kelly on the computer smiling

Kelly is an Instructional Coach for WriteBoston’s professional development program for educators. When the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the closure of schools in the spring, Kelly and the coaching team moved their learning experiences online, too.

To help teachers plan for an uncertain fall semester, Kelly and the WriteBoston coaches led a virtual workshop series with educators from Boston and surrounding districts. Kelly reflects on the experience below.

When a tree falls in the backyard during a professional development workshop, it DOES make a sound! Luckily, tropical storm Isaias taking down a tree was the only real mishap WriteBoston coaches experienced while providing a remote learning experience for teachers this summer.

Teachers from Boston and nearby cities attended a series of four free professional development (PD) workshops to help prepare for the coming school year. The sessions were specifically designed to address the uncertainty of the moment for educators; to give them tools and practices to use in face-to-face, hybrid, or remote learning; and to create a space for educators to collaborate and support each other. The sessions included:

  1. Kicking off the School Year
  2. Tools to Facilitate Learning On and Off Line
  3. Planning in the Midst of Uncertainty
  4. Balancing Compassion and Content
screenshot of smiling teacher faces in zoom gallery view

Across the four interactive Zoom sessions, we were joined by 25 to 30 teachers from Chelsea High School, East Boston High School, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Boston International Newcomers Academy, Boston Community Leadership Academy, and other schools. These secondary teachers represented a range of subject areas.

What was instantly clear about this gathering of educators was their motivation for attending: teachers want to figure out HOW to teach in the midst of this pandemic. They want to do right by their students. They want to get better at remote learning. Missing from so much of the media narrative right now is this fact: teachers want to show up for their students, teach their content, and serve their students and their content area well. But there is no playbook for K-12 teachers to follow in this scenario. A teacher with 15 years of experience reached out to us in April saying, “I am having flashbacks to my first year of teaching. This is SO hard.”

“This is the first thing I’ve done all summer that has made me feel better, not worse, about the school year starting.”

The March 25, 2020 edition of Inside Higher Education featured several college professors’ responses to the sudden shift to online learning. One in particular stood out. Sean Michael Morris, director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado Denver School of Education and Human Development said, The pivot to online is a response to an unprecedented emergency, triage at best. Digital pedagogy is an emerging field . . . and not something hastily discovered in the aftermath of a crisis. The nuanced work of digital pedagogy has been being done, improved upon, iterated again and again, by dedicated teachers and scholars for decades. It was never meant to be a quick solution for every teacher in every situation.”

The WriteBoston PD was tailored to this important acknowledgement: K to 12 teachers, unlike a significant number of college and university educators, had no preparation for teaching online. They did their best from March to June, but as many have described it, teaching this way was like building a plane while flying it.

So it’s important to note that teachers came with the express desire to figure out how to adapt and improve their practice for this moment. Also, during the four weeks the PD was offered, teachers continued to wait for a fall plan. They were preparing for…what? Anything and everything. One participant wrote on their feedback form, “this is the first thing I’ve done all summer that has made me feel better, not worse, about the school year starting.” This teacher was not alone; our survey results showed that 93% of participants left the workshops with actionable strategies they plan to use.

The workshops were guided by a set of foundational principles the WriteBoston coaches drafted in the spring, that are aptly named “The Five Criteria for Teaching in the Midst of Uncertainty.” It has been affirming to realize again and again that these criteria hold up under scrutiny. They bear out the research on best practices. They match what school psychologists are telling us is critical for learning with a trauma-informed lens. They align with anti-racist teaching practices. Most importantly, they resonate with teachers and administrators who now know that engagement is everything when schools go remote.

Boiled down, WriteBoston’s professional development called on teachers to prioritize these shifts:

  1. Relationships come first. Connection and community are more important than ever: teacher to teacher, teacher to student, teacher to parents, student to student. If you have any doubts about this, watch this video of teens across the US sharing their experiences of remote learning with Richard Weissbourd, a WriteBoston founder. 
  2. Communicate. We can’t take anything for granted. Be transparent, clear and consistent so students don’t waste cognitive energy scrolling through emails or untangling confusing directions. 
  3. Simplify. Less is more. Favor depth over breadth. Settle on a few familiar routines and use them with fidelity.
  4. Give students voice and choice as much as possible. These are critical to engagement.
  5. Model a growth mindset. Sharing your own productive struggle as you learn how to use Zoom or Ed Puzzle or Pear Deck will show students that learning is a continuous and adaptive process.

As WriteBoston coaches return to school this fall, we will continue to press these priorities through our school-specific coaching and PD. We used them ourselves in planning our workshops to hold ourselves accountable. While there is so much we cannot control right now, if we keep returning to these criteria, we can provide some much needed consistency, compassion, and support for teachers and students alike.