Reimagine and Recalibrate: Two Views

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Center for Responsive Schools asked two educators with different perspectives to write about their experiences during the spring of 2020. Dr. Lauri Bousquet works with student teachers and discusses the challenges faced with remote learning and what they will need to change for future school years. Megg Morganstern, an Instructional Coach for K–8 teachers, talks about how the events of the spring required her to expand her role in support of her districts’ educators. We thank both of them for sharing their stories.

Student Teachers

By Dr. Lauri Bousquet

Like educators everywhere this spring, those of us teaching at the college level also had to reconstruct our concept of teaching. Not only did our classes have to be taught online, but we also had to prepare our student teachers as virtual educators and do so within a short period of time. Our student teachers jumped into their new roles enthusiastically, learning the virtual tools of instruction quickly and making every effort to provide the best learning environment possible for their students. Were they anxious and did they work harder than ever? Yes, on both counts. Were they prepared for remote learning? To some degree.

Our student teachers were already familiar with applications such as Google Classroom, Flipgrid, Zoom, Flocabulary, and Razkids. What they were less familiar with was entering students’ worlds—being “in” their homes, teaching within earshot of their families, and seeing the disparities that exist among students. Our student teachers became keenly aware of the inequity of access and the challenges many of their students face. Some students did not have consistent access to the Internet or to computer resources. English was not the first language in some families, making communication more challenging. Some parents were essential workers and could not be home during the day, leaving their student with the additional responsibility of caring for younger siblings and assisting them in their distance learning. And there were families facing the loss of employment, wondering how they would survive.

Our student teachers needed tools to assist their students and families to meet the challenges of a world suddenly turned upside down. The structure and predictability of having a traditional classroom in which to learn and create a school community—and in some cases in which to have their physical needs met—was now unavailable. To help meet the challenge of distance learning, we not only provided student teachers more extensive training in online instruction, but we also trained them in a proactive version of Restorative Circles. Supervisors created a safe, supportive space where student teachers could engage in small group discussions and share their experiences. These meetings served as a model for how the student teachers could sustain the community in their own classroom situations.

Culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning have always been a part of our curriculum. Student teachers learn the importance of the five social-emotional competencies (cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control) and strategies for fostering these in the classroom and school community. Trauma-Informed Instruction and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are also taught. Our experience during the pandemic, though, has shown that we need to provide more direct experiences with the different cultures and situations student teachers may encounter as educators. We also now must work to support them in working with students who may have had adverse childhood experiences as a result of the pandemic and social injustices present in our society. The preservice teachers need to be advocates and activists, with the ability to identify the injustices in our system and work to ameliorate them.

Our preservice teachers learn and commit to be men and women for others—one of our school’s values that is an important part of their Jesuit education and a notion that needs to be in the forefront of their preparation. Our preservice teachers will have to be prepared for teaching both in a physical classroom and remotely and will need to learn how to incorporate culturally responsive teaching for either model. They need to learn how to build community and foster empathy in both arenas. They will learn how we, as educators, can shape learners’ identities by using empowering and envisioning language and teaching key skills such as perseverance. Student teachers need to be trained how to communicate expectations and teach social-emotional skills—including how to show respect, participate appropriately, stay engaged, budget time, and ask for help if technology is not cooperating—and how to interactively model these skills. We need to prepare our preservice teachers with active learning strategies for a remote environment, as well as methods for helping their future students to understand and manage their feelings, such as reflection, mindfulness, “Take a Break,” and Restorative Circles. Going forward, our preservice teachers need to be prepared to teach all of these skills, whether in the physical classroom or the virtual one.

The hallmark of a transformative educator is the ability and willingness to continually assess the needs of students, reflect on those needs, and make necessary changes. As an educator of future teachers, I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on and refine my own practice.

K–8 Teachers

By Megg Morganstern

As it did with all school personnel, the pandemic forced teaching and learning coaches into a situation that we were not prepared for and that required us to reimagine how to support our teachers. As we begin to look ahead to returning to school and thinking about what it may look like, there are lessons learned that will help us better support our teachers, whether we return to school or continue with remote learning.

Teachers connecting with students is critical to learning, and it is equally critical that coaches connect with teachers in order to move through the coaching cycle successfully. As a first-year coach, my focus this year was to build relationships with the staff just as I would have with students in the classroom. I focused on getting to know teachers in their own classroom spaces, learning their teaching styles and who they are as people. 

During the pandemic, I shifted from supporting teachers in classrooms to acting as a behind-the-scenes sounding board and trouble-shooting task force. Each teacher needs a different level or kind of support, which I determined from my in-person check-ins. When schools closed and students were sent home for distance learning, I continued those in-person meetings to support teachers, checking in using email or text messaging, or having face-to-face online meetings.

I created a weekly pulse check survey for teachers. This gave me a sense of how each teacher was doing, how they felt remote learning was going for them, the successes they were having with students, and addressing questions or concerns they had. This survey became my starting point each week, allowing me to answer questions, share information and resources, and support those who shared that they were struggling. 

Traditionally, the Instructional Coach acts as a support for teachers’ growth and development, ideally resulting in increased student achievement. The pandemic and subsequent distance learning meant I needed to recalibrate that role. Our coaching team worked with the curriculum departments to offer parents a guide to understanding what their middle school students’ remote learning days would look like. We created a streamlined document for parents and students to clarify and outline virtual work expectations, offering video clips with instructions for navigating various online student programs. We widened our coaching lens to support all stakeholders in our community.

We also went to virtual meetings of professional learning communities. These get-togethers provided me the opportunity to work with teams I had not collaborated with previously. These additional connections meant I could offer resources, clarification, support, and reassurance to a wider group of teachers within our school community. It also gave me a deeper insight into ways I can continue to support them when we do return to school together sometime in the future.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during this pandemic was to listen. Teachers need to be heard and validated when they are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, and also when they are celebrating small successes. There were times during team meetings, private check-ins, and one-on-one virtual meetings when I did not have an answer. I spent a lot of time listening, acknowledging their concerns, and offering support in ways that were within my control. I learned that sometimes that’s enough, and that sometimes it’s exactly what they needed.

Looking forward to what the new school year may bring in the fall, and after the experiences of this past spring, it is important for teachers and leaders to prioritize social-emotional learning. Students have been at home for an extended period, away from their school community and friends, directly or indirectly experiencing the serious and frightening health and social justice challenges in their communities. Educators will need to work together to create safe and predictable learning environments and foster connection and community in the schools for students to be successful as they reenter classrooms and navigate this complex world.

If we need to continue with remote learning, coaches will need to support teachers in incorporating social-emotional learning. Building connections and community virtually will be critical for students’ successful education. Focusing on cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control will be as important in a digital classroom as it is in a traditional setting. Prioritizing these social-emotional skills before and during academic work will prepare students for a year of learning where they can safely take risks necessary to learn.

Coaching teachers through building positive and engaging classroom communities will be the priority this fall. A coach’s role—partnering with teachers as they analyze current truths, set goals, identify and clarify strategies to work toward those goals, and offer support until the goal is reached—can happen regardless of where school is taking place.