By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Nothing is going according to plan.
Across the world, the swift transition from in-person to online education as a result of COVID-19 has created anxiety, uncertainty, grief, and a host of complex challenges for educators. Whether the transition caught us by surprise or we saw it coming, we have all faced unexpected obstacles in the wake of this crisis. But if we can begin to see some of our professional obstacles as opportunities, we can begin to forge new pathways that will carry us forward, even when the current crisis is behind us.
Designing curriculum is hard enough, but designing a remote learning curriculum in the middle of a global pandemic is completely overwhelming. Curriculum design is often customized to the features of a time-bound, classroom-based experience, to which at-home learning bears little resemblance. Can we translate the qualities of in-person learning to diverse groups of students who will have different entry points to learning and varying levels of access? Can we provide rigorous instruction to students when exams are canceled? Can we continue with the curricular units we had planned at the beginning of the school year, even if they aren’t aligned with at-home learning?
Within each of these curriculum challenges is an opportunity that can be unlocked with one word — how. Rather than “can we...", let’s try “how can we...in high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech ways?”
By asking how, we can focus not on obstacles, but action steps. This shift in our thinking can act as a catalyst to reexamining our goals, methods, and design for learning. In this moment, we have the opportunity to reimagine our curriculum for maximum engagement, intellectual curiosity, and cultural relevance. In-person learning is constrained by quantities of time: attendance, punctuality, and class periods, to name a few. Because at-home learning doesn’t exist within the same parameters, it presents an opportunity for educators to design curriculum that will engage students in learning at their own pace.
At the same time, at-home learning lacks the immediate presence of a classroom teacher who can answer questions at a moment’s notice, or a classmate to consult. As a result, at-home curriculum must be more explicit than its in-person counterpart. In person, a teacher may typically make oral announcements, or take loose notes on the board. To engage students in an intellectually rigorous at-home learning experience, teachers will likely need to be more detailed, more explicit, and provide more models, examples, and visuals in order for students to deepen their understanding.
As teachers articulate the nuances of content for an at-home learning experience, we have a new opportunity to develop robust materials and resources that will serve students’ needs, even when in-person learning resumes. For teachers, this type of deep reflection and planning is a unique professional learning experience that deepens our own understanding of our content and methodology.
For at-home learning, teachers may want to consider structuring weeklong assignments in the form of mini-projects or inquiry investigations that will allow students to vary the time spent on them each day. Some may want to break up their learning into daily chunks, while others will be able to dive deeply into the experience for a longer period of time. The ultimate goal is not the precise number of minutes students spend on the activity, but rather how they are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills related to the objectives. It doesn’t matter if they complete the task in 5-minute or 45-minute increments, or across 3-4 hours in one sitting — what matters is what they learn.
Connecting to students
In-person teaching is dependent upon a teacher’s presentation skills, and their rapport with students. At-home learning requires a completely different approach, as teachers are not physically with their students. This can be very disorienting for teachers who find their energy and satisfaction from being around kids and seeing their students’ eyes light up during an a-ha! moment. Being separated from their students can leave teachers feeling isolated, disconnected, and wondering if anything they’re doing is working.
Distance learning requires us to consider all of the ways in which we can deliver content without being in the same room at the same time. Our first task is to acknowledge that our go-to model of instruction may not be possible at this time. But while distance learning is different, it doesn’t need to diminish the teaching or the learning experience. We want to start by asking questions: How do we design an opening activity to draw students into their learning? How do we deliver our mini-lesson on a new topic or concept? How do we provide students with meaningful tasks and provide feedback in a timely manner?
One option includes synchronous video calls, where students log on at a specific time and engage with their class virtually. The benefits here are that teachers can present their lesson, engage students in peer-to-peer discussions, and answer questions in real time. However, this approach assumes all students have access to technology, and are able to engage at the same time without interruption. This isn’t always the case — and when students can’t engage online, it creates major concerns around equity and access. It’s for this reason that many educators see asynchronous learning as a promising practice. Using simple technology to create instructional videos, screencast presentations, or even audio recordings, teachers can present their lesson one time and distribute it 100+ times to their students in low- and no-tech ways.
One of the benefits of recorded lessons (even when we aren’t teaching through a pandemic) is that students can re-watch the lesson as many times as needed in order to understand the information. This is a critical support for students who have learning disabilities, or are learning English as a second language. Being able to pause, go back, and re-watch the lesson can bolster students’ confidence, increase their comprehension, and clarify their questions. After the lesson is designed and delivered, teachers can shift their focus from delivering instruction to providing personal support, feedback, and task modifications for students at all levels. This might look like holding office hours, offering weekly check-ins with students, email correspondence, or phone calls with students or caregivers who don’t have access to technology. Using these strategies, distance learning can be expertly differentiated, highly personalized, and deeply relational.
In a time that feels topsy turvy, we have to be honest: nothing is going according to plan. This fact is scary, disappointing, and de-centering, and can produce a considerable amount of anxiety. Whether we’re novice teachers or veterans, school leaders or policymakers, we are educating in a time that requires us to find new opportunities for offering meaningful, relevant, and academically engaging learning experiences to our students. Being open to these opportunities will serve us well, even when we’ve safely returned to our classrooms.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Differentiating instruction is inherently difficult, and now that we’re doing it at a distance, it can appear even more overwhelming than before. But appearances can be deceiving. Differentiating during this period of distance learning — using some high tech, low tech, and no tech options — can be easy, efficient, and effective!
Differentiation can happen in many ways, with varying levels of complexity. Our Differentiating Like a STAR resource, designed to help educators consider entry points to differentiation, offers strategies in four categories: data, task, text, and grouping. Within each category, we outline three levels of instruction — the more stars included, the stronger the differentiation. By identifying pathways to expand differentiation, you can add depth and complexity to your lessons.
When teaching at a distance, we aren’t able to rely on our typical informal observation skills to gather data about our students, including our ability to overhear conversations, see students’ confusion, or listen to their in-the-moment questions. We can, however, find alternative methods for collecting and using data to inform the next steps of our instruction.
We use data to inform our instruction at three critical levels:
High-tech: Google Forms
Using the features built into Google Forms, educators can build custom assessments, surveys, pre-, during, and post-reading guides, and much more. When students answer questions within the form, you can be updated instantly.
Create a clear connection to the data by turning the form into a quiz. This allows students to receive feedback about their performance, and can allow you to provide instructions for the student’s next task, based on their answers. Students who do well may be ready to move on to a more challenging activity; students who struggle may be directed to re-read or engage in continued practice. When they’re ready, students can return to the quiz to re-test their knowledge and demonstrate their learning.
How can you redirect students based on their answers? Use the “go to section based on answer” feature. This feature allows teachers to create hinge-point questions within an online learning experience. Within any multiple choice question, we can establish different follow-up tasks based on a student’s response.
If our answer choices are strategic (e.g. 1 correct answer, 1 close answer, 1 opposite answer, and 1 nonsense answer), students can be routed to different follow-up tasks after each question they respond to:
Using these Google Forms features is a great way for educators to create original curricular materials that blend instruction and assessment into a seamless experience for students.
Low-tech: there's an app for that!
Not everyone is up for building a differentiated task from nothing, and that’s okay — there are plenty of existing apps we can use that already have some of the basics set up for us:
These apps and others like them allow teachers to use existing platforms as a way to gather critical data about student performance.
No-tech: phone & paper
Distance learning without immediate and on-demand access to technology is extremely challenging in any circumstance, but especially amid a global health crisis. Students and families who don’t have access to technology are also those most likely to be vulnerable to housing, food, or health insecurity, and it’s in times like these that an equitable education is most at issue.
While it might be less fancy, using data to inform your instruction is not less possible when working without on-demand access to technology. Here are a few no-tech solutions that can get us through these difficult times without sacrificing the importance of data-informed instruction:
Whether or not we’re with our students in person, it’s still within our reach to provide targeted instruction. When our lessons are thoughtfully designed and informed by student data, we can offer differentiated instruction at every level of technology access.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
We might think that the hardest part about becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do, at the right time, and then doing it. In reality, the hardest part of becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do at the right time, and then not doing it. Let me explain.
Leaders often find themselves in a position to manage others in an area where they’ve previously been successful. The problem is, when it comes to supervising others in doing a job we know how to do well, it’s often easier to continue to do the job ourselves than to watch others struggle through it. Face it — if we do it ourselves, it’ll get done faster, better, and everyone will see how skilled we are and they’ll learn in the process. Except...not really. In reality, it’s vice versa.
Letting go is one of the hardest parts of effective leadership
When we’re doing our jobs well, our work as leaders is to coach and supervise the tasks and responsibilities of others — and that role should take more of our time than anything else. If we’re spending the bulk of our time doing the tasks ourselves, we aren’t leading, we’re doing. The true task of a leader — as a teacher, an administrator, or even a superintendent — is to lead from the ground up, nurturing those around us to take root, grow tall, and bloom.
But this process is easier said than done. In reality, even when we establish a process for delegating tasks, distributing roles, and differentiating responsibilities, it’s easy to spend all day, every day putting out fires, stopping fights, and feeling frustrated. This is because in ground-up leadership, we have to train and coach others to know how to do the right thing at the right time, even when we aren’t around. This is when leadership feels like a vice, when the weight of our leadership role feels like it has such a tight grip on us that it makes it hard to move or even breathe. When we feel the vice, we need the VERSA.
VERSA is a process for leadership that includes five principles of leadership that will help us to transform our teams from the ground up, allowing us to step back while others step forward.
V is for Vision
Effective leaders set a clear vision to help their teams see what matters most.
The first step for working with any team is to set a clear vision for the work they’re doing. It’s our responsibility as leaders to find the big picture vision for the task at hand, and help each person on our team to take on that vision as their own. This means they need to see value in the vision, see the role they play in reaching toward the vision, and see the vision as it fits into their own purpose in the work.
To set a vision, leaders must ask themselves: What is our goal?
We must remember where we want to go.
E is for Expectations
Effective leaders clearly communicate their vision and establish shared, explicit expectations — even when they seem like common sense.
All conflicts are the result of missed expectations, whether known or unknown. We all have expectations of ourselves and of one another — when those expectations are not clearly defined, are not stated explicitly, or are not agreed to, we’re bound to have accidental missed expectations. We’re also bound to have purposeful missed expectations, where someone wants to leave early or doesn’t meet a deadline. Without clearly stated and agreed to expectations, it can be challenging to realistically hold people accountable for their mistakes.
To establish expectations, leaders must ask: Do we agree on what needs to be done?
We must remember to say what we want to see.
R is for Responsibility
Effective leaders identify who, what, when, where, and why.
If it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job. The idea of shared tasks and shared responsibility is great on paper, but in the real world, when the components of the task are ambiguous or the process is mysterious, we often create more problems than we solve.
Responsibility entails the strategic and purposeful passing of the baton from one person to the next, for a defined period of time. We can think about it like a relay race. If everyone runs all at once, the team is doomed to fail. If no one runs a particular leg, everyone loses. Most work in teams requires thoughtful distribution of tasks, even if they can be completed by multiple people on the team.
To establish responsibility, leaders must ask: Who will do what, and by when?
We must remember to monitor the baton pass between team members on our project.
S is for Support (and praise)
Effective leaders provide opportunities for professional growth and strategically match people with tasks linked to their gifts and talents as often as possible. They praise with purpose.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown challenges leaders to imagine that each of their team members is actually doing the best they can, without reservation. The question she leaves us with is, if that’s true (which she is very confident that it is) what does it mean about how we support them in the work? How do we determine that our team has all the skills they need to meet the demands of the task? How can we anticipate their professional learning needs, as well as create a culture where people feel comfortable coming to the front to say where they need help?
If we are truly motivated by our goal, we’ll take the time and put in the effort to provide support and praise to our team members, offering feedback on what has been done well and where growth is required to meet the goal.
To provide support, leaders must ask themselves: Do we have the skills to meet the expectations?
We must remember that common sense isn’t always common, it’s often learned through culture and prior knowledge.
A is for Accountability
Effective leaders follow up on met and unmet expectations.
In direct conversations, we can identify the obstacles to meeting expectations, collaborate on action plans for next steps, and when necessary, establish proportional consequences.
Part of the challenge is that many leaders grew up in the light of the epic quote, “if you build it, they will come.” I know that I spent a lot of time believing that if I just set a clear vision, hired the right people, and created clear structures, I wouldn’t ever have to have those hard conversations, or correct someone on the team, and of course, I’d never need to fire anyone.
But accountability is just as important as every other part of the process. It’s what raises the stakes, creates a fair working environment, and reinforces the values of the organization. Without accountability, anything goes...and when anything goes, everything goes.
To hold our team members accountable for their contributions, we ask: What feedback or action steps will translate into met-expectations?
We can remember that accountability doesn’t equal punishment, but it is a call to account — to explain what happened, why it happened, and how we can make a change in the future.
VERSA is a process for leadership that allows us to lead from the ground up — stepping back in order to move forward — and authentically move our teams towards knowing the right thing to do at the right time.
When our teams take center stage in these ways, it’s a huge win. It means as leaders, we can begin to set our sights on the future, knowing that day-to-day, our team is leading the way.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
What do you do?
I’m a teacher.
Oh wow, I could never do that! [long pause] It must be so rewarding, though.
I’ve had this conversation at least a hundred times, maybe more. There’s the same rhythm of awkward pauses each time, where the other person looks to say something positive, and I recall small, not-so-rewarding incidents that have happened over my teaching career.
Yes, I do find my work in education, both in and out of the classroom, to be extremely rewarding when I focus on the big picture. But on a day-to-day basis, teaching can be a struggle. It’s a struggle because, contrary to popular belief, teachers do not teach Math or Science, or History — they teach students. From tiny to tall, students are actual human beings with independent identities, personal autonomy, and a will of their own. The concept of “controlling your class” is both inaccurate and impossible. On any given day, a highly effective teacher can facilitate, guide, support, foster, and nurture a positive learning environment — but we can never control it. Subsequently, creating classroom culture or managing student behaviors is a major stressor for teachers at all levels.
Many teachers maintain the myth of classroom control and as a result, they may struggle to embrace student-centered instructional strategies like peer-to-peer discussions, group work, and student choice on tasks. The more fear we have, the more likely we are to become hyper-vigilant micro-managers in the classroom, which can sometimes magnify small issues and escalate conflicts, creating disruptive and potentially dangerous power dynamics that can block off relationships and erode trust between teachers and students. None of which feels rewarding, I promise.
As teachers, we have a lot of power and responsibility to set the tone in our own classrooms and create a culture of learning that empowers students to engage in the lessons with respect for themselves and others. Here are three ways we can de-escalate conflicts and maximize positive learning opportunities for students.
Don't take it personally
The first thing we want to remember is that all of our students are actual human beings who typically live 23 hrs and 10 minutes a day without us. When they enter into our classroom after a bad morning, feeling hungry, distracted, or any number of other emotions, it’s easy for us to take their words and actions as a personal attack. This can put us on defense, or worse — on the offense.
Before reacting, we will benefit from asking a few simple questions that will help us to strategize our next steps.
Even in the smallest classes, teachers are outnumbered. As a result, we’re hyper-focused on distracting, disruptive, disrespectful, and defiant behaviors and we’re far more likely to address everything that’s going wrong, rather than what’s actually going right. Often, we’re addressing negative classroom behaviors in front of the whole class because it’s more efficient to say, “Brian, stop talking” from the front of the room than it is to walk to the back of the class and talk with Brian privately in the middle of a lesson. But culture is shaped primarily by the narrative, and as teachers, we have the privileged opportunity to set up a positive narrative in our space. By eliminating public criticism, and praising publicly instead, we have the power to create positive momentum, spotlight all the students who are doing the “right” thing, and set clear expectations for what students are supposed to do.
Reflect & redirect
Our goal is not to become afraid of addressing students’ negative behaviors directly, but rather to begin addressing them strategically. If we can remove our personal feelings from the situation, we’ll be better positioned to find a method for motivating students to fully commit to a proactive and positive learning environment. Part of that methodology is public praise — the other part is personalized reflection and redirection. Especially when working in a culture that is vastly different from one’s own, focusing on short, private conversations when it’s necessary to address a negative behavior can only have a positive impact on the culture.
Our classroom spaces will feel physically and psychologically safer when we acknowledge that students’ behavior is a form of communication, even when directed towards us. When we allow ourselves to be personally offended, we are likely to simplify the situation and vilify the student. This leaves us more likely to respond defensively, criticize, and engage in power struggles. Each of these instincts are likely to increase tension and escalate conflicts at the exact moment when we know that diffusing the situation would be more beneficial to our students and ourselves.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
The first segment of every workshop, conference, or institute we lead always begins with reflection. Whether we’re engaging in a protocol, a free share, or a conversation starter, we like to take a moment at the beginning of our learning experiences to stop, pause, reflect, and to find ourselves in the moment so we can be fully present.
At our last Chancellor’s Day event, Inspire, we offered four reflection-based workshops that focused on the day’s theme: see and be seen. These workshops invite educators to reflect on a connection they want to deepen — connection to self, connection to students, connection to colleagues, or connection to communities. Within this framework, educators have the opportunity to explore practical instructional strategies that can be used for students and adults.
Connecting to self
What are your core values? When have you been the happiest, the most proud, the most satisfied? Using this article from Mindtools as a reference, you can investigate patterns and trends in your life — patterns that may reveal who you are at your core. Identify your values, then prioritize them. What’s more important to you — accuracy or efficiency? Honesty or peace? Community or independence? This process of identification and prioritization helps you drill down to the values that drive your work, personality, and passions.
Connecting to students
The more experience we gain as educators, the farther apart we are in age from our students. Generational differences, cultural differences, stylistic differences, and even language differences can separate us from truly connecting. It’s valuable to take a moment to question the assumptions we have about our students, and to resist allowing stereotypes or cultural differences to define them.
Once we can articulate ways in which we see students, we can begin to critically reflect on these understandings and how they might limit our perceptions of who are students are, and of who they could become. This insight gives us the purpose and the motivation needed to push into our classrooms with a clear intention to find more points of connection with our kids.
Connecting to colleagues
One of the biggest changes in schools over the last decade is a focus on teacher collaboration. From teacher teams to co-teaching, teacher-to-teacher collaboration is at an all-time high. But increased collaboration also creates space for increased tensions, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between colleagues. Dealing with these dynamics while also teaching a class is extremely difficult. That’s why it’s important to build empathy and understanding.
Repurposing a high-leverage instructional strategy, the Body Biography, allows us to better empathize with our fellow educators. The Body Biography allows us to use different parts of a body to represent different aspects of a personality or different actions — what we write in the mind communicates what a person is thinking, what we write in the hand communicates what they’re doing, and so on. By using the Body Biography as a tool for understanding our colleagues, we begin to see people from multiple perspectives — and blank areas will reveal key characteristics that we may not know about the people who are working alongside us every day.
Connecting with community
New York City has many diverse and unique communities. The more we connect with the community we’re teaching in, the better equipped we are to build relationships with our students, parents, and the neighborhoods in which we’re working. We can start by making connections between our communities and their narratives.
Draw a map of your school community. Annotate it to illustrate the people who live within the community, and the stories they have to tell. How would these stories differ if told from a person who exists outside of the community? The differences between these two narratives will help us to better understand the lived experiences of our students and their families, and be more aware when our experiences differ. These realizations can also help us to be more mindful and intentional in how we tell stories about our community to others.
Each of these reflective activities helps us to make connections between ourselves and others. It takes vulnerability and bravery to walk into these spaces, to confront stereotypes, and to reflect and revise our practices. But the benefits are worth the risks. These connections enhance our ability to build relationships, work toward resolving tensions, and communicate with compassion.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
My understanding of what it means to be a teacher was reinforced by how the media portrays teachers in film. I wanted to be Michelle Pfeiffer, winning over the “dangerous minds,” or Robin Williams inspiring the overachievers with his progressive ways, or Morgan Freeman pushing the students to do the right thing, or Edward James Almos challenging his students to step up and become the academics they were. Each of these portrayals, all based on true stories, tells the tale of a teacher who gave everything they had to their students — and within two short hours, saved the day.
In reality, my teaching experience feels more like a dark comedy than a feel-good hero story. Teaching is a labor of love, but the love does always balance out the labor. At the end of the day, when our patience is out the window, and things keep piling on, we have to figure out what it means to be a teacher, a parent, a social worker, and a nurse, all at the same time. Teachers often find themselves wondering, is this what burnout feels like?
Recent research has investigated the silent toll that those in caretaking roles, such as teachers, face. They call the phenomena emotional labor. Former teacher turned journalist Emily Kaplan says, “Teaching is all about reaching clear to the heart of another human being and using everything you’ve got to make a difference. It’s calming kids when they’ve had a rough recess, celebrating when they lose their first tooth, absorbing their struggles and their traumas, channeling their joy and investing the currency of your own emotions in an effort to help them grow."
It’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to do on the airplane — we’re putting the oxygen mask on everyone else before we put it on ourselves.
Researchers highlight that when society inevitably fails to provide students with what they need, teachers feel “personal and professional guilt, which they must suppress for the broader good. Emotional labor begets more emotional labor.” And this challenge is compounded even more because the only power we really have in the system is in the confines of our classroom.
Educators feel pressed down and overwhelmed by systemic obstacles with no clear path forward. So where does that leave us? Brene Brown might suggest that it leaves us feeling disconnected and isolated. It leaves us searching for connection. Connection, Brene says, is "the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”
Connection creates energy. When isolated and disconnected we feel tired, lonely, and potentially depressed. But opportunities for connection create energy between people. Within that space, we can “give and receive without judgment; and derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
Connection as an antidote to emotional labor
So that begs the question — what makes you feel seen?
We can come to some agreement that there are three simple ways we can see and be seen.
The first is simply, to listen. David Augsburger says that “being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening feels like love. How can we listen more intently? Who do you need to listen to you? Who do you need to listen to?
Second is to reflect. To reflect is to go back, to see again. When we reflect what we’ve heard to someone who is sharing with us, we demonstrate that we see their perspective, even if it’s different than our own. If 100 people shared what each of them saw in a Rorschach test, for example, we’d get 100 different answers. Everything from a puppy to an ice queen to muddy footprints. When we are reflecting what we’ve heard, however, we don’t need to rush to share our own opinion, or how we perceived the situation, or give tips about how others can see what we see. All we need to do is reflect what we understand their perspective to be. Here we seek first to understand, and then to be understood.
And finally, we want to acknowledge, in one way or another, that no one is in this alone.
You are not alone.
You may be teaching by yourself. You may be grading papers on your own. But you are not alone. A community of educators has a deep bench, and we are here to connect with you, to acknowledge your experience, and reflect on your experiences. This is empathy. And Brene Brown reminds us of the power of empathy, noting that when we express or open ourselves up to feel another person’s feelings, we are we are saying, “I know what it’s like, and you are not alone.”
We know what it’s like. And we see you.