Leading in a Crisis: Four Tips for Effective Online Learning

March 24, 2020

Here at EdTec, supporting charter schools to succeed is at the heart of everything we do, day in and day out. As we navigate this difficult time together, this blog series will address various topics to help school leaders identify the tools, resources, and support they need to lead effectively.

A vast majority of schools across the country have closed in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. For at least a few weeks but possibly an extended period, school leaders are challenged to rethink what day-to-day learning looks like and are scrambling to come up with alternative solutions.

Schools vary in their knowledge of technological tools and abilities to provide their educational services to students online. As a school leader, regardless of whether your school is ready for online learning, preparing to take on this challenge is overwhelming. These are indeed difficult times, but by working together and sharing resources we can keep our kids engaged and learning. We’ve put together four tips for school leaders to help manage the transition to online learning and support teachers to deliver effective instruction.

Tip #1: Be Realistic and Provide Support

The harsh reality is that classes have been disrupted and we aren’t sure when normal school operations will resume. As the leader of your school, it helps to be realistic with expectations. Introducing online learning in a time where it is no longer “business as usual” will have many challenges. Realize that everyone is stressed and scared of the uncertainty ahead. The anxiety produced by the crisis impacts everyone involved.

Try to take a humanistic approach to your leadership and focus on the mental health of your staff and students. Like some of you, your team members may be juggling multiple roles, such as having to provide childcare or adult care. Promote the well-being of your teachers by making sure they have the tools and training they need to be effective, and check-in with them periodically to make sure they are doing okay.

Teachers will also benefit from access to practical resources that help them to plan, maintain structure, and meaningfully engage with students. As one example, Success Academy Charter Schools, the largest public charter school network in New York, hosted a webinar to discuss its plans for taking classes online, and included information about helpful resources shared with teachers, including suggested schedules and examples of questions to ask students when checking-in with them throughout the day. In today’s uncertain environment, actionable recommendations go a long way in helping to maintain some form of normalcy. Ask your teachers where they could use the most help, and work together with other administrators to put together resources that will help guide your teachers in this new environment and enable them to focus on teaching.

Tip #2: Collaboration and Training Are Critical

Implementing online learning requires collaborative planning from school leaders, administrators, and teachers. Create a leadership team that will inform the vision and assume responsibility for your school’s online learning plan. This team should start by asking relevant questions, such as, what tools and resources will be required to best support students’ needs? What tools are we already using that will serve us well, and where do we need to bring in new tools? You may find a few ideas on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ list of COVID-19 resources, which includes links to learning platforms and additional resources.  Your team will also need to ask, what kind of training and support do our teachers need to ensure smooth delivery?  What can we encourage parents to do at home to support student learning? What is our plan for students who do not have access to a computer or internet at home?

The leadership team should take care to include teachers in the decision-making process when determining how existing tools will be used in the new learning environment, as well as in the selection of new tools or resources, as teachers will need to use them daily and understand their own comfort level with various technologies. Teachers also have valuable knowledge regarding what works best for their students and families, and their input is critical to getting buy-in for your school’s online learning plan.

It’s not enough to provide tools; you’ll also need to make sure everyone is comfortable using them. It is important that school leaders have a plan in place to train teachers to effectively use existing and new tools, as well as to provide extra support to those teachers who do not feel comfortable with technology. These training efforts can be led by your technology team, or in the absence of one, by administrators, teachers, or other staff who are technologically savvy. Training can be further supported with online resources such as video tutorials. As one example, Google recently launched Teach from Home, a temporary hub of information, tools, and tutorials to help teachers during the COVID-19 crisis. These resources should also be made available to parents as they will play a critical role in students’ learning during this time.

Tip #3: Commit to Instructional Equity

The reality is that there are drastic disparities in access to computers and internet outside the classroom.  As schools transition to online learning, they should continually evaluate if their learning plans exclude certain students, and then adjust and/or prepare supports accordingly.

The first step to take when putting together an online learning plan is to audit your school community’s technology needs and capabilities. What kind of access is there, and what level of familiarity do your families have with educational technology? Understanding your community will help to guide the actions you need to take before learning can commence for everyone. If your school has computers and internet hotspots to distribute to students, a distribution plan will need to be organized. If the school lacks these resources, there will need to be a plan to distribute hard copies of materials. The California Department of Education published guidance on distance learning that includes considerations to ensure equity and access for all students, including assessing a continuum of options depending on access to computers and internet.

Our commitment to equity should also include accommodations to serve students with disabilities as well as English learners. School leaders should work closely with the appropriate departments and coordinators at their schools to ensure these student groups are provided with tailored lessons and adequate supports. You may also want to read through the guidance recently shared by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools as well as the U.S. Department of Education on COVID-9 and students with disabilities. During this challenging time, we need to do everything we can to make sure all students have equitable access to continued learning opportunities and that no one is left behind.

Tip #4: Be Thoughtful with Communications

This time of extreme change requires forward-looking leadership and thoughtful communication.  You can start by providing meaningful engagement with your team through supportive, personalized communications. Actively check-in with teachers as they transition to online teaching to ask how they are doing and how you can best support them.

Your school’s teachers will need to focus on effective communication with students to improve learning. Communicating online with students will be very different than traditional classes and in-person meetings. The more effectively teachers can communicate, the stronger the learning process will be in this time of crisis. The 7 C’s of Effective Online Communication shared by Southern New Hampshire University as a resource for universities amid the current crisis, includes advice for online instruction that may serve as a helpful guide for teachers to convey their lessons to students in a way that is:

Concise: Convey all necessary facts

Courteous: Be open and honest, friendly and warm

Complete: Balance brevity and message requirements

Concrete: Provide precise and specific direction

Considerate: Maintain the emotional well-being of students

Creative: Increase the potential for retention and support collaboration

Clear: Provide accessible language

Lastly, school leaders should establish regular communication with families so that parents and caregivers stay up-to-date and informed. We are all overwhelmed with information right now, and you can help to manage your community’s stress by establishing a consistent communications schedule so that parents know when to expect to hear from you. Since the transition phase has just begun, you’ll likely have daily news to share; try to gather important updates throughout the day, compile them in an organized, easy-to-read manner, and send a newsletter after school. After a few weeks have passed and processes are well established, you might be able to space these out a few days. Teachers will likely need to communicate with parents every day; you can encourage them to do so at a consistent time and to limit communications to one per day so that parents do not feel bombarded and overwhelmed as they struggle to balance work and home demands.

It’s also important to make sure that when your school shares updates about local, state, and federal government actions, you commit to citing official sources such as departments of education or charter support organizations. You want to make sure to only share reliable information with your families and avoid the spread of misinformation.

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Education is not a place; it is the interactions that students have with their teachers and each other. Taking a thoughtful, positive approach to the current crisis can lead to creative opportunities for online learning. School leaders can encourage this by working with teachers to make sure they have the tools and support they need and by maintaining consistent communications with parents and others in their school communities. Although this is a time of extreme disruption, it will be exciting to see what we discover about different approaches to learning.