Sharing Our Passions

Something I have really missed over the last year has been gatherings at the table. I love to cook and bake for family and friends. I love long lingering meals in the backyard and big family dinners. I love family-style meals with my work family in our office. I have been thinking a lot about why I miss those so much. It the sense of community that I feel in those moments. It means something that people take the time to gather, take the time to prepare food for each other, and pause whatever else is going on to sit and listen to one another. A shared meal is a community experience that brings people together in a beautiful way. I had the honor of being invited to a bake-off with a class of third graders a few weeks ago. I couldn’t stay the whole time, but I was able to be there at the start. I watched almost fifty young people in an online session that were so excited to be there. Nearly every student had their camera on and enthusiastically asked questions, mostly all at once as third graders do when they are excited.  

Two classes started doing bake-offs together during emergency remote teaching to continue to build community no matter what the circumstances. They have continued doing shared activities around food or other common interests that are amazing. As we moved to a hybrid model, one of the teachers wanted to continue that work, so she asked if she could get bread machines for their classroom. She wrote this wonderful blog post about the experience of baking together as a community with a focus on the skills the learners are gaining through the process.  

What stuck out to me the most was how it all started. Last spring, I was watching our families post things online about how they were teaching their young children to cook, doing home repair projects, building and making things, and participating in the #epictomatochallenge with the extra time at home. We wanted to find a way to take everything our teachers, learners, and families were doing from home and tie it to their school experience. Our teachers found new passions and spent time doing the things they were already passionate about. Our learners were developing new interests or perfecting things that they were already passionate about. We wanted to find a way to live our strategic plan, empower our learners to share their interests with us, and engage some learners who were starting to disconnect.  

We have been working for the last several years on embedding the Deeper Learning competencies into every single classroom as our way to prepare our learners to live life on their own terms after graduation. The competencies focus on the skills needed for life success- content mastery, communication, problem-solving, collaboration, self-direction, and most importantly, having an academic mindset, which means feeling such a strong sense of belonging that you want to push yourself to try new things and work hard to achieve your goals. We always look for ways to move that work forward and have seen pockets of unbelievable success over the last few years. Watching the way our community united around the tomato challenge and watching what was happening at home on social media prompted us to move to a four-year-old kindergarten through twelfth-grade passion project. 

It was amazing to see the increase in school attendance, the incredible things our learners and families worked on together, and the shared experience across an entire community. We had learners gardening, making movies, participating in online challenges, doing home repair projects, cooking, learning about broadcasting, and many, many more. While our learners were investing their own interests, they were also learning to start with an idea, get feedback from the teachers and other experts, ask probing questions, iterate again and again, write lengthy reflections, use new technology tools to share their knowledge, and produce artifacts about what they had learned that they were very proud to share with an authentic audience. It is that learning experience, tied to academic standards, that we want them to have every day. Watching the momentum of that project carry over into this school year has been inspiring.  

Our staff started sending me copies of their own passion projects last spring. They were doing some new things and some things that they have always loved. Watching adults articulate their learning process with reflections while they learned how to use new technology tools to share what they had learned was fantastic. It became a shared process for learners and staff. It pushed all staff, including teachers, educational assistants, school leaders, and our facilities staff, to share parts of themselves with our learners and invite our learners to do the same. We are always looking for access points to move our Deeper Learning work forward. This became an amazing window for staff and learners to see the power of authentic, learner-driven work.  

I received a lot of feedback on the projects and the whole process and still do almost a year later. Some of the families’ feedback was that their learner needed a more structured learning method, and therefore this was not working for them. Some shared that they were worried about the level of rigor involved. Some were concerned that our teachers had not had enough training in project-based learning to ensure standards were embedded. Many families and learners thanked us for taking a step that helped their child feel empowered. One parent shared that she started the project concerned about rigor and ended up watching her child learn many new skills, build his confidence, stretch himself to do more and more, and connect to his father through common interests. She saw the academic success he experienced in many different ways by the time his first project was done.  He went on to do several more throughout the summer and fall. That learner started something at school that inspired him to connect and go deeper- so powerful.   

Staff also shared some equally thought-provoking reflections. Many of them started the process being frustrated that they were asked to make a shift during such an uncertain time but ended up inspired by what our learners could do. They started to talk about how the strategies they would use to empower our students identified as gifted and talented were the same ones they should be using with our learners identified as having special education needs. One teacher wanted to learn about digital storytelling to engage and deepen the learning for “advanced” students and discovered that she would use the same method to create innovative ways to engage reluctant readers. Another teacher shared she felt overwhelmed at the start of the project but watched her learners come alive as it moved along. She shared that one learner wanted to learn about broadcasting. This led to a new connection with the band teacher, who also knows a lot about sound engineering. He worked collaboratively with the learner and teacher to share what he knows and connected the learner to a local expert who does a professional podcast for the GreenBay Packers for an online meeting to learn more. This kind of cross-curricular, authentic learning was happening for thousands of learners across our community.  

One of our leaders, who was new to us last year, had such inspiring reflection as he was reviewing the learners’ projects and writing about them for his own blog. He chose to review the projects from one of our Advanced Placement courses.  He shared:

That is when I had my a-ha moment. It didn’t matter what student I picked. I didn’t have to think hard and critically about what students would or wouldn’t look good on the blog. They all had a helpful, reflective, communicative project that they did with fidelity. You couldn’t tell a “5” student on their exam to “1”, or an “A” student to a “B”.

This is what the vision should be not for 70 students, but 1000. This is what Central should strive for. I should be able to go into any classroom, any period, and I wouldn’t notice SPED, remedial, or different opportunities. All students would have access and output that would be equitable. It was a powerful feeling for myself.”

All feedback is important as it informs our practice.  Our goal is never to make sure every learner has the same experience. It is that we find a way for the right learning experience for each learner at every moment we can. As we create more access points for our learners to become empowered, we will find the right ones for each learner over time.  It will always mean balancing structured activities, lectures, and a more traditional approach to teaching combined with multiple ways to investigate, explore, try, fail, and try again with opportunities to share what they know and get feedback.  Finding the right balance, being patient with the time it may take, and ensuring the learners have the skills needed to create their own pathway with our support is what creates an empowered learner experience.    

The number of staff members who sent us videos, reflections, and samples of learner projects was impressive. They were so proud of their learning communities that they sent emails, posted things on social media, and have used what they had learned in planning instruction for the future. That community of bakers grew out of some of the moments we shared as a community last spring that they will remember for a lifetime. The power in that is immeasurable.  

Evaluating Ourselves

I used to hate formal observations when I was in the classroom. It wasn’t because I was worried about someone seeing what was happening in our class. I was anxious to get feedback that would help me grow, which did not usually occur. I wanted it to be more than a “dog and pony” show with a “good job” pat on the back at the end. The first year that I observed teachers, I vowed to give genuine and honest feedback that pushed the individual to grow. I used to observe over one hundred teachers in seventeen locations, so that was not always easy to do. I realized then that the process was not working as intended, given the time I had. How could I give someone honest feedback if I had not spent the time to get to know them and find out what they were working on as professionals? How could I possibly do that with so many teachers in so many locations? I shifted my process many times to try and get it right. It wasn’t until I changed who was doing the talking in these meetings that I saw a shift to real goals, personal reflection, and meaningful feedback supported by evidence. 

This year, more than ever, educators are under immense pressure. We are all trying to make education during a pandemic work for as many people as possible. This has not been an easy feat. We wanted to get virtual instruction right for our learners and opened camps for students who needed care and interaction during the day, all while I used my new minor in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help our amazing teams make sure schools buildings were ready to reopen. We have spent so much time talking about school logistics that we need to be very intentional to still infuse the purpose of school and our strategic goals no matter the learning format. This was especially true of teacher observation this year.

There has been a push on social media to drop the teacher evaluation system this year, and some states even offered a waiver to do so due to the pressure on teachers and the education system as a whole. As our strategic plan includes continuous improvement cycles for our goals, our growth, and our learner experience, it was important to continue to participate in the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System and shift our focus on who was doing the evaluating.  

As part of that process, teachers set a student learning objective and a professional practice goal each year. Evaluators do a couple of short observations and a formal observation at least once a year. Every three years, educators complete a documentation log to demonstrate progress in each professional standard and receive a ranking in each one. Our districts’ evaluation system used to be tied to performance compensation, so it had become a compliance-driven process instead of an opportunity for reflection and growth. We have been working to shift that perspective for a while and listen to what our administrators and our teachers needed from us to gain value from the process.

Our administrators needed us to shorten the time it was taking, and our teachers needed to feel more support and opportunities for reflection and feedback. I went back to how I had shifted the process years ago when I evaluated so many staff in so many locations and thought a lot about the importance of modeling with and for teachers what we ask them to model in classrooms. We cannot say we are a district that is about learner-empowered, evidence-informed practice and have an evaluation system that still gives out grades like stamping an A or a C on a paper. We needed to shift to a teacher-empowered, evidence-informed evaluation system as well.

For our first informal observation, we asked each principal to schedule a short meeting with each educator. During the meeting, they shared the following prompts:

  • Tell about a time you have felt successful in your teaching this year.
  • Tell about a time you struggled. What did you do to move forward?  
  • How do you measure success in your role?

The employee then shared their personal professional practice goal, and we asked:

  • What evidence will you collect to demonstrate progress towards your goal?
  • What support do you need from me? 

It was essential to start with a positive. We tend to focus on the negative and think of our work from a deficit lens. Instead, we want people to celebrate their bright spots and use those as inspiration to grow forward. It is not that we ignore the negative. We recognize and acknowledge it and then plan to overcome it with the right support to get there.  

These meetings took under thirty minutes. In that time, we were able to connect one-on-one with each educator and hear about what was going well, where they were stuck, and how we can support them. It pushed our teachers to slow down and really reflect on their practice. We do not do that often enough. We are often so busy moving on to the next event or the next lesson that we don’t think about what just happened and how it can inform our future practice.  

This is also the experience we want learners to have in classrooms. We want them to set goals, go deep in their knowledge of how to accomplish a goal, reflect on their progress, and get feedback from others—shifting the first observation to this process allowed teachers to have that experience. We still do formal and informal observations, but those are now designed to collect evidence about the teacher’s goals for the class and themselves. It has moved the process from what’s good and what’s bad to what evidence we can both see that tells us we are making progress towards the goal.  

Our teachers have always been dedicated to professional growth. This process focussed the development around a single goal aligned to our strategic plan and the school improvement plan, which the teachers had input in developing. The focus allows us to concentrate on one element of the job to really push ourselves while continuing to do our work in other areas. It pushed us to reflect and think about our practice more regularly and seek feedback on the skills we are trying to develop.  

My superintendent and I followed the same process with our principals this year as well. It was an incredible time to hear them and connect. They shared personal stories, successes, and ways we could support them. We got to ask thought-provoking questions and learn more about them as people and leaders. We suggested professional development opportunities that may assist them or the teachers at their school site in reaching a professional goal or suggested a connection with another leader or school that was one step ahead in the work. One of our leaders reported that the “observation” was one of the best professional conversations she has ever had. She will reflect and grow independently and with her staff in all-new ways based on the experience. 

Many of our evaluators have shared that they will continue doing these check-ins with staff as the informal observations throughout the year as the value of the conversations has been immense. Teachers are reporting understanding the system better and feeling supported. Evaluation has shifted to be a process of self-reflection and growth aligned to professional development. It is no longer about right or wrong or an “I gotcha” for staff. It is about personal growth and reflection with the right push and the right support. I’m excited to see the impact our educators’ reflections can and will have on every learner we serve.  

This happened

I usually write whenever I see something amazing or am working through an issue. Writing is one of the ways I reflect on and process the day or the week. It helps me narrow my thinking, find bright spots, and create a plan to move forward. I have the start of about fifteen blog posts from the last two months that I have never finished. It took me a while to figure out exactly why. I had been wired to take one night or one weekend afternoon all to myself each week, go to a coffee shop, put in my headphones, and finish my posts. I love the time I get to think deeply about my work or my life, capture those thoughts and complete a post that I want to share with the world. I probably spend more time in the editing process than I should for a blog, but I like the sense of accomplishment when I feel like I’ve captured something important to me that can maybe help others too. This is where I got stuck.  

I was wired to think that I couldn’t finish a post without my coffee shop time all on my own. I started to pay attention to the other ways we are all wired differently given the last year.

This happened:

  • Unexpected emergency shut down
  • A summer of planning and uncertainty
  • Sick family members and friends
  • Loss of family members, friends, employees
  • Horrifying injustice across our nation 
  • Protests
  • A challenging election
  • More uncertainty
  • Planning to be a virtual school district
  • Economic issues
  • Disconnect and isolation
  • Increase in mental health issues

This is a list of things most of us would not want to see in a lifetime, much less to experience all in one year. However, we have to acknowledge that

This also happened:

  • More time with family and friends, even when it is virtual
  • New connections to people all over our nation and world
  • New babies on our teams and in our families
  • A new appreciation for teachers 
  • New connections to the families we serve
  • A narrow focus on what matters most
  • A more thoughtful approach to why we do what we do and if it should change
  • More open conversations about historical marginalization
  • Opportunities to rethink education
  • So, so, so many people going far above and beyond to support one another

While there have been really tough times, there have also been some incredible moments that have come out of the last year that we need to talk about and celebrate. 

We have to recognize that we are now wired to respond differently than we were before. Our brains rely on new supports and routines, some of which we are all anxious to unlearn and some that we all want to keep. It hit me one day when I was driving to pick something up. I looked over to see our dog sitting in the front seat next to me and my children sitting in the back. The dog has become wired to go with us everywhere we go and call shotgun on sitting in the front seat. He immediately lays in front of the door if he sees us go anywhere near shoes or keys in an effort never to get left behind, and we have adapted to him going everywhere and sitting in the front seat without really thinking about it.  

If the dog is wired differently, so are we, and so are the children we serve in schools. Since the start of the year, we had been virtual and just started welcoming students back into physical buildings last week. We have all felt anxious for the last couple of months while we tried to ensure we have the right safety measures in place and all the right technology and supplies to make this work, but that anxiety quickly turned to excitement. Teachers went from fear of how we will supervise our hallways to ideas about creating new ways to connect with learners and connect them to each other through our technology tools. Our elementary music teachers had to adjust to not being able to sing in the classroom, but they adapted. I got to watch a VERY loud but excited group of learners figure out how to follow patterns and rhythm to drum on large plastic buckets instead of singing in their music class. I saw inspired children and a very patient teacher all learning something new. 

After our first full day, most people commented on how quiet the students were but how quickly they adapted to the new safety measures and routines. Many of them were nervous and scared, but they jumped right in. They quickly got rewired to how different the school looks and how we do things in new ways. It will still take time to adjust to the interaction with each other and the staff, but I am confident they will be as active as ever by the end of the week. 

We have spent a lot of time talking as a leadership team about how to support one another as adults and learners get used to returning to physical schools over the last two months while there are still many uncertainties in the world around us. We have talked about the ways in which we are wired differently and talked openly about the trauma that many people have experienced in the last year. We also talked about the new skills we have learned and the new ways in which we all problem solve and are resilient. We shared tools and strategies to support one another and our learners with our teams of student services staff, mental health providers, and instructional coaches. We learned about all kinds of new adaptive tools that we are trying out to keep learners connected and give everyone access. We also talked about taking the time to reestablish classroom communities and reconnect to each other, giving each other a lot of grace with we unlearn and relearn and, most importantly, give lots of permission to get creative and try new things.  

Our brains have a remarkable capacity to adapt, adjust and rewire. Apparently, I can be rewired to finish a blog post somewhere other than a coffee shop. This has been such a challenging and amazing year. I am happy for some of the ways I am rewired and reflect a lot on the ones that I still need to work on. Our superintendent always reminds us that we should not focus on what’s wrong but instead look for what’s possible. I’m excited to continue to look for what’s possible next as we learn, grow, and rewire to different, and in some ways, better ways of doing things.     

Coaching Championship Schools

September 26, 2019

My dad

I grew up in a basketball household. My parents loved the game, my dad coached for years, and all three of my siblings played throughout high school. My dad even had the opportunity to coach Isiah Thomas, now retired from the Detroit Pistons, for part of his seventh grade year. When my dad passed away tons of his former players reached out to our family to share how much of an influence he had on them as people through the sport. I think about that one often, not just because it is pretty awesome and a reflection of who my dad really was, but also because it says something about the purpose and intent of team sports. My dad knew it. It should be about having a genuine relationship with players and a common goal. Everyone on the team knows they have their part and contribute in their own way to a unified purpose. People join a sport with a goal already in mind- to win and hopefully to have fun. How you get a group of individuals to share in an approach to achieving a goal requires that it is compelling and clear enough that people are willing to take risks to get there. My dad didn’t coach too many championship teams, but he did create some bonds and a sense of purpose that have lived on including inspiring his children to coach our own kids. Getting a whole school district to work towards common goals and yet allowing each school to maintain their own individuality in achieving them can work the same as attempting to coach a championship team.

I read a great post by Jennifer Gonzalez, who writes Cult of Pedagogy, on What Teachers Want You To Know. It was a letter to administrators on what teachers need from them. I read it from the lens of my team’s work in supporting administrators and instructional coaches at each of our eighteen school sites. On behalf of teachers, she asked principals to:

  1. Treat teacher time as a precious commodity.
  2. Differentiate your leadership.
  3. Give specific feedback.
  4. Regularly check in with your ego.
  5. Fight for us.

On behalf of school leaders, I took it as good advice from them to district office staff as well.  Those five embody the work of great coaches and leaders. How do we respect people’s time? How do we recognize that schools are in different places and need us to support them in different ways? How do we more regularly give feedback? How do check our egos by promoting the ideas one school may have and honoring them by recognizing them publicly so others can learn? How do we ensure leaders at the school level and district level are listening to our learners and our teachers to align our work and not put too many things on everyone’s plates? 

We have a strategic plan developed by a committee of staff from all departments, parents, and community members that set our specific goals in four building blocks so that our expectations are clear and our work is focussed. We meet as a leadership team (principals, assistant principals, deans of students, instructional coaches and district office staff) once a month to professionally grow and ensure we are implementing our strategic plan effectively. In our first year of the plan, we worked on a variety of topics each month. We spent some time in small group discussion on the topic and started each meeting with an opportunity to personally connect. Everyone would leave these sessions energized to do the work, but just like when you go to a professional development session without the time to process and plan. Little was carrying over into schools and our relationships between school and district leaders were not getting deep enough to help push the work. A good basketball coach watches the playback, analyzes what went well, sees what needs work and adjusts their plan to better help the players grow. We needed to coach in a new way because we were having awesome practices through our meetings, but not consistently applying the strategies and the plays in the game.

When we really thought about why that was happening, it became clear that we needed our district level support and coaching to be far more specific to the work that was being done at each school site and how it connects to our district goals with a lot more time for reflection. Just like Jennifer suggests, we needed to check our egos, give (and get) more feedback and differentiate our leadership. After that first year our Leadership and Learning team, which at that time consisted of a Director, a Coordinator of Instruction, a Coordinator of Special Education, a Coordinator of Student Supports, a Coordinator of Innovation, and a Coordinator of Career and Technical Education, adjusted how we approach our work. We moved from a siloed system of individual roles that each had a specialty to a support role of working with the school leadership teams on a weekly basis at the school sites on every aspect of our work. We added something we call school supports wherein each member of our team partners with a few schools to help connect all our work and align it towards the levers that will create a true shift of culture to empower teachers and learners to try new things and take risks through authentic, learner driven practices. We planned to be there for about two hours each week meeting, doing classroom walk-throughs together to share bright spots of learner driven practice and looking at areas where it needs to grow. It was a great opportunity to develop deeper relationships between a school based leadership team and one member of our Leadership and Learning team. As a team, we learned how to differentiate coaching between schools and heard from learners at each school site to know what was working well for them and what needed to be improved. Getting specific feedback from leaders at eighteen schools helped us as a team to plan professional development and our leadership days to align them to really push the right work, but with the right support. If open lines of communication, strong relationships built on trust, opportunities to share ideas and reflect, a common goal, and time for skill development makes a great sports team, it can certainly help to make strong schools.

It worked pretty well in the first year, and we certainly learned a lot. We added a summer professional development series for our leaders based on what they shared they needed, adjusted the format for our monthly leadership team meetings to go deeper on a few key messages instead of a variety of topics, and added some elements to our district-wide professional development to better meet the needs of teachers.

We also learned that our format for school improvement plans needed improvement (pun intended), so we adjusted our playbook again.  This year the school improvement plans are made up of short term markers aligned to a continuous improvement cycle with concrete action steps and a purposeful professional development for teachers and leaders.  The plans are intended to be discussed regularly with the staff at each site to be sure they have input and adjusted after reflection many times throughout the year. Our monthly leadership meetings have become times to review parts of those plans in small groups with other schools, share progress and get feedback from others school leaders, which is also reviewed during the school support meetings with the district partner.  

Good sports coaches adjust the plan over and over again while remaining focussed on the goal. They push people in ways that make them better. Michael Jordan said, “A coach is someone that sees beyond your limits and guides you to greatness.” Valuing the time we have together to make it meaningful, working on feedback, checking our egos, and fighting for the right work through differentiated leadership is hopefully pushing us all to embrace change and take risks with and for our learners. We have seen some amazing bright spots over the last few years with instructional practice across our district that is learner driven. We will continue to look for ways to grow that to scale so we have wall to wall, bell to bell, empowered classrooms, schools and learners. It is our hope that listening to what everyone wants us to know, continuing to reflect and adjust our practice is a good step in coaching up a championship for our entire district and guiding our learners to greatness.

Freedom Within Fences

I have to admit that as a child, I found Mister Rogers kind of creepy. Although I loved the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I didn’t completely understand the charm of Mister Rogers himself. I also have to admit that the quotes I read as an adult are full of wisdom and messages that connect to my core beliefs. I read one recently that said, “Providing a framework doesn’t take away children’s individuality. In fact, structure generally helps them to be more free because it provides boundaries. It’s like a fence that offers security for what can happen inside the enclosure. Respect flourishes best within a clear framework, and it’s that framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are.” My first response was to wonder why we want restrictions and limits on our learners through boundaries, but then I thought about the fence that all learners need from us.  

Their fence, which provides protection and predictability, is based on the reciprocal relationships we create with each learner. In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros shares “Relationships don’t serve only to build up our learners; they give us a foundation to be able to challenge them as well. And the truth is, we are more likely to rise to high expectations when they are held by someone we like and trust. If schools do not push our students to grow, then there is no purpose for them to be there in the first place. But if there is no relationship where learners feel seen and cared about, when we push our students or colleagues, there will be little motivation, if any, to respond to that encouragement.” The fence allows us to push them to grow knowing they will respond to our feedback and encouragement. They need to know that we know them, understand that the world is hard for everyone right now, and truly want to see them achieve great things.

The safety that learners feel in a classroom when they are ready and able to take risks is based on the fence we create as the teacher. That fence is not designed to limit who they are or who they will become, but instead, it is an effort to provide them some predictable boundaries through which everyone can grow. Teachers know that if we want to teach someone to read or do math, we model how over and over again. We also need to model thinking through a problem and finding ways to create over and over again to help learners feel confident in what they are doing, especially right now. They are feeling the restrictions and isolation of this pandemic in so many ways. School, whether virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face can be the place they come to connect and create. We can use this as a time to let our learners find new ways to show their skills with lots of opportunities for feedback from us and each other.  

I prefer to think about the fence in terms of the safety net they put under someone who is learning the trapeze. I am not getting up on the trapeze unless I trust the instructor enough to believe they will have my back with my harness and a secure net if I fall. I would need clear direction on how to use those safety nets if I needed them. That is really what our learners need from us. They need to know that we have their back when they get stuck or when they struggle. They need to know that our reactions to their choices will be somewhat predictable and are transparent. That builds the trust that is the foundation of the reciprocal relationship so learners feel a sense of belonging and want to show us what they know. 

When I was in the classroom, we spent more time talking about what our personal boundaries were than creating “rules”. I was not a teacher that cared where the learners sat or if they needed to walk when I was talking or they were working. I don’t care now if my college students keep their cameras off, although I have told them this is easier for me if they have it on and have asked them to do so once they feel comfortable. My non-negotiables in any classroom have always been based on the way we choose to interact with one another and our desire to support one another as we try things. When I taught middle school, I used to spend a lot of time in class teaching learners how to give encouraging feedback to each other as well as how to handle moments of stress with non-verbals until the language they needed to express frustration or ask for help was accessible again. I was also always clear about exactly what they could expect when I was frustrated with them. Teachers are human and while our responses to learners always need to be professional, they also need to be real and predictable.   

This is very true in our current situation. Teachers and learners are struggling. While we also have many educators finding a stride or new ways to connect with learners, this is just going to be a hard year. It’s time for us to tighten those safety nets and be sure our learners know exactly where to find them. They need to know what mastery is for any topic, that they will get multiple iterations to try, and that we are here to support them as they go.   

Teachers also need to hear this and hear it often. They need to know that as school and district administrators we see their hard work, know they are trying new things and that we have their backs when it is just a hard day or something doesn’t work. They are rising to expectations that we could have never predicted, and we are hoping they feel the safety net to adapt and be flexible. They need to know that our fence will hold them, but that it is huge and has all the space they need right now to empower learners in new and different ways.  

My superintendent and I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of teachers to get feedback on a part of our return to school plan. As a district leadership team, we have tried for years to create a more collaborative, reciprocal relationship with our teachers. We need to hear from them and listen to them to know what is working well and what we can do to support them differently when they need it. Several of them expressed gratitude that we were willing to listen and were open to the feedback they provided. We got the chance to recognize the amazing lengths they are going to make this all work and hear the parts that worry them. We can’t make the worry go away, but we acknowledged that it is real and that we worry too. We were able to share how much we trust them as professionals to make adjustments for and with our learners as they need it. I hope our teachers are feeling freedom within fences and a supportive safety net as they continue to innovate in and outside the box and watch our learners grow through this crazy year. We are optimistic that these moments to model the “framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are” will encourage and empower our staff. Because who we are is a team of people who plan to support each other and our learners now and always.  

Weavers

I was never a huge crier. It has just not been my body’s natural response to my emotions until the last several months. I have found myself crying a lot more lately as I have been actively working to seek out joy and human connection in all new ways. My sense of gratitude for what I have and am able to do causes me to tear up often these days. I am blessed to be surrounded by people who lift me up and are willing to share their stories with me. I am also blessed to be surrounded by people who challenge me to think differently or think bigger. I recently received an email that touched my heart very deeply. In it, one of our leaders said, “Please view this video because the first person that came to mind as I watched this with tears in my eyes was you. Thank you for being a “Weaver.” Attached to the email was this video.  I teared up at just the email, and then I took the time to watch the video and was taken aback. 

In the video, David Brooks describes a weaver as:

  • “These weavers are not living an individualistic life, they’re living a relationist life, they have a different set of values. They have moral motivations. They have vocational certitude, they have planted themselves down.”
  • “They have radical mutuality and they are geniuses at relationships.” 
  • “..they reach down and they grab people out of the valley. And that’s what the weavers are doing. Some of them switch jobs. Some of them stay in their same jobs. But one thing is, they have an intensity to them.”
  • “And when you are around these weavers, they see other people at twice the size as normal people. They see deeper into them. And what they see is joy.”
  • “They are out there as community builders all around the country.”

I had to watch it several times as being described as a weaver in this context was overwhelmingly flattering and incredibly humbling. Those are powerful statements about the life I aspire to live and always wonder if I do enough.  

When I thought about to whom I would send the video next, I was overwhelmed again. I had such a long list of people that are weavers around me that I could have sent it to many, many people. As I watch our teachers working with our learners across our district, I am amazed at how many of them are weavers. They have worked to create classrooms that are true communities, founded in relationships that infuse a real sense of belonging.  

We have a classroom of first and second graders working together on a little book lending library for their neighborhood by all designing a shingle for the roof that represents them. They have also conducted empathy interviews as a class. “As our Ss investigate how they can use their stories to create change, our 1/2s lead empathy interviews to understand the experiences and feelings of others in the community. It was real, raw, and insightful.” It is a community full of weavers. 

Another teacher shared some math investigations with me today. They were beautiful representations of how the teacher was looking to learn about her students, create connections, and build community. The more we ask our learners about who they are, what they will need from us, and when they feel successful, the more we will know them and they will be willing to get to know each other. This team of teachers recently had parent-teacher conferences and shared that they heard the word connections and community over and over again from families. These weavers are busy building a community together.  

Our music program is very strong and led by some amazing human beings that I am fortunate to know and get to support. The sense of family built within the program is inspiring and comes out in so many ways. They have gotten creative this year in how to continue that in our virtual world and have done so beautifully. A student made a poster with this quote when asked about how she felt about orchestra, “Family is not about blood. It is about who is willing to hold your hand when you need it.” She sees the weavers around her all the time.  

One of our teachers posted in her amazing blog, “It is difficult to measure academic mindset in a student. You can observe it and it can make you feel so proud to watch, but it is not quantifiable. Some students have a stronger connection to school and learning than others, which is why I don’t teach kids how to have an academic mindset, I model it. I come to work each day with a smile on my face. I get excited about what I teach. I bring my projects from home and I work on them alongside my students. I ask for feedback and use their ideas. I include them on the process. I get kids involved. I tailor individual projects to their interests. I give them special jobs. I cheer them on along the way- and I mean LITERALLY CHEER! Kids, no matter the age, mirror the behaviors they observe in the adults around them. They can tell if you do not like your job. If you don’t care, they won’t. If you REALLY care, they come along for the ride.” She’s a weaver and is creating space for other weavers to grow each day. 

We have an amazing charter school designed to support school-age parents. It is this magical place where young people learn about parenting while also graduating from high school. The fear and despair that a learner who is expecting a child while still in high school feels are very real. The team at Shared Journeys embraces each parent and child to help them to find their path. The sense of community that is created with these learners who often go on to post-secondary education and frequently come back to volunteer at the school is in the foundation of the school and its leader. She certainly is a weaver and always sees her learners as twice the size of normal people. She helps them to find the joy in parenting and themselves each day.  

This post could have been pages and pages with example after example. From our youngest learners to our oldest, we see weavers in our staff and our students alike. The radical mutuality and intensity they bring to school each day is admirable. It gives me a lot of hope for our future and joy every single day.

Our World of Small Miracles

We have the honor of raising three children who each have incredible gifts. I have loved watching them grow and learning from them each day as they become the people they are meant to be. Parenting is not an easy job by any means. It is full of self-doubt and worry, but it is also full of unforgettable moments when you realize you may be doing something right. I love to get those reminders from my social media of memories I posted like, “I just found myself saying, ‘Do not put that pineapple in the microwave.’ Ahh, the joys of parenting boys.” It is so easy to forget those funny moments and worry more than celebrate. That is especially true for parents raising children who see the world differently and that the world does not always understand.  

I love this quote from What I Should Have Said by Rob Snow. “We get to watch our children overcome or work through obstacles, appreciate things in life we’ve never considered, and stay more determined than any group ever encountered. We know things are not always positive and we each deal with various medical, physical, and emotional issues. We deal with being treated differently, sometimes terribly. But at the end of the day, we have experienced hope, admiration, and compassion like few have. We have learned amazing things that will stay completely unknown to most of this world, and we have discovered parts of ourselves that we never knew existed.” That describes our world very well on most days as we do our best to raise our twelve-year-old twins, both of whom have special needs.  

They have taught us how to pay attention to the little moments we used to take for granted. On our tough days, all it takes is to read a previous IEP to remember how far they have come. This is especially true of our Nick, who at four was non-verbal and about to be fitted for a helmet as he would often smash his head on things in a dangerous way during lengthy meltdowns. He could talk, but he wouldn’t unless he was pushed to do so. This was especially heartbreaking as he was talking at two and then stopped. Not unusual for children with Autism, but watching your child slip away was incredibly hard. We needed to try and do something, so we started to pursue alternative therapies that included yoga, tutoring, photo light stimulation, pressure point stimulation while he walked across a balance beam blindfolded, a home exercise program, limiting his access to technology, using a Chi Machine to help him sleep, and a nutritional analysis that told us what he should and should not eat based on a blood and urine sample. It took us a long time to figure out what to do as this was expensive and meant we had to drive him forty-five minutes away three days a week for sessions. It turned our lives upside down. Some of the shifts in his diet and the exercise program reopened his communication center and allowed us to see glimpses of our funny, loving little Nick again. It felt like a miracle and made all the stress of trying to get the therapy set up well worth it.

Even with all the progress he has made, he still struggles significantly with communication. He isn’t always able to connect to others even when they are trying their best to connect with him. That is hard for us as we always feel the need to explain him to everyone, although we have no idea why he connects with some people and not others. It is also hard for people trying to support him to feel like they can’t help. We are fortunate to have many family members and friends who try hard and try often to find ways to connect with him no matter how long it takes. 

We measure success in a series of small miracles that would seem like no big deal to most people. The first time he got dressed on his own was a pretty amazing day as we worked on it for months and months. The first time he spoke to someone else without prompting was a pretty amazing day as we work on that one ALL the time. When he makes subtle observations about the world like a new door in the horse barn where he goes for occupational therapy that no one else noticed, it becomes a pretty amazing day. The first time he could take the dog around the block on his own without us following to be sure he didn’t get lost was a pretty amazing day.   

The time he wanted to read the Harry Potter books because “Wouldn’t it be better if I could read like Henry (his twin brother who has always been a strong reader)?” was one of those heartbreaking and yet unforgettable days. He could articulate what he wanted. He stretched for something that felt out of reach and was willing to work for it. For months, we listened to the audiobooks, followed along in the text, and watched YouTube videos to make sense of the parts that just didn’t make sense to him. The moment we got to the end was a fantastic day. We celebrated with a surprise trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, so we could watch both boys as they watched it all come to life.  

This time of not knowing what is going to come next has been incredibly challenging. The boys transitioned to a new grade level this year with all new people, which would be hard for them on a typical day much less during a pandemic. We started all virtual and have chosen to continue with it even when the building is open again because we can’t get it wrong when it comes to school. They need predictability in their schedules and routines, which is not possible with days on, days off, and the chance of quarantine. We are fortunate that my husband could switch to working second shift to be with our boys during the day. It’s been hard on us, but turning our lives upside down to do what is best for our kids is not new- much like many other parents. We are also blessed to have a wonderful team of educators for both boys who are finding ways to help them grow even when they have never met in person and are struggling themselves to figure this all out.

Nick has regressed a lot in the last few months in his interest and capacity to interact with others. His processing time when trying to make conversation is more delayed than ever. These are the things that keep me up at night. The idea of living through another time where he is closed up in his shell is terrifying. The minute we get a glimpse of that, we panic. Then, as usual, he reminds us to pay attention to the little things. His math skills have suddenly grown from still trying to identify the numbers 1-10 to asking questions about division and fractions. We had to pay attention to small questions he has been asking about numbers and how they work to know he was ready for new concepts and then patiently wait as he tries to explain his thinking to us. 

He’s had a few moments lately that have helped me breathe easier and know that he will make it through this crazy time of isolation and fear just fine. When my mom passed away two years ago, we inherited her puggle. She was my mom’s faithful companion, best friend, and a very ugly dog. We had also gotten Nick a puppy that we were hoping to train as a companion animal just before bringing Bella to live with us. He has called the puppy the “Demon Dog” since the day we brought him home but fell head over heels in love with the twelve-year-old, overweight puggle with tumors all over her body who the vet told us had only a few months to live. This was going to be a problem.

He would tell her every day that she was his best friend and how much he loved her. We did our best to love the heck out of her and made it almost two years before she passed a few weeks ago. We had been preparing him for some time that this may happen, but he would hear none of it. The day she passed, he went totally into his shell and just sat in his room for a really long time alone, repeating over and over again, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” It was crushing. 

The next day, all on his own, he took the puppy (who is now two and a great dog) to his room and spent about an hour trying to train him to be a “good dog”. He was not convinced at the end of their first session. However, we were hopeful that he seemed to be understanding the loss and was trying to find a way to move forward. Then, he seemed to disconnect all over again. He didn’t want to talk about it and immediately went quiet when anyone else brought it up.   

A couple of days ago we found her collar under his pillow. When I asked him about it, he said. “Mom, I found it in the drawer. I was worried someone would throw it away, so I put it under my pillow. She was the best dog ever, and now I can feel close to her every day.” Tears are now streaming down my face. I miss that dog every moment of every day as she was such a light for him, but she was also a daily reminder of my mom. Her loss was challenging in many ways, but the fact that he could articulate how he felt about it and how he would keep her close was oddly an incredible day. His connections are always on our minds. This one came in such a powerful and unexpected way through a dog that came into our lives out of grief and tragedy.

We never know when we will find one of these bright spots, and if we aren’t careful to watch for them we’d miss them. We recently saw our extended family. We had the regular kind of nerve-wracking moments we feel when we go to an event and are not sure how our boys will do. We have seen very few people in recent months, so this was a stretch for all of us. Large groups will often shut Nick down if we don’t prepare on the way there for who we will see, how we know them, and remind him of expected norms in social situations.

He loves jokes, so we have worked with him to tell a joke when he does not know what else to say. He did that with an aunt who he didn’t know very well when she greeted him. A few days later, she sent him back a joke via Facebook. Now, they send each other a joke of the day each day. He gets excited to hear her super corny jokes and make a video with a super corny one of his own to send back to her. His delivery gets better each day, and he is excited to read joke books and think up new jokes to tell her.    

We caught what would have been a tiny thing to most people and tried to capitalize on it. It has created a connection for him that is meaningful and will last. We never know where to expect our small miracles but are certainly thankful when we find them. They always seem to come in a moment when I need them the most. Good thing I’ve learned to pay attention to the little things and find moments of joy in what, for most people, wouldn’t feel like a momentous occasion. Who would have ever known an ugly dog and awful jokes would be two of mine if I didn’t slow down enough to notice and celebrate a world of small miracles. Maybe we all need to slow down a little more and see each moment, so we don’t miss the ones we need to see the most.  

This is hard.

This is hard.  I was very tempted to have that be my entire post as that is how so many people, including me, are feeling these days.  I am always very solution focussed and generally very positive.  That hasn’t changed, but I am trying to adjust how I approach solutions and celebrations.  I am trying to listen to more, acknowledge that this is hard, recognize amazing work frequently, encourage everyone to take several deep breaths, and then offer as much support as I can to help. I have also been reaching out for help from my incredible support system. I need it. This is hard for everyone.

Our community has been asking questions about how we are supporting the mental health of our students right now.  It’s a question we should be asking every day all year long whether we are in a pandemic or not, but this time has undoubtedly brought the concern to the forefront more than ever.  As I compiled the list of what our team has done over the last several years to support learners’ mental health, it was staggering to see how much we have added and embedded across contexts.  We have added licensed therapists to each school site that see learners through their insurance and help families who don’t have access to insurance apply for it.  Some of those therapists also co-teach in classrooms and have office hours for staff so they can problem solve how to best help learners.  We have classroom teachers all over our district embedding social-emotional learning lessons and Mindfulness into daily instruction.  Our teachers spend a lot of time building relationships with our learners and offering them opportunities to build relationships with one another.  We have a school counselor, social worker, and/or a school psychologist at each school to work with staff, learners, and families.  We have Hope Squads at all our secondary schools so our learners have peer to peer support. 

Our professional development has also included training over the last several years in understanding trauma, culturally responsive practices, restorative practices, empathy and design thinking to solve problems, Zones of Regulation, Universal Design for Learning, innovative classroom practices, and many more.  The idea is that staff members (including teachers, administrators, secretaries, assistants, recreation staff, facilities, and food service) have a wide array of tools to use in our schools to understand and empower all learners.  They often get to choose sessions that are important to them or suggest topics on which they would like professional development as we want all staff to feel empowered in their work.  We have also tried to build a lot of support for our staff through coaching as they need to feel our support to make it all work.  

Now, we are trying to make education work in the middle of a pandemic.  Our learners are all virtual right now.  We are anxious to see them back in school and were optimistic a few weeks ago that we could start bringing them back a few days a week until our health metrics took a turn for the worse.  We meet regularly with our local health department to discuss safety and are furiously planning safety measures and logistics for the time when we bring our learners back into physical schools.  In the meantime, our recreation department has opened camps for elementary students and students with special needs that families who need care and/or support with virtual instruction can access.  The camps can be kept small and can spread out across large spaces while providing a needed resource for some of our families in the safest way possible.

Our teachers are more stressed than normal.  Our families are more stressed than normal.  Our learners are more stressed than normal.  Our administrators and coaches are more stressed than normal. Everyone is feeling disconnected from one another.  The unpredictability of the current situation is overwhelming for all of us.  The length of time this has gone on with no foreseeable end in sight is making it even more challenging.  We are also headed into the cold and flu season with the weather getting colder, which means fewer opportunities to be outside.  We have all had to adapt and do it quickly. It can be done, but this is hard.  It is okay to say that out loud and recognize it.  

I am really proud of the work we have done to shift the learner experience over the last several years, which is serving us well in virtual instruction.  It does not make this less stressful on our team, but many of them have been adapting and shifting for years so they have tools to do it. We have been very purposeful in finding ways to meet teachers and administrators where they are and encourage them to make small steps that add up to big ones.  As a district leadership team, we have tried to share the message that we are here to support our schools in any way we can to empower our learners to be ready to live life on their own terms when they graduate from our system.  We are now forced to make shifts at warp speed and shift more frequently than we would ever normally ask people to do. It means instead of just support to grow as professionals; we had to start thinking creatively about how to take some things off their plates.    

Our teachers have the option to teach from home or school during virtual instruction as we trust them to know what is best for them. We have built more planning time into the day at each level and shifted our professional development days to be planning and self-directed time for teachers.  Purposeful professional development with choice for teachers is still a key element of our strategic plan, but that needs to look different right now.  Instead of planning required sessions for all staff to attend, we shifted to self-paced courses that teachers could choose from and complete at their own pace and time. They could also choose not to select one at this time if they didn’t feel it was something they could take on.  We will circle back to those staff later and build professional development support for them when they are ready for it and as they need it throughout the year.

We have encouraged our administrators to give our teachers permission to engage learners differently and focus on their interests.  Academic content is an essential part of our work, but we can spend more time connecting and embed content as we go.  In a collaboration session during emergency remote teaching last spring, a staff member shared how a learner went to work with his dad each day and spent a huge portion of one day on Facetime with his teacher showing her his community and what he had learned about his dad’s job.  Others in that same session shared similar stories apologizing that they weren’t doing anything “academic”. My response was that what they were doing was building a sense of belonging and an academic mindset, which IS essential to academics and life success.  We worked all summer to be ready for virtual instruction that was more robust than what we were able to do in emergency remote teaching last spring, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be focused on the whole child and embed time to connect as people.  Teachers can find a balance synchronous time with some asynchronous time to meet the needs of learners. They can use choice boards, complete planned activities, write reflections, or work on long-term projects during the time they are asynchronous.  They know their families and learners best, and we trust them to make the right decisions on finding balance.

We always want to hear feedback from our learners, staff, and community as it allows us to know what we are doing well and where we need to improve.  We have sent out an employee engagement and parent satisfaction survey twice a year and learners complete a social-emotional learning survey so we can gauge how they are feeling about the development of their own skills in self-regulation, social awareness, classroom effort, growth mindset, and curiosity for the last several years.  This year, we had the opportunity to offer different surveys that were much shorter for staff and families.  While we still needed their feedback, we also needed a quick and easy survey for them to complete that gave us fast results so we can adjust resources and support.  We added a wellness survey for our learners and do empathy interviews to ask them directly about how they are doing, if they are connected to adults and peers for support, and what they need to feel successful. 

We have encouraged our principals to think about a shift in teacher evaluation as well. Our teacher evaluation process is intended to be one of self-reflection wherein the teacher sets a student learning objective for the year and a professional practice goal. The observations should be an opportunity to collect evidence towards those goals with time to check-in with the teacher to help them celebrate success and adjust the goals throughout the year. We have not always approached teacher evaluation that way but have been trying to move to a more reflective process over the last year. We get to take this unusual year to accelerate that process so observations can be done in short one-on-one meetings during which teachers can share the evidence they have collected about their own their own practice. We wanted to take the pressure off the formal nature of teacher observation but still get at the intent of the cycle of self-directed, continuous improvement in a way that also gives us more time to connect individually with each staff member. We have some schools trying this out in the next couple of weeks. I am anxious to hear how it goes and to find out if the change alleviates some stress for administrators and teachers.

Our teachers also had the opportunity to meet as grade levels and departments before school started to share ideas and create lists of resources they thought they would need to make this all work.  We have ordered thousands of whiteboards, music kits, art kits, sensory tools, apps, and online subscriptions. We want our learners to have access to instructional materials in addition to technology and hotspots at home.  We trade reading books and give out learning kits once a month in a drive-up system at most of our schools. We also added many supplies to schools as students won’t be able to share materials with one another as easily in classrooms once we are back.  We’ve added some new and adaptive resources for teachers that all still align with our strategic plan but make the work more doable in a virtual or distance learning.  Teachers continue to send us requests regularly as they plan engaging activities to do at home in the next few weeks.  Sometimes the requests make me wonder what will come next, but mostly they make me excited that our learners are still having interactive, hands-on opportunities in our virtual world.  

This is hard. Saying so doesn’t make it any easier, but it does create space for us to rely on each other to get through it. I want all our staff, learners, and families to know that we see them. We see the efforts they are putting in each hour of the day. We see that they sometimes need us to support them in new and different ways. We see that they may feel overwhelmed by the world right now and sometimes need some space to feel that. We see that we need to find even more ways to connect and listen to them. Mostly, we see that they are all doing the best they can each day, despite everything that is thrown at them, to always keep what is best for children at the forefront. I love this quote by Todd Whitaker, “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Not only does teaching matter, but the people who do it each day matter too.

Gratitude and Grace

Summer is usually a super busy time for myself and my team. We plan summer professional development for staff, meet with each of our schools to do end of the year planning and school improvement planning for the following year, and get ready for the start of school.  This summer was, by far, the busiest of my entire career.   In addition to our typical summer tasks, planning for whether school would be virtual, distance, or in-person was an incredible challenge with so many unknowns.  We took some thoughtful time to make the best decision we could based on the health metrics in our area led by our Superintendent, who worked all summer with local health departments and many different agencies to ensure our plan was as safe as possible for learners and staff. Once we decided to start virtually, we had to begin planning to add a learning management system to keep all communication and tools for students and families all in one place.  We also wanted to make sure teachers had the right professional development to teach virtually while still staying true to our strategic plan’s goals to embed the Deeper Learning competencies across all content areas as a pathway to equitable opportunities for all. 

As I sat here feeling incredibly anxious about our first day of school tomorrow, I started checking out some of what our teachers have put together to be ready for our learners. An overwhelming sense of gratitude came over me.  There has been a lot of research in recent years on the health benefits of practicing gratitude.  Focussing on the things I am grateful for always shifts my mood and helps me remember what is most important.  When I thought about the heroic efforts of so many of the people I get to work with each day this summer, I immediately began to relax.

I feel grateful to our staff that have spent countless hours this summer learning about how to assist learners who are experiencing trauma or new mental health concerns during this time, how to embed social-emotional learning across all content areas, how to use Project-Based Learning across all settings, how to take care of themselves through developing compassion resiliency, and how to use the Collaborative Problem Solving model for working with students with unexpected behaviors.  Not only did teachers give up their own time to participate, but other staff took the time to learn and facilitate courses for others.  

Teachers are not only learning how to use our new learning management system, but they are making it their own.  They have added bitmoji classrooms, YouTube videos, links to online platforms, welcome videos and slides, and countless emails and social media posts to ensure learners and families have what they need for tomorrow.  They have worked hard to learn new strategies for developing relationships with learners in a virtual setting and new ways to communicate and connect with families and caregivers.  They have become filmmakers to record lessons for learners who need to access them later, technology support specialists, and creative problem-solvers for when things go awry. 

I am so grateful to our recreation staff who have run camps all summer that were socially distanced and yet provided learners with opportunities to be with one another and have supervision while caregivers were at work.  They opened centers last week for our families who need care during the time we are virtual, and trained staff in using our learning management system to support learners while they are there.  

Our facilities team has worked tirelessly all summer to ensure our schools are sanitized and set-up to begin distance learning (hopefully) in a few weeks.  They have ordered and installed tons of personal protective equipment so staff have the tools they need to stay as safe as possible when we are able to be in-person.  They have helped us deliver supplies and materials all over our district so teachers could make packets for learners to have the materials they need for both online and some offline learning opportunities.  They helped us get a testing center ready to continue our evaluations in a safe way for learners who may have special needs and may need additional services.  In addition, our technology team and our Innovation Coaches have spent time getting devices ready for each learner and hotspots for the families and even a local daycare who need them.  It has been incredible to see each team member step up, go above and beyond, and continue to ask what more can they do. 

I am thankful to our families who have dedicated extra time this summer to attend board meetings, send feedback, or ask questions about our return to school plan.  Our families have been open to hearing about what teachers will do differently now that they have had the time to prepare for virtual instruction versus what we did in the spring during emergency remote teaching.  Many of our families post pictures of the creative spaces they have made at home to help learners concentrate on school and have all their materials at hand.  Some families have expressed their gratitude for the plan, while others still have reservations and concerns that they are open to sharing and working through them together.  We had several parents participate in our return to school planning committee to give input on the learning plan, human resources issues, safety measures, operations, and before and after school support, so we had feedback from parents and staff on all the decisions.  

Our principals, other school leaders, directors, coordinators, and many others have all been outstanding.  I could go on and on about each group, but the group I am most grateful for are our learners.  Many of them participated in our summer school programs and gave their best effort to try new things.  They attended beautiful graduation ceremonies that looked really different than anyone ever thought they would.  Some spoke up at board meetings and sent emails with their questions to teachers, school leaders, and our district office team.  Some participated in our summer project-based learning training to give feedback to teachers on their project plans.  Many logged in to our learning management system over the weekend and watched videos to be ready for our first day tomorrow.  We have worked on being more learner-centered for the last few years, so seeing the impact of our students expressing their needs and concerns gives me a lot of encouragement that we are on the right track.  

I am going into tomorrow with lots of hope that as a community, we will come together and give each other grace as we work through our first day of virtual instruction.  We know we are going to hit some bumps in the road.  Given what I have seen from staff, learners, and families this summer, I have full confidence that we can work through those bumps together. 

Are They Ready?

I have been fortunate to teach a class at a local university for preservice teachers for the last few semesters. The course is designed to help secondary educators learn strategies to include students with special needs in regular education classes. As a leader who spent many years as a special educator and as the proud parent of two children with special needs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a semester with these amazing students helping them to understand areas of disability and how a disability can impact learning and self-esteem. We learned how to read Individualized Education Plans and the importance of using Universal Design for Learning in writing lesson plans for all learners. I also discovered pretty early in my first semester that the course needed to have a much broader focus.  

I tried to model how to build relationship-driven, learner-focused classrooms with every session and online discussion. We opened and closed our face-to-face meetings with a community-building circle. We moved from easy, getting to know you questions to much more challenging ones about ourselves and our purpose. We learned a lot about one another quickly and used it to push real conversations about how to create classrooms that are authentic communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We also talked about our obligation to close opportunity gaps, the need to recognize implicit bias and confront it, our commitment to understanding historical marginalization so that we can know more and do better, and how to hold all learners to the highest standards with the right scaffolds to empower them to drive their own learning.

We spent time each semester discussing the increase in mental health needs across our country and how to find ways to support learners who struggle with anxiety and depression in our schools. We also discussed how essential self-care is for all educators. This was especially important for the students as it was the first time for many of them that they had thought about having an intentional plan to take care of themselves. Teachers have challenging jobs that include many expectations and ask a lot of us as professionals and people. Having the right support network of people who build us up, making sure to celebrate the incredible successes our learners can have to hold on to in tough moments, and learning strategies to take time for ourselves physically and mentally needed to be a part of our class.  

The most important topic we discussed is why empathy and not sympathy should be the driving force in our interactions with others. Empathy is the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences, which you cannot do unless you listen to learners and ensure everyone in the community has a voice that is heard. I am not sure who said it, but I love the quote, “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” One of our assignments was to do empathy interviews with students and report the results to our class. They asked their students to tell them a time they felt successful in school, tell about a time when school was hard and what the student did to resolve it, and what was one thing they wanted their teachers to know about them. One of my students came to class after we had done the interviews very upset. He shared his frustration that he had not done the empathy interviews with students earlier in the semester. In his final reflection, he wrote, “I was reading through my student responses. I felt that I had built great relationships with my students. I knew them. But their responses to those interviews helped me understand my students on a completely different level. That was when I realized how important that emotional side is. I also started the evolution of my relationship building with students with IEP during this time too.”  

Using our empathetic lens, we talked about engaging families and always assuming positive intent when working with parents who are frustrated and advocate for their child. We learned how challenging it can be to be the parent of a child who is a divergent thinker, who has experienced trauma, who is in foster care, or who is not challenged enough academically at school. We worked on communication strategies, alternative ideas to empower families, and ways to be sure they are genuinely included in the decisions regarding the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program. We want our families to know they also have a voice that will be heard at the table and belong to our community as well. 

For our final exam, the students were able to choose any topic that meant something during the semester and create a product that represented what they had learned. What they created was impressive. They made wood carvings, video tutorials, Jenga games, erasure poems, lego reenactments of scenes from school, a poetry book, a t-shirt line, cupcakes with all different centers, pottery displays, a series of movie memes, and many more. As much as I enjoyed the products, it was their reflections that meant the most to me. They were thoughtful, and each shared a shift of practice they made towards creating communities of learners who are inspired to create through projects and whose voice is heard and respected because they feel a real sense of belonging. In his final reflection, another student shared, “ It (the class) will, I hope, have made me a more empathetic, patient and considerate teacher; someone who has more of an understanding that it isn’t “my” classroom, it belongs just as much to my students and they need to have a say in it to feel that they belong there; and someone who strives to take these lessons and continue to add to them, and learn as much as I can from those around me.”  

It is imperative now, more than ever, to be empathetic, to celebrate the voices of our students who are ready to share theirs and to help others find that sense of belonging that gives them the confidence to find their voice. When I think about the university students I have encountered in the last several semesters, I believe they are ready to create empowering communities that ensure every learner will have a voice that is heard at the table, and I could not be more proud of them.