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In this interview, an experienced K-12 district leader reflects on the challenges and opportunities in supporting the whole student during COVID-19.

Few can argue that spring 2020 saw the most dramatic and pervasive shake-up in educational practices that the world has seen in decades, if not longer. Practically overnight, schools across the globe were shuttered and learning at home became the norm for billions of households. Educators’ job descriptions and practices changed–and expanded–overnight, whether officially or unofficially. Parent and caregivers found themselves thrust into the “no-win” quandary of either ineffectively multi-tasking through their “at-home” workdays or absently supporting their at-home learners as they attended to “essential” work.  

During this period, I have attended countless webinars either hosted or attended by educators ranging from superintendents to classroom teachers. The creativity, commitment and compassion I have observed amongst educators across our country has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Whether a district was well-funded or not, highly advanced technologically or not, socio-economically diverse or not, the crystal clear focus on engaging students and, first and foremost, addressing their well-being was universal. 

In recent years, great educators, psychologists and anyone working closely with children and families have hailed the need to address a child’s basic well-being before assuming she is ready and able to learn; however, decades of practice coupled with the ticking timeline of standardized test mandates and “accountability”  have marginalized this essential focus. This year’s pandemic, which threw decades of practice out the window and canceled any imminent testing, removed those invisible handcuffs or, in some cases, excuses. In fact, one could argue that the lack of clear and established best-practice and standard materials unleashed every educator’s innovative capacity and made it easier, even essential, to take risks, learn and reshape practices in a manner more satisfying and worthwhile for both educator and student. 

Recently I spoke with Matt Liberatore, director of professional learning and student services for Township High School District 214 in Illinois and Intellispark senior advisor, to find out how the events of spring 2020 have brought about a change in student support and educational practices in his district. Matt works in the largest high school-only district in Illinois and this year he served as president of the Illinois School Counseling Association. Our conversation centered on three key questions that provide insight into both challenges faced and opportunities for the future.

What was the greatest challenge that emerged for your school community this spring? 

The greatest challenge has been two-fold — student engagement and teacher self-care.

Student Engagement

Our commitment has been to ensure we are engaging every student while also deciphering what the root cause is for those students lacking engagement. Assessing the root cause for a lack of student engagement can be challenging in the best of times. 

Students will engage in their learning if they feel known, appreciated and supported. A loss of motivation or interruption caused by something more urgent–such as food insecurity, lack of resources, or “sheltering-in-place” in an unhealthy or abusive environment–can all contribute to lack of engagement.  

During spring 2020, grading practices were different from state agency to state agency. Illinois, as did many states, adopted a “do no harm” policy in regard to grading. Student work could only be considered as enrichment and could only enable grade improvement. Work completed by students could not lower their grades for the period during which learning was remote.  

Students with a “D” or “F” going into home learning had an opportunity to turn in previous work and improve their grade without the pressure or need to also complete current work or new learning. On the other hand, there were cases in which students with A’s became less engaged because they knew they would finish off the year with an “A.” As we enter the new school year, students will have new material and the responsibility to demonstrate mastery regardless of the decided format–online, in-person or some combination thereof.

At the end of the day, I have given witness to a multitude of educators trying their best and coming up with innovative solutions to connect with kids, engage them in learning, and support them beyond academics. Teachers that may have not been as technologically savvy have adapted their curriculum midstream and transformed their craft; they devised alternative grading solutions and differentiated approaches by which students could demonstrate mastery.  

Five Ideas for Student Engagement

Here are a few ideas that we found effective in engaging our students:

  • Incorporate polls or surveys into lessons and activities.
  • Flip the classroom and deliver a lesson asynchronously, striving for deeper conversation on the topic when connecting live. In addition, differentiate your approach based on knowledge gained or attained.
  • Modify traditional assignments to allow for multiple modalities of demonstrating mastery (i.e., record a presentation, design an infographic, write a proposal, engage a family member on the topic).
  • Leverage breakout rooms in tools like Zoom to design group work and assign various topics or tasks to the respective group.  
  • Incorporate social emotional learning lessons into the curriculum. 

Teacher Self-Care

Educators are some of the most empathetic and caring individuals you will ever meet. This spring they have been put to the test as schools moved quickly to home learning. Imagine the teachers that are also parents of school-age children. They are my heroes because they managed the challenge of teaching their own children while serving as educators to others’ children, oftentimes putting aside their own personal needs. It has been a balancing act for all, regardless of family composition. Cutting off connection and socialization is against our basic human needs. Practicing self-care can be the one true tool to stay emotionally healthy to be present and strong for others. By focusing on yourself you become better equipped to help others, but prioritizing and practicing this is often easier said than done.

Six Ideas for Teacher Self-Care

Here are six tips that I myself practice for self-care and recommend to my colleagues:

  • Reconnect with a hobby or activity.
  • Schedule a reminder on your phone or device with a positive affirmation.
  • Take a one to two-minute break to practice a mindfulness of breathing exercise at a couple of points during the day.
  • Set a time during your day to take a device break.
  • Connect with two individuals a week and discuss non-work-related topics.
  • Pay attention to “self talk” and challenge yourself to redirect with positive affirmations.

What shifts in focus and practice have evolved in how fellow educators are supporting students?

Social-emotional learning and a whole-child focus are front and center. The need to keep students engaged in their learning while they are not physically in school has required all of us in education to focus more on the qualitative information we can gather from our students—indicators of well-being—rather than the traditional measures such as attendance, grades, and behavior.

Teachers have incorporated “show and tell” activities into their lessons to allow students to share something important to them from their home. One effective method is video call bingo in which participants go around the house finding particular items; this allows kids to make a personal connection while simultaneously addressing their need for physical movement, especially when home learning models tend to position kids in one place for long stretches of time.  

Home learning this spring has shifted focus from the traditional classroom setting of rows and desks and “chalk and talk,” serving as a much-needed catalyst for rapid curricular innovation. Educators have been practicing “flipped classroom” techniques for years, but it was usually the focus of the tech-savvy educator. This has now become the reality for all. I truly believe that once we are able to have physical proximity again, we will continue to see a healthy shift from the traditional classroom experience toward a more consistently engaging and impactful model.

When supporting the whole student, are there impactful, maybe even surprising, changes in practice that you would like (or expect) to see brought forward in the new school year?

Yes, there are new ideas coming from many directions. Three practices, in particular, come right to mind:

Social Emotional Learning 

Teacher and student services staff have been masters at pivoting to respond to the social-emotional aspects of their students. Even if they don’t recognize their own accomplishments, teachers rapidly rebuilt their schedules in order to conduct weekly “check-ins,” host open office hours for drop-ins, and create non-core content lessons to focus on the humanistic side of learning. It has never been more evident that students must be in a healthy mental state in order to be able to learn. Taking three to four minutes of a class period to do a “check-in,” practice mindfulness or talk about current events can be invaluable to the task at hand and in supporting the whole student.

Evolved Grading Practices

Increasingly schools and districts are focusing more on competencies and real learning rather than on mere task completion. The focus will be more on, “did you understand this?” rather than, “You must complete all this work to show that you know this.” 

I think you’ll see student-choice becoming a cornerstone of instructional design.  Students will be able to create videos, give speeches and leverage multimodality technological resources to demonstrate mastery.  

Whole Child Support

Student support teams need to continue to find new ways to identify different levels of student need whether we are in school or at home learning. This can be done by asking students questions related to grit and a growth mindset. Specifically, focusing on students in transition, as a high school district, we will be welcoming 9th-grade students who have never entered the building. How are we engaging these students so they feel welcomed, supported, and a part of their new school community?  

Students that are struggling based on homelife challenges, remote instruction, lack of engagement or the need for additional student services support need to be identified on a timely basis. Our plan is to focus on a program of holistic support and work to have the ability to provide a scalable curriculum through a virtual platform or flipped environment.

Never before have I been more proud to be an educator.  

Final Thoughts on Supporting the Whole Student

Matt’s experience during the spring of 2020 highlights the fundamental needs of educators and learners that were intensified and fully exposed during this sweeping closure of school buildings. Great school leaders and educators are building upon a new wealth of understanding and practice in student engagement and teacher self-care as they shape their programs for the fall. Whether schooling will be at home, at school or some combination thereof, one can be optimistic that learning and care practices—both for students and educators—will become more holistic, authentic and impactful in supporting the whole student.

Patricia Gagnon

Patricia Gagnon is senior vice president of programs and practices at Intellispark. Patricia is a passionate educator and innovator. As an educator, she is ever-focused on what sparks a student’s drive to learn and be successful. As an innovator, she works to develop solutions that transform the experience of users — in this case, students, parents, and the vast array of education professionals who support them.