Coaching During a Crisis

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Click Here for the Audio Version of this Post

Like the rest of the world, education has been deeply impacted by COVID-19.  From the ways that we build classroom community to instructional practice itself, we are reinventing, experimenting, and remixing almost everything we do.   Even the most technologically savvy of us weren’t prepared for the emotional toll this would take on our students, ourselves and our communities.  We’ve home for almost a month in my district and I am only just now feeling semi-comfortable in the shifts to my role as a leader.

It’s a time like this that I’m thankful for instructional coaches, especially our instructional coach at Jefferson, Pia Bartolai who jumped in from day one supporting teachers in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  In just a few weeks she has been working non-stop to help not only teachers, but students and families as well.  Her “greatest hits” have included:

  • Creating tutorial videos for both staff and families to use (Seesaw, Zoom, GoogleMeet, FlipGrid, Screencastify etc.) 
  • Holding virtual office hours for students and families to get help from her when a teacher is trying out a new technology 
  • Creating an eLearning Dashboard that has everything teachers could need during this time all in one place with simple headings (Think 1-Page Hyperdoc Extraordinaire)
  • Not overwhelming teachers by sending them a million resources at a time.  Instead, she sends out one email on Monday with a resource they might use with examples of how they might use it 
  • She tries out the tools that teachers may be using first with a faux account so that she can answer questions from how students might be seeing the technology 
  • She makes herself available whenever teachers may need her sharing her calendar so they can make appointments, letting teachers drive the meeting with what they need
  • She attends each team’s virtual meeting each week and frequently offers to help create tutorials, videos, templates, etc.  She comes to the meeting with the attitude of, “what I can I do to help most?”
  • She doesn’t, “should on people.”  (Listen to the podcast to understand this one)

When I thought about writing this post I realized that these ideas were probably best talked about in an audio form so that Pia could explain in more detail her thought process.  The recording is about 35 minutes.  I have included most of the transcript below.  To play the interview, click here.  Highlights include:

Up to 5:30:     Introduction & Pia’s Background

5:41:               Shifts in Coaching Since COVID-19

7:56:               Supporting Teachers in Technology with a Wide Variety of Experience

10:32              Rebuilding Classroom Culture & Community

13:50              Two Recommended Tech Tools for Remote Learning

17:38              Coaching Requests from Teachers

19:41              Leveraging Students Being At Home

20:38              Supporting Teachers in the Feedback Process to Students

24:56              Positive Effects & Possibilities For Teaching Moving Forward

26:41              Advice to Teachers, Coaches & Admin 

C: Can you share with our listeners how you’ve supported teachers throughout their time at home vs. at school?

P: Yeah, so I think my approach to coaching, my big rules for coaching haven’t necessarily changed. So I kind of live by two rules as a coach and one is like practice empathy and then the other one is like, don’t “should on people,” which is what was told to me I think in one of my first years of coaching, they just said, like, “Don’t should on people.” And so what I’ve noticed is in our new reality right now is that practice empathy. Empathy is hard right now because oftentimes as a coach, I’ve relied on my experience in the classroom to help to support me with that. I had nine years in the classroom so I would often ask myself as a coach like, “What would I want from a coach, as a teacher right now? If I was a teacher in their shoes right now, what would I need?” and none of us have ever experienced anything like this before, none of us have ever done remote learning. And so, you know that Brené Brown video…that we’ve watched about empathy and how she talks about… It’s got the animals and she talks about like don’t stare down into the hole and say like how’s it going down there, like actually get down in there with people. So that’s really what I’ve been trying to do as a coach is really try and get down there with teachers right now and try as much as I can to be able to put myself into their shoes. So what that’s meant for me is, I’ve been doing a lot of creating of tutorials and videos. I’ve been practicing what it would feel like in order to teach remotely, so I do a lot of screencasts, and Flipgrids, and virtual tutorials, a lot of trying to teach through Hangouts, or supporting teachers through Hangouts and sharing of screens. So it’s been a lot of just trying to get myself to understand as best as possible without ever having experienced what our teachers need right now and what they’re going through right now without having experienced it for myself.

C:  In coaching, we’re always trying to take off the plate as opposed to continually add to the plate. One of the things that I noticed that you’ve been offering in addition to making tutorials for the teachers, so that they could use those with their classes or giving those to parents is that you’ve actually offered office hours for kids to check in with you.  What’s been your feedback on that so far?

P: Yeah, so that’s something that is pretty new since we’ve been trying to move more towards some things that maybe teachers haven’t tried before. So teachers are really being asked to step outside their comfort zone right now, and teach in a completely different way than they ever have before. So, we have some teachers at our school who have been teaching for 25 years and have never been asked to teach like this. And so one way I’ve been trying to take some stuff off their plate is like you said by offering some office hours for students where they can check in with me or parents can check in with me to support them through some of the technology that they’re being asked to use that they may not have been asked to… Or been asked to use before. So, for example, with one grade level, they are gonna be doing with Flipgrids so I created a tutorial about Flipgrid from both a teacher point of view but then also from the student and parent point of view so that they can share that out with students and families, so that families can see it in action before they try it.

P: And then we set up a day where I will have office hours with those students and their families so if they needed to get in touch with me through Google Hangouts, and I can actually walk them through it, and we can share our screen so I can show them how to do it or if they just need to email me they have access to that. So that’s an option that we set up in order for me to best support not only those teachers but then also the students and the families with some of the new technology that they’re trying out.

C: Yeah, and I really appreciate that a lot. One of the pieces of feedback that we’ve gotten from a lot of our teachers through this is that the questions that they’ve been getting over email, most of them have been related to tech-related issues and so Pia really saw a need in a way to show that empathy, but also to help out our families and our community as well, and so I think that’s gonna be a really nice addition. So in talking about the learning piece, and how you’ve been helping teachers to maybe discover some new tools or some things that might just help with what they’re doing and planning, what have been your new thoughts about how you’ve been going about doing that?

P: Well, we initially set up an E-learning dashboard where teachers could go just so that they had easy access to everything that they might need. My number one goal right now is just to help teachers stay sane. And so, I know that they’re getting tons and tons of stuff so I’m trying not to overwhelm them with an overabundance of resources which is really hard and this time because there are so many ideas floating around out there. And so I’ve been trying to navigate through and mine through a lot of different ideas and kind of just share one a week with teachers. That could be really useful and beneficial to them and their students.

P: So that’s one way that we’ve been going about that, you know, it’s also, like I said, going back to just a place of empathy, we’re asking teachers to do something, a completely different teaching style. They had no warning. They had very little warning, they had very little training on this. So just reminding teachers that we’re not gonna be able to replicate their exact classrooms in a virtual environment, but they can recreate that same vibe that they had in their classrooms. A lot of their classrooms were built on relationships and community building and feedback for students. So, those things are more challenging in a digital environment but they are definitely possible in a digital environment so helping people think through how can they go back kind of to the beginning of the school year and… Like, when we were establishing our classroom community when we were thinking through how to build relationships in the community and in our classrooms. Like what were some of those things we needed to do then and how do we kind of do that now through… In our current reality with the digital environment.

C: And what have you seen our teachers kind of choosing to do that? How have they been going about setting that backup?

P: So, a lot of them are doing it through Zoom Meetings or through Google Meets, more so through Google Meets now to actually get some face-to-face time with students. I’ve seen a lot of teachers reading aloud to students which is such a huge community builder like in the actual classroom and that just carries over right into a digital environment that’s such a perfect way for teachers to just keep that classroom community going. And it allows kids to, you know, hear a great story and then talk about it and we know that those are just good things for kids all the time.

P: A lot of teachers are doing things like screencasting a lesson and then sharing it out with teacher… Or with their students or setting up Flipgrids for students to be able to actually provide feedback to each other. So teachers love Seesaw and I love Seesaw so much but one of the hardest parts about Seesaw is that kids aren’t always able to see each other’s work and comment on each other’s work, I mean you can set that up, but Flipgrid is such a perfect opportunity for kids to be able to see each other in, you know, reality… See each other’s faces at least it’s not in real-time and then actually comment back and give feedback to each other so that the teachers aren’t having to give as much of that feedback that students can actually provide that feedback to each other and cheer each other on and be each other’s cheerleader. So that’s such a huge… It’s such a great tool, and there are a whole bunch of tools but I mean if there was one that I really was like, this is working right now, Flipgrid and Screencastify are probably two of my biggest ones right now.

C: Yeah, the thing I love about Flipgrid ’cause I’ve been invited to some teachers to respond and also I’ve created some for our school is that you can respond in a video, so it’s nice that it’s more than just, I’m typing you a comment, ’cause the biggest thing you know we’re all being a little bit more isolated. A lot more isolated than we have been in the past. And so having that opportunity to connect and to see faces, I think is just so important and I love that option on there. For people who aren’t familiar with Screencastify can you talk about that a little bit more.

P: Yeah, so Screencastify is a really great tool it’s actually an extension on… Or I have it as an extension on Google Chrome and so and right now they’re offering out the ability to take off the five-minute limit which is a huge help. And so what it actually does is you can either record yourself in a video or you can record your screen. And so you can then share it and it goes automatically into your Google Drive if you’re a Google for education or district, and then share it straight from there so that students can have a link either to a video that shows the teacher, or that shows the teacher’s screen. So, for example, today I just did a tutorial using… I can never pronounce his name Steve Wyborney, sorry if you’re listening. [chuckle]

P: Exactly, exactly, but he has these amazing… His blog is amazing but on there he has these esti-mysteries. And so I actually just created like a little video for kindergarteners and first graders using an esti-mystery using Screencastify and so he has them in Google Slides and so as a teacher I was able to pull up Screencastify, bring up my… The Google slide with the esti-mystery and walk through the esti-mystery and I actually put stopping points in the video to say like okay, pause your video now and and change your estimate if you need to based off of the clues that we had in it. And then I’m sharing that out with teachers so that they can actually either use that as an exemplar if they wanted to try it out themselves or that one they could actually share with their kindergarten and first-grade students. So, I mean, Screencastify has so many options but it’s just a really seamless integration with Google Drive which makes it super useful, right?

C: Yeah, which is nice and with that asynchronous learning then kids can choose to access it when they would like to as well, which I think is also such an important thing. Knowing right now, how many demands we have upon families, and that their school day or their time for learning may be completely different than another families so…

P: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. I mean that is such a… I mean, when I listened to that webinar with George Couros and with AJ Juliani and Katie Novak and when they showed that synchronous versus asynchronous image of like synchronous is you know your virtual meetings, face to face meetings versus asynchronous would be like a Flipgrid or, you know, a Screencastify and just that realization that not all families have more than one device in their home you know and so if we’re asking students to be in face to face meetings with us, that’s wonderful for community building and it’s great for instant feedback, but it may not be reasonable to expect that of all students every day and so also giving students that same opportunity to engage and see your face. And, you know, get some of that face to face time. But in an asynchronous way at a time that works for them and their family is really powerful.

C: So, when you’re thinking about like teachers and I know they’ve been reaching out to you throughout this, what have they been coming to you with the most that they’re looking for help with or for coaching on.

P: Originally it was you know tech support ’cause I think that’s just the reality of coaching right now is that a lot of us have… That’s where the need is right now is just because that’s the reality that a lot of families and students are living in at the moment, but recently in the last you know week or so it’s switched over more to. We feel like, students are spending too much time with tech and digital tools,  “Are there ways that we can recreate the same kind of experiences for kids? But in a non-digital way?”

P: And so, that’s really where I’ve been trying to support teachers through thinking through that. So I just created and I had a whole list of ideas, and I just keep adding to it, and trying to support teachers and thinking about: How can we recreate that same learning experience, but giving kids an opportunity to be creative, leverage the fact that they are at home? As much as this is difficult, it’s also an amazing opportunity for kids, that they have access to their pets, so why not encourage a kid to take notes like a scientist about what their pet is doing throughout the day, and then write a creative story about a day in the life of their pet. Or use the tools that are… Or use the things that are in their bedroom to recreate a scene out of a book that they’ve read. Or use their stuffed animals to recreate, or a public show. So those kinds of things are really where I think we’re gonna get the most bang for our buck with students, and that’s really where I’m starting to see a shift in some of the conversations that we’re having away from… Not away from the tech ’cause I don’t wanna say we wanna move away from the tech, but just so that not all options are tech-related.

C: Yeah, I love that. I think we had a conversation with our first-grade team, and they were talking about having their students create a habitat for one of their stuffed animals or a pet or something like that, out of things in their house. And I really think that we need to look at students being at home as a strength and a learning opportunity. In my morning announcements, I give opportunities for families to contribute in a variety of different ways, and one of them is the talent section. And a lot of the families have sent in videos of things that there’s no way we would have been able to replicate at school. And so, it’s just been really wonderful to strengthen that partnership of homeschool, and really look at that from an advantage, and how can we capitalize on it. So I love that you framed it that way. So moving forward, then, what do you think you’re going to start providing a little bit more support in with teachers?

P: So I know it seems like right now, the thing that is in the top of everybody’s mind is: How do I give feedback on all these things that I’m getting? There are all these different platforms. Students are submitting work on Seesaw or through Flipgrid or through Google Classroom. And I’m getting two, three, four pieces of evidence or artifacts from kids of what they’re doing and what they’re learning every single day. How do I actually navigate that and provide meaningful feedback when I’m getting 60, 70 things a day in my email? So definitely, moving forward, I wanna help start thinking with teachers and help identify, “What are the big outcomes we want for kids during this time? We have, at least four weeks, maybe eight weeks, who knows? And so, if we can really sit down together as a team and think through as a second-grade team, a third-grade team, a fourth-grade team, what do we really want students to get out of this time?” I think right now, understandably so, we’re all living very day-to-day with the uncertainty causes us to revert back to living day-to-day. But if we can think longer-term about what is it that we want students to know and be able to do by the end of this, even if it’s not academically-related, maybe it’s social-emotional, maybe it’s with their families. And then, really streamline our instruction and feedback to reflect those priorities that we set.

C: Yeah, that is something that has come through a lot in our conversations with teachers. When they were in the classroom, they were meeting with small groups or they were giving that live feedback right there. But now, they aren’t able to necessarily do that unless it’s in a virtual setting. And so, whether they are meeting with small groups of kids and giving them that feedback that way, but it’s added a much larger volume of assignments of videos of whatever it is for them to be looking at and responding to. And so, how do we give kids feedback that is meaningful? And also, how do we decrease some of that volume? Because that is a huge stressor, and we wanna make sure we’re taking care of our teachers, too, because they’ve gotta have balance in their lives, as much as everyone does.

P: And it’s… Yeah, it’s also, I think a lot of it, we’re starting to realize our students are dependent. And I think that’s just a reality of elementary school. But how much feedback, informal feedback we were giving to students throughout their learning and throughout the process, and so, we could head off some of those misconceptions and some of those mistakes that students were making before they even submitted an assignment. And I think that’s something that teachers are having a tough time with this, it’s like, “Now, I’m waiting until after they’ve submitted the assignment to catch some of those things.” So what can we do to help students start to… It’s hard in a K-5 building, but at least, start to self-reflect and self-assess. And where can they be a little more independent with that so it doesn’t all fall on the teacher to do it after they’ve already submitted the assignment?

C: Yeah, and that is another thing that I’ve seen you’re doing with teams in offering to them, and the conversations they’re having about what they’re assigning, talking about that success criteria, what should that look like. And you’ve been offering to work with them to create an example so that students have that. So if the teacher is not there live, which is really in most of the occasion right now, that they have something to look at to reflect themselves, and then make those choices for what their next steps are while they’re waiting for feedback, for the teacher. And my guess is that through this, kids are gonna end up being more independent. And that’s gonna be one of those great benefits that we’re going to have out of this time.

P: I agree, I think that is a silver lining, is that even through all of this, this is pushing some of the ownership of learning back onto students. And this is a great opportunity for teachers to experiment with some of those things that we’ve talked about like success criteria and self-reflection and goal-setting, all that kinda stuff that does empower students to take that ownership of their learning because we have to, right now. Otherwise, parents and ourselves, we’re going to go crazy because they’re still gonna be dependent on us, and we’re not right there with them. And so, really, I think going back to your original question of where do we go from here, is that’s really what I wanna start thinking about is: How can we support teachers in some of that with thinking about goal-setting, thinking about success criteria and thinking about feedback? And how all that plays together in really turning the ownership of learning back over to students so that they’re not as dependent on us.

C: Yeah, I definitely agree. And I think within that realm, giving our teachers that creativity, the creativity piece has really, not that we didn’t offer that before. I like to think that Jefferson’s a school that loves taking risks, and I see that in our teachers all the time, but there’s a different type of creativity that this offers. It’s almost like starting teacher teaching from scratch. There are certain things that we know work really well with our kids, but we can also just try a lot of new things, and see how they go, and keep reflecting and refining along and throughout the process.

P: Absolutely.

C: So if you were gonna give any advice to teachers at this time, what would be your greatest advice to them?

P: I think one of my favorite things, and then I had seen this on Twitter so many times, and it’s really striking a chord with me, is that idea of Maslow before Bloom, that we need to make sure we’re taking care of kids’ needs, and making sure kids feel safe and connected to school before we can push rigor and all that kind of… All those good educational terms on them. So really, making sure that students feel connected to you as a teacher, feel connected to their classmates, feel connected to their school. And we’ve been doing so much at Jefferson to try and support that, and I know teachers are trying to do that every single day. And just reminding them that that is first priority is making sure kids are safe and connected.

P: And then, one of our teachers said it really best, and we talked about this earlier, but take advantage of the fact that students are at home. And they can be creative, and we can try things out with them, and they can show you, I think you talked about this, what they’re really passionate about outside the confines of the school. They can build, they can create, they can make videos. We are not restricted to that bell schedule anymore right now. We’re not restricted to that time schedule that we have in school where we only have literacy block from 8:30 to 10:00, and then it’s done because we need to be moving on to the next subject because somebody’s coming in. So to take advantage of that and find those silver linings and the things that we can try out and do differently now that we have a completely… We basically have a blank slate for education right now. So I know, and that sometimes feels super overwhelming, but just small things that we can do to, again, turn the ownership back over to students and give them some say in their education, and say in their learning. Those are my two biggest ones, is take care of their needs first, their safety needs, and their need to have that sense of community. And then also, just take advantage of the fact that we have a blank slate for education right now.

C: So what advice would you give to other coaches, then?

P: Not being an expert in this by any means. I think it’s just be there to support your teachers and try the best we can to not pile on anything additional. That is my number one thing that I keep saying to myself every time I create something or do something. I’m like, “Is this adding more onto their plate? Or is taking something off of their plate?” And just really, again, same thing for us as coaches, we have a blank slate here of trying different things in our coaching practice that we may not have been able to do within the school setting. And there are some teachers that I know that I haven’t reached out to yet, and I need to make sure that I’m making those connections with everybody and making sure that they’re doing okay, too. Because our teachers are stressed right now, and rightfully so. And so, just really making sure we’re taking the time to practice what we preach for our teachers with ourselves.

C: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I was thinking about touching base with everyone is just so important because on the outside, we can all say whatever, but… And those internal moments, giving people an opportunity to share and take something off their plate, or to help out where we can. And I really see that as my job, as well as an administrator, of just taking care of my people. And that includes students, that includes families, that includes everyone. And so, that means checking in as much as you can.

P: Absolutely.

C: So then, my last question would be; What advice do you have for me as an administrator, also knowing I’m a parent?

P: I think, and this is really challenging for me, not being a parent. And so, I guess it’s, again, really just thinking about what is essential right now for our students and where can we push, maybe, and push some of that independence on our students. I think as a teacher, this was one of my hardest things that I had to learn early on in my teaching career, was the idea of productive struggle, and not jumping in and saving students. And I know that some students are probably going to struggle. And parents, as a parent, I am sure that they’re gonna wanna jump in and save when math is challenging and a student doesn’t necessarily understand that they’re gonna wanna jump in and say like, “Here, let me show you.” But allowing students the space to struggle productively is a huge learning experience for them. So for parents, that would be, I think, the biggest thing, is giving your students some space. It’s gonna be hard and that’s okay. Again, this is new for all of us. And for administrators, you’re doing such a great job. [chuckle] You’re being so…

C: Thank you for saying that. I don’t know if that’s true.

P: No, I know. As I told you, no one was ever trained on how to be an administrator or how to be a coach or how to be a teacher or how to be a student or parent during a global pandemic. So we’re all trying to figure this out together. And so, again, just being as supportive as possible of your teachers, backing up your teachers, giving them some space to do some of those creative things with students, and allowing them to know that that is okay. I think sometimes, we just need to hear it from an administrator that that’s the right thing to do. And so, really just being there and being supportive.

C: Well, thank you, I appreciate that advice. Well, Pia, I just wanna thank you again for everything that you’re doing for our staff, for our students, for our community. And I am just grateful that you took a few minutes, actually, to do this podcast with me today, as well, because I know your schedule is definitely slammed with all the work that you’re doing. So thank you again, and that’s gonna be it. Bye, everyone!

I started my newsletter this week with this quote from A.J. Juliani:

“The sooner we realize that there is no instructional manual for this situation, the sooner we can give each other grace to experiment, learn, and iterate to the best of our abilities in the worst of circumstances.”

Our coaches are the ones helping to make the experimenting, learning and iterating a little less scary and a lot more successful.  To all of the coaches out there supporting teachers during this crazy time, thank you.  The difference you are making is immeasurable.  

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