September, 2021 - First, we check in , stabilize as needed and then we can talk about amplifying.
First, we need to check in…..
I think a mantra for this new school year will be “well-being first” as we face another year with a route that is bound to have a new bumps and curves as part of the journey. As educators and leaders, we must check in with our students and our colleagues frequently to assess the efficacy people are feeling and determine who needs more support. We are not alone but these are still very uncertain times which can impact mental, emotional and physical health. Uncertainly breeds anxiety and we must keep this in mind for both students and staff. At the same time, there is a need to consider how we address the individual learning needs of our students whose learning differences have deepened because of their pandemic experience. Ultimately, we begin by welcoming our students and establishing personal connections so our check-ins are perceived as supportive.
The first few weeks often raise rather urgent organizational priorities such as class size and staff adjustments. What kind of supports do teachers who have hybrid or online learning environments need is a new pressing question. Principals and Superintendents will need to work hard to stabilize the teaching /learning environments of classrooms and teaching spaces with the right kind of resources and supports. Teachers will need to share feedback on what helps and what is challenging.
How can we best amplify learning to close the learning differences we see? Amplifying, as a verb according to the Collins dictionary, includes raising the “noise” value and increasing strength or intensity. Considering the staggered route our school systems in Ontario have recently been travelling, amplifying what needs to be considered, assessed, instructed and learned during the next instructional year makes me think about prioritizing and streamlining our curricula and pedagogical responses to specific and intentional instructional foci with very clear criteria for success. Let’s begin with observing and listening to our students. We don’t need more formal testing. We can raise the intensity of informal assessments that help us determine relevant starting points – not in the spirit of portraying that gaps are driving our decisions but rather because collective clarity and instructional intensity can mobilize the energy needed for a solid year of learning.
What might this look like for staff in September 2021? Intentional, perhaps more informal, collaborative learning designs may well be the antidote to the better part of two years where the impact of uneven learning contexts of individual classrooms and schools has been a reality. We must meet our colleagues where they are. What do we already know about effective learning designs for teachers? The past two decades have taught us that a co-examination and assessment of student work helps to build both instructional and assessment capacity. A needed ingredient for amplified learning is the insertion of time to co-labour and co-learn. Co-labour is a term that Lyn Sharratt and I inserted into our professional conversations subsequent to our research and writing in 2016 (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). Following co-assessment of student work, the conversations that teachers have about instructional responses are a logical next step as a part of “collective work”.
Our intentionality must include explicit recognition of the diversity of our learners as individuals as well as the need to promote more equitable learning outcomes and experiences. Facing our own biases and asserting high expectations for all, a clear responsibility is determining the kinds of supports students need to be successful. However, beyond supportive mindsets, we must be thinking about how we engage students deeply. What are they interested in that would engage both their hearts as well as their minds? How might an inquiry approach draw out both interests as well as expected skill sets? How does our choice of teaching resources help students to see themselves in their curricula? In what ways are we encouraging student voices to help us plan and respond in culturally relevant ways? How are we engaging students in self-assessment and goal setting? There are many questions we need to include in our planning processes.
How do we best meet individual as well as group needs in a context that tends to compartmentalize learning through imposed timetables? Are there structural considerations that should be faced to modify and improve the learning context? “Structure drives behavior” is a phrase that a former educational director used to frequently remind his senior leaders about the impact of “forced walls”. It is past time that our structures have more bendable walls. Let’s create timetables that make it easier for teachers to work together by using technology to make it easier for students to work together across classrooms in intentional ways. How might we amplify student voice as a part of learning? Let’s find ways to work together more rather than less.
First we need to check-in, become reacquainted, then we are better able to stabilize learning spaces (Does every teacher have the resources/supports they need?). And subsequently, we can work to amplify learning opportunities. I believe this the year for frequent check-ins. Realistically, we can’t amplify very much if people are unduly anxious, ill or exhausted. A heart-felt wish I have for my own grandsons this year is that they are in safe educational environments where they feel well connected to others so their learning interests and their individual voices as learners can be amplified too.
Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading collaborative learning: Empowering excellence. Corwin Press.