A bright spot in this pandemic year has been the planning and execution of Learning Forward’s Virtual Leading, Learning, and Teaching (ViTLL) webinar series. Little did we know one year ago that we were starting a series that would include 34 webinars (so far) and 52,000 registrations. Nor did we realize just how much support – emotional and instructional – this new online community of educators would provide for one another.
Recently, I went back and looked at the chat box from our very first webinar. At that point, none of us knew what lay ahead. Everyone was stunned by the sudden and widespread shift to fully virtual teaching and learning. We’ve all learned a lot since then. As educators and students increasingly transition back to in-person learning, we’re reflecting on the lessons from the past year’s webinars and planning for new webinars to help navigate the next set of evolving challenges.If you have been part of our ViTLL webinar series – as a panelist or attendee – tell us about your experience. Is there a resource or takeaway that has become part of your practice? What are you working on and what do you need next? Click To Tweet
Meeting students’ and families’ needs
In the early weeks of the pandemic, educators focused on the most basic needs, displaying an impressive array of creative approaches to meeting them. One attendee wrote, “We are just beginning, but my favorite part of our district plan so far is having teachers/staff reach out to every single student via phone to determine needs for food and computer/internet access as we prepare our distance learning plans.” Another noted, “Silver lining: internet being discussed as a utility, not a luxury.”
But even in that scary and overwhelming first week, educators were thinking strategically about teaching and learning. Speaking about resources that schools were sending home for students, one attendee wrote, “Those resources are just triage. Our school systems have a curriculum, we have to figure out how we are going to get it to our students.” Others thought about how to leverage the online setting. One attendee offered, “This could be a great time to think about how we do school differently, and – with luck – we’ll carry that learning back into schools whenever we go back.”
The desire to connect with students and families was palpable. One attendee quoted Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky who said, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
Keeping equity front and center
The webinars continued as the realities of teaching and learning during a pandemic settled in. As the pandemic shone a spotlight on inequity and the massive toll the pandemic was taking on our most vulnerable students, Learning Forward focused ViTLL’s spotlight on these communities and individuals as well. In May, we hosted “All means all: Equity challenges and opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis.” One Learning Forward team member remembers this webinar having been “so timely and relevant to what people were witnessing in America and it was a webinar that I could relate to the most.” An attendee shared, “Wow! Just wow! This has to be the most life changing webinar on equity I’ve ever witnessed. This quote: ‘School is for compliance. Education is for liberation!’” Since then, equity has been a through line for all of our webinars and the central topic of many.
We were happy to discover that professional learning was at the forefront for many schools as they worked to help educators reach all students. For example, many school systems adopted a day of each week focused on asynchronous learning for students, which afforded educators time to meet virtually each week in PLCs, host office hours, or provide virtual coaching and mentoring. Connecting with other educators in this way became a lifeline and a strength, as educators shared with us in the chat box and in their presentations.
Leveraging the power of coaching
Some of our most popular webinars have focused on coaching and mentoring in a virtual world. As the association dedicated solely to professional learning, we were not surprised that our coaches and mentors wanted to be accessible and relevant to educator needs. But coaches told us they were grappling with how to do this. One coach said, “And here we were in the middle of this crisis, trying to figure out how to help our teachers and what that should look like, while simultaneously figuring out what our role looks like in this new world.”
On webinar panels, district and school-based coaches addressed such questions and shared their strategies with our community. One coach described virtual office hours. Another suggested creating QR codes within packets that link to short instructional videos and audio. Another talked about how to provide coaching about technology, explaining the value of setting aside time to work one-on-one with teachers in order to tailor her tech support.
Every coach talked about attending to educators’ emotional needs and well-being. Strategies ranged from spirit days to celebrating accomplishments by having educators share at least three positive things that happened in a given day. One coach described an intentional effort to look at how they were teaming. The meetings began with a discussion of how students were doing but often evolved into a discussion around teacher wellness. She said, “Some of them were sad. Some of them were missing their students. Some of them were having a really hard time just getting through all of the work. And so it was a way for us to connect and check in with each other.”
Centering family and student perspectives
Educators have been committed to working with families in meaningful ways on everything from addressing food insecurity to learning more about families’ values and cultures and engaging with them around students’ learning. One presenter talked about how she was holding evening sessions with parents and students and finding the collaboration so helpful that she planned to continue the sessions even after the pandemic. Another panelist talked about an evolution in her and her colleagues’ thinking about what it means if parents are involved in students’ work and even their assessments. She shifted from being worried that her kindergarteners’ assessments didn’t reflect their true mastery to being glad parents were involved in helping them learn the material. Another panelist urged authentic family engagement and the importance of going beyond information-sharing to really listening to parents, learning from them, and working together.
In early August, we were thrilled to bring in a student’s perspective on the experience of pandemic schooling as well as her recommendations for moving forward. Her primary recommendation was that “schools work with students and not for students.” She also spoke to our audience of educators when she said, “I think for you guys as educators, [you] can understand that with less educator contact, students are less motivated.” In the chat box, attendees cheered her presentation and appreciated her active request for reaching all students.
As the pandemic has worn on, it has become imperative for Learning Forward to focus not only on helping educators succeed in the moment but also to think about the strategies and innovations that should outlive the pandemic and become the new normal. For example, newly-found time for consistent, ongoing PLC meetings has been invaluable, and educators are working to preserve that time as they move back into face-to-face education.
Many panelists have talked about the importance of technology as an accelerator for post-pandemic recovery. A superintendent of the largest school district in the Navajo Nation shared that the district plans to leverage recently-purchased technology to remain a one-to-one district moving forward.
It seems that no matter how many ViTLL webinars we host, there are still persistent questions that plague educators across our community, such as:
- How do we make students active learners in a virtual world, and how do we reengage our disengaged students?
- How do we support students and educators who still don’t have access to devices or broadband?
- How do we overcome feeling overwhelmed?
- What lessons from the pandemic will we or should we carry forward in our new normal?
These questions and many more will be the focus of our ViTLL webinar series as we continue into year two. If you have been part of our ViTLL webinars – as a panelist or attendee – please tweet @LearningForward #ViTLL and tell us about your experience. Is there a resource or takeaway that has become part of your practice? What are you working on and what do you need next? We would love to hear your story.