Do you remember that first-day-of-school excitement? Everything is placed neatly into your school bag, the classroom is beautifully made up, and all the seats and materials are ready to go for students. The lesson plans are typed up and printed out and the lesson objectives and daily agenda are posted artfully on the board. Teachers wait excitedly to see their students’ faces after a summer break.
And then there is the 2020–2021 school year, where nothing is normal, and we have had five “first days of school.” When we came back in August, we had not seen our students’ faces since we left for spring break in March, as our district, Omaha Public Schools, made the incredibly tough decision to move our students to a fully remote learning plan due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October, the district made another tough decision to switch from a fully remote learning model to our Family 3/2 model. In this model, students attend school in person for three days one week and two days the next week. The days students were not in school, they joined virtually online.
In February, the district decided, based on data from other school districts in the area, that we would go back to school five days a week. Families who choose to stay fully remote can still have students join classes virtually.
As the Verizon Innovative Learning coach at Norris Middle School, my job is to support teachers in their implementation of technology in the classroom. Prior to the pandemic, our teachers at Norris had two years of experience utilizing this technology in their classrooms thanks to our participation in the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program. This experience was invaluable for learning how to adapt to all the changes in instructional models. For this year that was full of change and challenges, I had three goals for coaching: availability, knowledge, and engagement.
My first goal was to be available to teachers. I made myself available in every way possible. I am currently a co-owner of more than 300 classes in Microsoft Teams. This allows me to be able to access classes and meetings and be able to help teachers virtually. I also made myself visible in the school building. Even when students were fully remote, our teachers would teach from their classrooms, and I would walk the hallways and pop into classes just to check on them and provide support as needed. Now that our students are back full-time, I try to be just as visible.
My second goal was to make each transition as smooth as possible. All professional development sessions were recorded or planned as asynchronous sessions. This allowed teachers to either attend the live session for extra support or complete the session at their own pace. My focus when creating these sessions was to help the teachers transition to the new change.
My third goal was focused on helping teachers increase student engagement. If teachers are overwhelmed and stressed, then our students must be as well. What are some things that we, as an instructional leadership team, could focus on to help teachers keep students engaged, without increasing teacher workload?
We chose to focus on utilizing interactive tools we already have available like Microsoft Teams, Nearpod, Seesaw, and Classkick. We also focused on improving classroom management in a concurrent teaching environment. Concurrent teaching was something our teachers had never experienced before. So, we walked through classrooms to see what strategies teachers were using, what worked, and what didn’t. Then I researched what experts and other teachers were recommending. Finally, we broke it all down for teachers to work through in multiple professional development sessions. Increasing student engagement was not something that could be improved from just one session. Teachers worked to complete sessions, classroom walkthroughs, and virtual team discussions throughout the rest of the year.
This school year has been a year like no other. Every teacher needs and deserves to be supported. Our job as coaches is to support them through this. When we make it to the other side, we may all be exhausted and have a few more gray hairs, but hopefully we have learned something. I learned that the teachers, staff, and students around the country are amazing. Most people in education are ready to do the impossible to support students and families. As coaches, we should be willing and able to do the same for our teachers.