Finding the Opportunity in the COVID-19 Crisis
The 2019-20 school year will certainly go down in history as unprecedented. The COVID-19 pandemic turned all aspects of society, including school systems, upside-down.
As schools were mandated to close, they were presented with an immediate and incredible challenge to shift instruction to a remote format. In addition to providing remote learning, schools were tasked with bridging the digital divide, feeding students, delivering mental health services, and even offering child care to essential workers.
One of the greatest challenges of the pandemic and the associated response has been the degree of unknowns. On a daily basis, school leaders have been questioned about the duration of the closure, technology issues, changes to grading procedures, graduation ceremonies, teacher evaluations, implications on school budgets, and many more important issues. Staff, students, and families have been seeking clarity and normalcy. It is in this time of uncertainty that the mission and core purpose of a school become more fundamental than ever. Our core purpose must remain constant. We must ensure learning for ALL.
In 2004, Rick DuFour wrote, “The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught, but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools” (p. 7).
Shifting to remote learning changed the delivery model, not the mission. Now more than ever, educators cannot control the learning environment. Barriers such as family structure, food insecurity, and access to technology have always impacted students outside of the classroom, but these variables are now front and center inside this new remote “schoolhouse.” Despite these changes, what must remain constant, however, is student learning.
Additionally, in this new setting, it is not possible for all students to learn everything. Collaborative teams must be crystal-clear on what it is all students must learn and gather evidence of that learning. Subsequently, plans must be developed to provide additional time and support to those who have gaps in their learning. Otherwise, the gaps could be insurmountable. The focus of the teams must shift to identifying the most essential learnings (what students must know), creating innovative ways to evidence that students have learned these most critical elements, and developing plans to support those who present as having gaps in their learning. With the shift to remote learning, it is more important than ever for collaborative teams to address the four critical questions of a PLC:
- What specifically do we expect all students to learn?
- How will we know when each student has learned it?
- How will we respond when students are having difficulty learning?
- How will we respond when students demonstrate that they have learned? (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009)
With the suspension of traditional instructional practices, grading policies, and the daily structures provided in the regular school setting, these questions must guide the work of our teachers and schools, and provide clarity in a time when it is so needed.
One of my daily routines that I have maintained during the extended school closure is reading my Twitter feed. On April 6, 2020, a post from Patrick Lencioni, a highly sought-after speaker and best-selling author of several business books including The Five Dysfunctions of Team, really caught my attention.
“No organization is going to emerge from this crisis unchanged—I don’t mean financially. During a time like this, we’ll either get better as a result of what we choose to do as teams and organizations, or we’ll be diminished for what we fail to do. Will we get better, or worse?”
This is a question that leaders in all organizations should reflect upon. How can we recommit ourselves to the PLC at Work process and answer the four critical questions with fidelity? How can we make certain that our organization’s mission, vision, values, and goals are aligned? Indeed, a whole generation of students is counting on us to get it right. Now is the time to get better at focusing on learning, building a culture of collaboration, and ensuring evidence of student learning.
As Albert Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” The opportunity for many schools is to move beyond “PLC Lite” or “collaboration” and renew our commitment to the core purpose of our schools. We must ensure that all students learn at high levels. It is time to take a hard look at all of our policies and practices, and we must review them through the lens of learning.
If not now, when?
Buffum, A., Mattos, M. & Weber, C. (2009). Pyramid response to intervention. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R. (2004). What is a Professional Learning Community? Educational Leadership, 61: 8 (p. 6-11).
Patricklencioni (2020, April 6). No organization is going to emerge from this crisis unchanged. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/patricklencioni/status/1247288145437057024