K-12 Professional Development & Resources

5 Steps For Supporting Teachers in a Virtual Learning Environment

The question above seems like one of those questions that you might encounter as a part of a project in an upper level course while doing an education degree, or that you might see in some sort of simulation at a professional learning session on design thinking in order to get people to think ‘outside of the box’. When confronted with this, we might playfully wrestle with this problem in small groups or write a theoretical paper with a few suggestions ranging from semi-practical to outlandish knowing that this scenario could never possibly happen. Because we know that if the need to move to a virtual learning environment DID ever actually happen (gasp!), we would have to make sure that the transition took place over an appropriate period of time. We would need to ensure that we could ‘do this right’ by embarking on the usual trajectory for change in education–pilot schools with a few early adopters who would try different strategies to meet the needs of students in a virtual environment, followed by a few others who would then assess the impact of those strategies to determine the professional learning pattern required to slowly implement the one or two approaches which were the most palatable in our context. Not all of them, of course. Change takes time, don’t you know? We need to “go slow to go fast”!

The COVID-19 pandemic has just taken those leadership axioms and tossed them out the window. Change takes time when you have time. We didn’t have time. In fact, we had to “go fast to go fast”. The immediate move to virtual learning is not a project in an upper level course, nor is it a simulation. It’s here, it’s now and it’s happening–along with all of the ripple effects and ramifications that will continue to impact families, educators, school leaders and districts around the globe for the immediate and foreseeable future. So the question is, how do we answer the question:”How can we support teachers to create impactful learning for students when neither the students nor the teachers are actually in our schools?”

The key concept from this question is “supporting teachers”. Many of us have already done the brainstorming around technical solutions, learning platforms, communication protocols and logistical challenges. These are all managerial tasks that were required of leaders for schools to quickly jump to the new environment. But now is the time for leaders to move from being virtual managers to instructional leaders in a virtual learning environment. One of the pieces that is most important for all leaders to do is to have a vision of what “supporting teachers” actually looks like in practice in this new learning platform. In other words, what would leaders be DOING and DEMONSTRATING that says that they are supporting teachers in this new learning reality? Using pieces of the Observable Impact Model and our Rapid Impact Plan Generator, we are supporting leaders in schools to create this observable vision in five easy-to-follow steps:

Shake it up – before we begin to come up with potential ideas or solutions to this challenge, we need to envision the worst case scenario. In this instance, we ask leadership teams a very simple question: “If a district were to create the LEAST supportive environment for teachers in developing their virtual learning environment for their students, what would we observe? What would teachers be doing when they were feeling unsupported? What would leaders be doing if they were being unsupported?”. We want leadership teams to envision the single worst environment possible, and to brainstorm as many specifics as possible about what we would observe teachers and leaders DOING and DEMONSTRATING in the least supportive environment. Once we have done this, we ask teams to consider which ones their teachers might have felt before in a time of rapid change so we can learn about the prior knowledge our teachers might have and empathize with their prior attitudes.

Build it up – Detailing an observable vision the least supportive environment for educators allows us to prompt leadership teams to use a technique called ‘creative inversion’, where we take the ‘worst’ and use the opposite of it to create the ‘best’. We prompt teams with a statement: “If this is what teachers and leaders would be DOING and DEMONSTRATING in the LEAST supportive environment, then the opposite of each of these observables would be what teachers and leaders would be DOING and DEMONSTRATING in the MOST supportive environment.” We use the opposite of this worst-case scenario to create the observables in the MOST supportive environment for the educators in the team’s context.

Frame it up – Now that the team has created the observable vision, it’s time to prioritize. In more typical circumstances, we might use the ‘go slow to go fast’ approach, but these are not typical times, and supporting our educators is something that we can do slowly and incrementally. We need to compress timelines. We ask teams to think in terms of what supporting teachers looks like “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “This week” and “Next Week”. Because the situation with COVID-19 is continuously evolving, we talk in terms of short and rapidly changing cycles. We take the observables of what we would be DOING and DEMONSTRATING from our vision for supporting teachers and place them into these categories.

Step up – It’s time for the assignment of who is taking on the observable actions. In extraordinary times, we need extraordinary efforts from the entire team. Roles are delineated not only in terms of who will be doing what in supporting the teachers, but also who will be supporting the leaders (yes, the leaders) in supporting the teachers.

Check up – The only evidence of impact of our observable vision for teacher support is…if our teachers are demonstrating that they feel supported. We must continuously reflect on whether our actions are having the impact that we want! And if we determine that our actions are not leading to our observable vision, we have to change our thinking and our design…quickly. Our vision for teacher support is nothing more than a mirage if we do not observe our teachers feeling supported.

At a time when there is no time, ensuring that our actions are having impact has never been more important. Whether it is supporting teachers, students, or parents and the larger community, every one of our actions counts and means something for those that we serve. Use the Rapid Impact Plan Generator to help ensure that you are not just taking action, but that you are having impact where it matters the most.

If you have interest in learning more about the PLC 2.0 Observable Impact model and/or the Rapid Impact Plan Generator, please contact us at garth@firsteducation-us.com and cale@firsteducation-us.com and we would be happy to assist. In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy!

Cale Birk, Global Advisor for Professional Learning
Garth Larson, CEO
FIRST Educational Resources, LLC

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