher collaboration started out just trying to get some basics addressed, like a username and a login for Zoom.

I take for granted being able to read the staff’s faces, to read their physical responses to my decisions or comments that are made, so we really had to start from the ground up. We had to go back to what our norms were for engaging in tough discussions, tough conversations and decision-making in an online format. We just took some time to really establish the ground rules.

We also had to be cognizant of the amount of emails we were sending out. There were hundreds of emails going everywhere, and people were feeling the pressure. We assigned lead teachers for each grade level to communicate with administrators, and vice versa, so that we were able to funnel that information in a strategic manner.

When we first started out, I felt like online collaboration was lacking any type of emotion. What I quickly realized, though, is that online collaboration is a pretty effective form of communication for our staff.

 

Having a lead teacher group has been great. They're a sounding board for me. I can come up with some pretty creative ideas on my own that mean nothing to a lot of people, so this lead teacher group that we utilize has been phenomenal.

 

Now we're forced to have agendas; we can no longer just kind of wing it. We struggled through it, probably like most people. But once we established our norms and people knew that we were trying to be respectful of the environment, I think we realized that this is an effective use of our time for communication and collaboration.

We have whole school meetings on Mondays. We have individual grade level meetings on Tuesday, and then they have Wednesday, Thursday, Friday to pull together one more grade level meeting.

So we start with the big picture, and as the week goes on we break down — and then eventually they’re with their teachers and any support staff that are present.

 

Teachers must have a strong voice during distance learning

We’ve really had to do a better job at giving our staff voice in some of the decision processes, beyond just an email letting people know what the decision is. We’ve got some big decisions coming, and we’ve tried to get everybody on the same page and in a manner where they feel respected and valued.

Having a lead teacher group has been great. They're a sounding board for me. I can come up with some pretty creative ideas on my own that mean nothing to a lot of people, so this lead teacher group that we utilize has been phenomenal. They meet with me every Thursday to look ahead at the next week or two, and they’ve helped me understand what’s going on.

In the teacher world of online distance learning, that’s a big help. I’m also a part of teachers’ Flip Grid videos, so I can go on and really try and engage with what the teachers are teaching the kids.

 

There are lessons to be gleaned from distance learning and brought into the classroom

There are a lot of things that I hope change back to the way they were, one of those being kids in the building with adults. You can’t replace that. But there are some things that I'd like to see continue once teachers are back in front of students.

I think we can be much more efficient, and Zoom meetings are one platform to help with that. I’ve also appreciated Flipgrid; it’s an interactive two-way platform for teachers to present ideas, topics and instruction, but it also gives our kids a voice.

My own kid goes to Vale, and he feels that when a teacher responds individually, just to him, it’s phenomenal. And I’ve heard that many times, especially about the kids who don’t usually speak out because of fear of the wrong answer, or because they don’t fit in in the class or have some social differences. Those kids have found a voice on this platform.

Now, it’s not my dream to do it full time like we’re doing, but I think our staff would agree that technology is here, and we should use this opportunity to really expand on it.

 

Feedback from parents and teachers can help assess and reestablish educational standards

We’ve done a survey of parents across the district. From that survey, we learned that our parents have just really appreciated the support. I don't know the numbers off the top of my head, but I want to say that out of the 212 responses we had fewer than maybe 10 that felt like they weren't supported immediately through this process.

That being said, the parents are saying that they don’t see the learning taking place at the rate as when students were in the school, so that’s a concern of ours. The survey really helps give some guidance on how we start the school year.

 

The biggest concern that I hear from kids and parents — and that I share personally with my own two kids — is the emotional side of what’s happened. I have some great concerns when kids come back as far as what stresses they’re going to bring with us that we didn’t have control over.

 

We need to take a step back and really reevaluate those essential standards that we’ve identified during distance learning and probably do some reteaching and assessment of those standards.

The biggest concern that I hear from kids and parents — and that I share personally with my own two kids — is the emotional side of what’s happened. I have some great concerns when kids come back as far as what stresses they’re going to bring with us that we didn’t have control over.

But the feedback survey has been a great opportunity for communication with parents and students. Starting next Monday, we’re going to give a feedback survey to our staff. Essentially, they’re going to talk to us about what worked and what didn’t work because I think we need to gear up for the possibility of repeating this — hopefully for a short time frame. But I don’t want to start back at square one.

 

Are you wondering how leaders can help distanced teacher teams collaborate better? Our team will guide you towards an answer in a three-part workshop. We start June 16.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE WORKSHOP

 

Topics: Classroom Coaching, Instructional Leadership, Educational Leadership, Teacher Professional Learning

About the author: UWCEL

At the Center for Educational Leadership we partner with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. Our vision is transformed schools empowering all students regardless of background to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.

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