Nancy Gannon, M.Ed, MAT, has 30 years of experience as a teacher, coach, principal, and district administrator in the NYCDOE, where she led city-wide review and adoption of standards-based curriculum, developed and implemented the school quality review process, and launched the middle school literacy initiative. She serves as Senior Advisor of Teaching and Learning for FHI 360’s education programs, informing the design and development of the programs.

Maud Abeel, EdM, has more than twenty years’ experience developing, directing, and implementing national, state and local education initiatives to improve secondary to postsecondary outcomes for youth in under-resourced communities. In addition to her work at FHI 360 as a Senior Advisor on Postsecondary Success, Maud is a consultant nationally for college and career readiness initiatives and advocacy efforts.

Summers usually offer educators a moment to take a breath and recharge. But this year was different. With the pandemic disrupting the country, district and school leaders were overwhelmed, trying to devise plans for schools for the fall, whether remote, in person, or hybrid. During that time, a team of educators at FHI 360 collected data, stories, and best practices from across the country. Through a review of the growing body of literature addressing remote learning, as well as surveys and conversations with educators, we learned about an amazing array of approaches to maximize student learning during the pandemic. For example, we heard from a teacher who gave her phone number to her students and spoke to them day and night, helping them manage anxieties through a chaotic time. A principal told us how she ignored districtwide mandates to create schedules that prioritized time for adults and students to maximize learning. Other school leaders charted new territory with virtual home visits, deploying paraprofessionals as remote learning ambassadors, and making social-emotional support as much of a priority for staff as for students. Out of our research, we identified three critical takeaways to help district and school leaders make sense of what’s out there and prioritize their actions.

1. Less is More

A common refrain we heard was that teachers needed technology but were overwhelmed by the options and by the long lists of new tools and platforms they needed to learn to use to communicate with students and families. We heard that educational leaders need to strategically choose a small number of tools with audience and purpose in mind and then invest in helping teachers, students and families learn how to maximize those tools. Similarly, knowing schedules may be disrupted this year, selecting priority standards like these suggested by Student Achievement Partners could help create a lean, focused learning agenda. Since facility with technology is critical now, school leaders might consider using a resource such as New Visions for Public School’s “Teaching with Technology–How Do I….?” This can help school leaders focus training on what’s most essential for meeting instructional goals such as creating instructional videos, using online whiteboards, and working in small groups or break-out rooms.

2. Systems Are Important

Spring 2020 was often a time of disconnect, when teachers and principals frequently resorted to working in isolation to solve problems reactively. We heard from teachers who made their own schedules, researched and tried out new tools, found and reconnected young people, and changed curriculum to engage students. Meanwhile, principals were addressing the tidal wave of logistical and safety concerns needed to start the school year as the sands shifted beneath their feet daily. Understandably, teachers felt depleted and students and families dissatisfied with the inconsistency. A systemic approach tackles a shared challenge across a school or a district so that individuals don’t have to problem-solve on their own. We saw that powerfully illustrated in the way some districts purposefully prioritized social-emotional wellness, creating strategies to support and reconnect young people. Durham Public Schools exemplified this with a new website to support students, families, and staff and provide weekly social-emotional curriculum through their Wellness Wednesdays program. CASEL’s priority-setting tool can help schools or districts set goals. We heard repeatedly that students need targeted, personalized support, with a close, caring adult tracking their success; Springpoint’s guide for schools implementing advisory systems is a helpful resource for that. Of course, systems are also critical for understanding where students are and what to do next. Schools found ways to continue practices like looking at student work to better understand what was successful and what was not.

3. Focus on Continuous Improvement of Instruction

Instruction during remote learning was uneven and that won’t change without significant professional development. Most teachers we surveyed shared that they got no support beyond how to manage technology. At the same time, they reported needing help in areas such as trauma-informed instruction, supporting diverse learners and English learners, and helping disengaged students reconnect. We also heard from principals that because they understood that teachers were overwhelmed, they did not establish a regular routine of visiting online classrooms, which hindered their ability to provide meaningful support for their teachers.

No one system can address all these needs simultaneously. But it’s important that school leaders understand what is and isn’t working for their students so that they can prioritize the most urgent gaps. The NYC Department of Education created a continuous improvement cycle in their Remote Learning Instructional Improvement Toolkit. Additionally, this Virtual Classroom Walkthrough (adapted from the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching) helps educational leaders support teachers by taking a coaching stance while visiting online classrooms.

For more specific, actionable resources, visit our online guide Connected and Engaged: Nurturing Instructional Leadership During Remote and Hybrid Learning. Because of the urgent need, we recently launched a beta version of the guide. Now we’re enhancing it with emerging hybrid learning resources which were not available in the spring, and making revisions and improvements based on feedback from visitors and other experts in the field. For questions or more information, please contact: connectedandengaged@fhi360.org.

As fellow educators, what we’ve heard and learned thus far is painful, heartwarming, and powerful. The work that educators put into their classrooms and schools in spring 2020 and during the 2020-21 school year will never be fully measured. It was no surprise to us what teachers and school leaders were willing to do and continue to do for young people, but it is a reminder of the debt that our society holds to educators across the country. We also saw the ways that inequities were magnified by the pandemic. Despite heroic efforts by educators, our young people, especially our most vulnerable, did not get what they needed last spring. We hope that as we move forward, we can help educators prioritize and use systemic approaches to re-focus on instruction and maximize academic and social-emotional supports and outcomes for all young people.