In this case study, a principal describes critical strategies to surface and learn about the experiences of staff, students, and families during distance learning. Learnings about strengths and challenges of the online approach during closure are discussed, along with plans for transition back to face-to-face, hybrid, or further online learning.
As a school, we were really caught off guard by the quick transition to online learning. We had just experienced a devastating tornado that displaced many in our community. Fortunately, our core principles that form the foundation of our school culture made the shift to online learning a bit easier.
As members of the Big Picture Learning network, one of our core principles is to focus on relationships. We take pride in the strong foundation we have built through our deep relationships with students and their families. For instance, our students’ learning is based on an advisory model, where students get an opportunity to stay with their advisor for two years, giving the advisor the opportunity to really get to know the student and their family. Within this context, constant communication with parents and families creates a trusting relationship.
We relied heavily on our communication channels and relationships at the beginning of our school closure. We began contacting our families immediately to make sure our students had their basic needs met, and we worked to provide resources to support the transition to distance learning. Because we had built strong relationships leading up to online learning, our families felt comfortable reaching out to us with anything they needed to help make the transition easier.
Through our communication efforts, we learned that when online learning began, our students’ home lives were changing rapidly due to factors from COVID-19 and the tornado we had recently experienced. We as a school community were trying to figure out how learning at home was going to look for each of our students. It became clear very quickly that actively engaging students with online learning and keeping them interested and engaged was going to be a critical challenge, given that some of our students didn’t even have their basic needs met.
As a school community, we decided that if we were unable to get our students and families what they needed, we would connect them to resources outside of our school that could help them meet their needs. Our district did an excellent job of developing a wealth of resources (food, clothing, technology, housing, health care, etc.). Our school’s advisory design allows us to communicate with students and their families regularly. Therefore, there is a great amount of trust present in these relationships. When there was a need, we were able to immediately connect the resource to the student/family. For example, there were numerous resources available through our district, so we ensured that we shared that information via our social media or whenever we communicated with our families during virtual meetings, in emails, on phone calls, etc.
Listening and Being Responsive to My Team
Also, as a principal, I learned that just like our students and their families, my team also had concerns at home. Some of my team members are parents who were taking care of their children at home. Others were taking care of elderly family members, while still others had their own health risks or social/emotional/mental health challenges. It was important to me as a leader to continually check in with my team during this time. With all the pressures of the pandemic on my team’s home lives, I realized that it wouldn’t be possible or healthy for the staff at our school to exclusively focus on work. This was especially true since work was now inside all of our home environments, making the work of teaching and learning feel like a 24/7 kind of job.
I made sure to give my team the time and space they needed to transition to work from home. It was important for us all to get settled in the new normal of the pandemic before moving on to our responsibilities as educators. During the first week following the closure, we were on spring break. No one really knew what would happen after that. Once spring break ended, it was clear that we were going to be working remotely. The first two weeks, our team members were only asked to connect with their students to access needs, and I was doing the same thing with our team members. I allowed our team two weeks to prepare and figure out what remote learning would look like prior to asking them to resume their responsibility of teaching. By offering flexible meeting times, recording our meetings for asynchronous viewing, and soliciting input from all teachers and support staff, I was able to adjust, be responsive, and meet each of my team members’ needs.
“Inform yourself about what’s happening in your profession and what are some of the ideas that people are trying out so that you don’t have to feel like you’re reinventing the wheel.”
Supporting Students to Lead Learning at a Distance
Prior to the shift to online learning, a lot of the work we were doing with our students was non-traditional. Students learned by doing projects of interest to them to keep them engaged in their learning. We strive to have students at the center of their own learning as the driving force in their education. Thus, to keep students engaged during distance learning, we emphasized strategies to support students in taking the lead and the teacher becoming a facilitator in a virtual space.
Our teachers are accustomed to asking our students “What are you working on?” and “This is what we need from you. How can you do this?” This takes place during one-on-one conversations. Each student also completes their Personalized Learning Plans. We have a framework that supports student-designed projects that are authentic to them. Students choose a topic of interest to them and then they are able to build a project around that topic. They work on their project and explore their topic with guidance from their advisors. Being a school that is designed around this approach gave us an advantage when moving to a 100% online platform where students and their families were active facilitators.
Ensuring Even More Communication and Distributing Leadership
During the transition to virtual learning, our school took extra care to ensure that we were communicating more regularly with students and their families—and with each other. As a leader, I focused on building distributive leadership with my staff. I worked to ensure that every member of my team felt that they were a part of and had access to the big important conversations regarding decision-making for the school. It’s important to me that my staff members feel that their voices have just as much say as mine does in defining our approach to this crisis. I found that my team was essential in contributing to the planning, as they understood that during this time we were all going to have to be available to each other and to the larger school community.
A One-to-One Technology Model to Support Student Needs and Interests
Our school has a one-to-one ratio around technology, meaning that every student has a laptop. Because of this, our students were familiar with videoconferencing and email. However, this technology had previously only been available to students while they were in the school building. Lack of technology at home was one of the first problems we set out to solve once we established safety and met other basic needs.
We connected with families to assess what technology resources they had or needed. And we had our advisors check in with students on their current workload and find out what students were interested in working on. We built the first four weeks of online learning around student connections and interests while we worked with district and community resources to acquire technology for our students. We worked to meet student needs around technology to support each student’s learning needs and interests.
At first, we created a spreadsheet of offerings made up of classes and projects for students. Students were able to pursue learning through these offerings based on their interests. These included advisories, content workshops, and music. As remote learning became more of a reality, we refined our offerings and created a Padlet to include physical activity, tutorials, mindfulness, etc. We provided links to Zoom sessions so that students and families could drop in to get what they needed for learning based on the students’ interest-driven choices. As time went by, we developed a Padlet link to assist our students with assessing the various learning opportunities. We found that this was easier for our students/families to navigate.
In addition, I met with all of our teachers and advisors to discuss how we would continue to provide services and support to our students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), 504 plans, and other needs. The EE (exceptional educator) co-teaches and ensures that students with IEPs are receiving the accommodations outlined in their IEP. We decided that our EE teacher would hold one-on-one meetings with students who receive exceptional education, while our counselors would hold meetings with those who have 504 plans or other SEL supports, along with their teachers and parents. The EE teacher also supported planning and participated in virtual classrooms to support exceptional students during instruction.
Learning and Growing Together at Warp Speed to Meet All Students’ Needs
Change can be very difficult, especially in education. Prior to our move to remote learning, our school community had been reluctant to embrace new strategies and ideas out of fear. I found myself moving slowly to implement new initiatives due to anticipated pushback from my school community. Since moving into this virtual environment where change is constantly happening, all the things we were hoping for and dreaming of are now happening at warp speed.
This time has driven us to try new things, such as personalizing student learning and eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy that hinders an equitable education for all students. We have seen what technology can do for students and the power of quality relationships between staff and students.
We are planning to bring these best practices to our face-to-face instruction when schools reopen, and we continue to discuss new ideas. For example, our teachers and advisors have raised the idea of moving all lessons to Schoology which would give students the opportunity to move at their own pace and allow for more individualized instruction.
To figure out what’s working for staff, students, and families during distance learning, I’ve begun to formulate a survey to help me better understand how this experience has affected each of them, and what they would like to see moving forward. I plan to ask about their experience with optional virtual school offerings, Schoology, and videoconferencing tools. I also plan on asking them to rate student participation and engagement during online learning, and give them space to ask open-ended questions around ways to improve teaching and learning in a remote distant environment. This survey will be a key source of data in planning for the future of our school as the leadership team starts developing a framework for next year.
Over two months into online learning, we see so much room for growth in the education we provide. I’m feeling very optimistic about being a school without walls and exploring new opportunities in this shift to virtual learning with our school community.
What we learned/Big takeaway
Our students have met the challenges and really showed their level of student agency. They are showing up and doing the work, even work that isn’t required of them. Our faculty has also taken this as an opportunity for growth. I’ve had teachers suggest moving lessons to remote learning when we go back to face-to-face to allow more time for social-emotional lessons.
What we are still figuring out
As a leader, I’m still figuring out how to get support from others to help with this transition, especially when moving back into the face-to-face environment.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
Use all the supports you have within your network. Reach out to other leaders and educators during this time. Share with them any struggles you are facing, and be open to their suggestions. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable throughout this time, whether with other leaders, your team, or even your students’ families. I have been able to share with my team the struggles that I am also facing personally and professionally. I think it helps them understand that we really are all in this together. Having the opportunity to connect with other leaders to share something new before bringing it to students and families has been extremely powerful for me as a leader.
About The Author
As the executive principal of Nashville Big Picture High School, in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Brenda Diaz is a committed educational leader who leads with love, excellence, service, and character. This is her fourth year as principal at NBPHS. With more than 25 years of educational experience as a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal, and principal, she believes strongly in implementing small personalized learning environments that allow all students to pursue their passions and interests to college and beyond, with a focus on equity for all students and quality relationships with caring adults.
Nashville Big Picture High School is a Metro Nashville Public School. NBPHS is a part of the Big Picture Learning network. We are a small high school, enrolling no more than 180–200 students in grades 9–12. We have about 16 advisors/teachers at our school, as well as two school counselors. About 20 percent of our students have exceptional educational needs. NBPHS is a Title 1 funded school. Our students go through an application process in grades 9–12. There are no prerequisites for admission, but we do interview students and their families and listen to any ideas they have regarding things they want to pursue in relation to their passions and/or interests through our schoolwide internship program. NBPHS students and families are looking for a non-traditional approach to education.