In a “normal” school year on a “normal” school day, Stacy Thomas, the executive director of teaching and learning for Blaine School District, bounces between each of the district’s schools, which are housed on one campus. Blaine is a district in rural Washington near the Canadian border, and the close-knit campus empowers Stacy to support principals and improve instruction.
Of course, this year has been anything but normal.
We spoke with Stacy about her experiences this past spring: the shift to remote learning, how it’s exacerbated extant educational inequities and how teachers and families have both stepped up during a trying time.
Watch a video of this conversation (6 minutes)
(The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.)
When in-class instruction ended earlier this year, Stacy and her team felt their priorities shift immediately.
When the school closure first was first initiated, I felt like I got a brand-new job. My role is very instructional-focused, but those first few weeks it was very operational: How are we going to feed kids? How are we going to provide childcare? There was a lot of decision-making, working with our labor groups and problem-solving those more tactical problems and fewer conversations about the learning — because it's a crisis. We felt like, “Wow. This just changed our world.”
As we got a little further and were working more with staff, I've been able to re-ground myself and what we're about as far as student learning. At the beginning of May we started to feel like we were through some of those initial shockwaves, and we could breathe a little bit. We were actually able to start some of our professional learning again remotely. That’s been really powerful and really encouraging.
“Remote learning” doesn’t have to mean “rote” — it can remain engaging and enlightening.
We had to ask ourselves: What are some strategies for delivering instruction remotely that still engage students and get them actually thinking? I think with the remote process, it’s easy to default to just giving an assignment or doing a lecture via Zoom. But there are a lot of ways we can get kids thinking and talking and interacting with the teacher and each other — even remotely.
We have to be aware of everyone’s cognitive and emotional capacity while also keeping kids at the front and remembering why we do what we do. We want to push them to make some little tweaks that can make it just a little better. It's exciting, the ways that people are working together right now.
"A lot of the challenges that are coming up now are not new problems; they're just showing up differently. Equity of access is always an issue, but it's become more apparent to a broader audience right now, which is hopefully in the long term a good thing."
The pandemic has caused new problems, but it’s primarily aggravated existing issues in education
A lot of the challenges that are coming up now are not new problems; they're just showing up differently. So, for example, equity of access is always an issue, but it's become more apparent to a broader audience right now, which is hopefully in the long term a good thing for making changes that support our students who are traditionally underserved or furthest from justice.
On the logistical, technical side, we weren't one-to-one on technology, so we quickly scrambled to find out who has a device at home. We do have some areas in our district where high-speed internet access is not possible, so we weren't able to mitigate that.
But we have had some alternative options as far as packets and assignments, and we can do teacher phone calls rather than Zoom lessons. I would say we’re still not where we want to be on that, but, again, I think that’s true for “normal” school, not just COVID school.
One silver lining of distance learning: a stronger bond between teachers and students’ families
I think that the connection between teachers and families has been one of the biggest wins out of this situation. There’s been some teaching with the family that goes into it because a teacher might be troubleshooting how to even help the kid get a structure, a schedule, a place to work, how to manage the student when they feel stuck with an assignment, and the family can support that. The dialogue between teachers and families has been really enhanced in that way, so I do look forward to more of that in the future.
In education sometimes there’s a bit of a breakdown in communication between families and the school, and seeing teachers adapt and persevere to meet the needs of the students has been really powerful for our families to see. For our staff to see kids from their homes gives our staff a greater awareness of what the kids are bringing with them and what kind of environment they’re in when they’re at home.
Teachers are showing their skills while their content has become more aligned across Stacy’s district
For teachers, there’s also been so much new learning around the technical and technology aspects, so they’re all really relying on each other. Different people are shining in this time. It’s neat to see people bringing skills that you didn’t know they had in our traditional setting, or maybe they have a different voice on their grade-level team because they have a skillset or a passion around something that really benefited the team.
I think our level of alignment for content delivery has been increased because there’s been more transparency. Two third-grade teachers, for example, need to present the same materials, and parents are talking, so it’s just created a natural realization that there’s value in having a whole grade level, a whole team, on the same page. We’ve made some really big strides in tightening up our alignment already as a district, but this definitely gave it an extra push.
"I didn’t anticipate that people would be able to handle this level of change so quickly, and that was good learning for me as a leader — we're resilient, and we're capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for."
For myself, I've really tried to concentrate this spring on naming strengths that I'm seeing in people — leadership, particularly. Again, it's such a high anxiety time for everyone and the expectations on educators in this process have been really intense. I think people have really risen to the challenge of that. It's not perfect, of course, but people have jumped in and been willing to try.
I didn’t anticipate that people would be able to handle this level of change so quickly, and that was good learning for me as a leader — we're resilient, and we're capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. So, naming our strengths and connecting them to the impact that we’re having has been a little embedded goal of mine in my daily work to help our people reflect on what good things we’re doing, so that we can hold on to those. And teacher collaboration has been at the top of that list.
Stacy hopes that the lessons learned during the pandemic will become boons post-pandemic
There’s definitely a team feel where we’re all trying to make it work, and it’s translated into some really great work around student learning. Managing the day-to-day is so urgent right now, but the student learning problems that we have are as urgent, if not more, but they don’t present in the same way. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can make those issues of equity, student learning and student engagement as urgent as the day-to-day crisis management. That’s what I’m hopeful for as we move, hopefully, back into something more normal someday.
I definitely feel really proud of our people: they’ve stepped up and supported each other been willing to do what’s needed. I never would have expected that this year was going to look like this, but we made it through and now we’re getting ready for next year.
Curious about details of the work CEL and Blaine School District has done? Here is an in-depth article, produced in partnership with the UW College of Education.
Leading for Teacher Professional Learning fosters the conditions for your teachers to work better together, so you can improve your students' learning opportunities and outcomes.