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How Do We Collaborate When Tensions Are Running High? (Opinion)



Sharing the load. Working together. Getting buy-in.

These are all great ideals for effective teamwork and highly desired. They are the traits that every team building, empowerment, and collective-efficacy article will cite about how to get things done and build a culture of unity.

But what do we do when we are in the middle of confrontation, as so many of our school leaders are currently? Is seeking unity and collaboration worth the energy and worth the risk? There is a genuine and justified apprehension from many that collaboration is just too difficult or too risky when the attacks are becoming more heated and more vitriolic.

A natural human reaction is to hunker down, not make waves, and keep a low profile. This is understandable. Our school leaders have been through two years of unprecedented change in both pedagogy and school management. They have lived and experienced students, families, and staff suffering as they have juggled muddling policy directives—or more often the absence of any policy directives. They have somehow kept classes going, students learning, and staff safe, only to be faced with growing unease and unrest at the school board, PTA, or at community forums.

It would be understandable if they said that they—and their staff (and their communities)—are too exhausted to undertake another round of rancor.

What do we do when we are swimming in a tide of confrontation?
This analogy may not work exactly, but the surfer—caught in a riptide—doesn’t fight against it, but instead lets themselves move along with it until it weakens. They don’t confront the rip, they don’t face it head on. Knowing when and how to use our energy may be as important in addressing confrontation. It’s not just what we say and do but also when and how we say it.

And the needed and opposing question to be asked must be: What do we lose by not engaging with those who are clearly concerned and passionate? Do we alienate ourselves or those in our community by not seeking collaboration? And do we unwittingly curtail the chance of meaningful change and meaningful understanding of an issue by seeking a collective response?

These times are not easy, and they probably require more thought and deliberation into what we have done naturally for a while. Collaboration was a clear function when things were good. It is probably a more necessary endeavor now that things are stressed.

So how do we establish and grow collaboration in the midst of confrontation? I asked several education and transformational-change leaders for their perspectives: Lacee Jacobs, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at BTS Spark; Cindy Rogan, a leadership coach and former superintendent; and Chaunté Garrett, a current superintendent in Rocky Mount, N.C. Their responses have been arranged by their key themes.

Art of leadership

Cindy Rogan: It’s the art of leadership! I see it as a dance with moves that include courage, compassion, and curiosity. Courage to be willing to take that risk of leaning into deep listening before jumping too quickly into your response or problem-solving mode. It can be challenging when you’re feeling defensive, tired, or simply caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Lacee Jacobs: How can we be compassionate enough to understand we are all a work in progress? Creating a safe space to dissent, make mistakes, and contribute ideas without fear is where true collaboration and commitment begins.

Cindy Rogan: Compassion for the other person/people in this dance is key. What are they thinking or feeling that’s causing these strong emotions? What beliefs or values are coming up for them? Where might you find a glimmer of common ground or alignment?

Lacee Jacobs: Curiosity starts when we forget what we think we know about people and meet them where they are in the moment. Dropping our agendas and showing genuine interest in others’ experiences by asking questions we don’t know the answers to fosters psychological safety and promotes collaboration.

Cindy Rogan: Curiosity is key as you listen with your head and heart. Asking questions to draw out those beliefs, their “why” that is causing this confrontation. By balancing your courage, compassion, and curiosity, you might find you are in a more steady state to have a more collaborative dialogue.

Comfortable with being uncomfortable
Chaunté Garrett: We have just got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Lacee Jacobs: Growing our quotient for discomfort is one of the best ways to become an adaptive leader who is prepared to face the challenges of today. This will build our strength to collaborate and allow us to recognize there is more than one worldview we need to consider.

Chaunté Garrett: As a leader, you may need to decide I’m not the person to lead this. I may meet to be a listener in this conversation and I’ll be a learner in this conversation.


Lacee Jacobs: Collaboration is not about getting others to see our point of view. Collaboration is an opportunity for us to shift our own mindset and prioritize our relationships over being right.

Chaunté Garrett: By seeking other voices and collaboration, ownership doesn’t just fall on the person who may be wearing the hat or the title. The ownership falls on the community to help the community become better and stronger.

Collaboration = > cooperation but < abdication

Collaboration is more than cooperation. It is more than going along with something that you may not agree with or something you may not have had a say in deciding. We’ve all been “volun-told,” and merely cooperating is the next step on that same continuum—we agree to go along, but it hasn’t been anything we necessarily agree with nor see or value as our own. The “co” part of the word has more to do with being co-opted or co-erced to be part of something, and our co-operation has more to do with us showing that we are cooperative rather than having any investment in the outcome.

For it to rise above cooperation, we must have taken part in the development of the action or desired solution, from its conception, as a group, with joint ownership and common-owned desire for success.

But collaboration is less than abdication. It is not submitting yourself and your beliefs to the viewpoints of others. For anything to be truly collaborative, it must be owned by the team or the group. Submission to others does not result in ownership, and, in fact, it will do the opposite and relegate the solution to being someone else’s responsibility.

Collaboration requires others, and often, others bring dissenting voices. One cannot collaborate with oneself, and to exclude others from the process may set whatever you are doing on a path toward irrelevance.

Be curious, show compassion, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You may not change mindsets immediately, but you are creating space for voices and establishing environments that are more likely to include rather than exclude, empower rather than disengage, bring communities together rather than push them apart.

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A Killer on the Loose Leaves an Idaho College Town Shaken



MOSCOW, Idaho — Every few hours comes another call. A food delivery driver who heard a woman screaming. A mother asking the police to walk her daughter to her car after work. A woman who woke up at 3 a.m. to find her front door wide open.

The flood of calls to the Moscow Police Department is a sign of just how afraid people in this college town have become, three weeks after four University of Idaho students were fatally stabbed by an unknown assailant in their bedrooms in the middle of the night.

Many students refused to come back to campus after Thanksgiving, and some classrooms at the university now sit half empty. Those who did return said they bought doorbell cameras, put rods in their windows to lock them shut or began hunkering down with roommates at night.

“I ask my friends for rides all the time,” said Jemimah Tudi, a sophomore from India who said she no longer walks alone after dark and expects to get pepper spray for Christmas.

The fear that sits over this city of 25,000 people in the rolling hills of northern Idaho is unlikely to ease until the killer or killers are caught. But there is little indication that the police are any closer to making an arrest than they were on the day of the killings, Nov. 13, when news of the stabbings sickened residents and turned this normally idyllic college town into the scene of a national mystery.

The police have issued sometimes contradictory statements, leading at least one victim’s family to question whether investigators are up to the task of solving a quadruple homicide in a city that had not seen a murder since 2015.

“So frustrating. No info at all,” Alivea Goncalves, the older sister of one victim, Kaylee Goncalves, said in a text message last week after the police held their most recent news conference. “They have done nothing to gain any of our trust.”

The number of F.B.I. and Idaho State Police investigators working on the case — including behavioral analysts trained to outline a possible profile of the killer — now vastly outnumbers the 36 total employees in the Moscow Police Department.

“We may not have identified a suspect yet, but we are getting a clearer picture of what happened,” said Aaron Snell, a spokesman for the State Police.

The house at 1122 King Road is tucked away on a dead-end street about a five-minute walk from the fraternity houses that line one edge of campus, with cars packed tightly into driveways and students often walking to and from class along snowy pathways.

The three-story house was a place where friends often socialized and posed for smiling pictures, social media posts from earlier this year show. But for the past three weeks, it has sat empty, marked off by police tape and guarded day and night by a police officer.

The slain students’ possessions remain behind: a pair of pink cowboy boots just inside a third-floor window, a neon sign on a wall that reads “good vibes,” a couch collecting snow on the back patio.

Killed in the early-morning attack were Kaylee Goncalves, 21, who was planning to graduate in the winter and move to Austin, Texas; Madison Mogen, 21, who loved concerts and had worked from a young age to help support herself; Xana Kernodle, 20, a marketing major who had begun to blossom while living away from home; and Ethan Chapin, 20, Ms. Kernodle’s boyfriend and a triplet who seemed to be always smiling or telling a joke. The three women lived in the home, and Mr. Chapin was visiting his girlfriend.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, Mr. Chapin and Ms. Kernodle spent the evening at a fraternity party while Ms. Goncalves and Ms. Mogen went to a sports bar in town. They all returned shortly before 2 a.m., and phone records show that a series of calls were soon placed from Ms. Goncalves’s phone to her former longtime boyfriend, Jack DuCoeur, who is also a student at the university, her older sister said.

Mr. DuCoeur did not pick up, and there were six more calls until 2:52 a.m., when they stopped. Several calls to the same number were also placed at about the same time using Ms. Mogen’s phone, the police said.

Little is known about what happened after that.

What the authorities have said is that, at some point in the night, someone armed with a large knife attacked the victims, likely as they slept, and managed to escape without waking the two additional roommates. Ms. Goncalves’s father said that Ms. Goncalves and Ms. Mogen were in the same bed when they were killed.

It was not until just before noon that the two surviving roommates realized something was wrong. The police said that they first called friends over to the apartment, believing that one of their roommates was passed out, and that someone called 911 shortly after.

When the police arrived, they found a gruesome scene, but no murder weapon or sign of forced entry. No possible motive has been disclosed and there are no suspects. The police said they had learned through interviews that Ms. Goncalves may have told friends she was worried about a stalker, but the authorities have not been able to verify that.

The shock of neighbors and students quickly gave way to fear. Residents began checking their locks, texting one another their whereabouts and calling the police over everything that seemed out of place — a revved engine in a Walmart parking lot, a man seen “wandering around.”

Neighbors also began sharing the story of a man on the outskirts of town who reported that his neighbor’s dog had been found a few weeks before the murders, skinned from neck to legs. (The police reassured the public that they “do not believe there is any evidence” that the incident was related to the students’ deaths.)

Seeking to calm the community, the police quickly said they believed there was no “ongoing community risk” or “imminent threat.” An initial statement from the police that the attacks were “targeted” was walked back and forth, with Bill Thompson, the Latah County prosecutor, saying at one point that he had no more information than the public about why the police had called it that.

“That’s what they told us and we accepted that at face value,” he said.

The claims never made sense to locals, students or their parents, since the police were also saying they did not know who had committed the killings, or where they might be. Chief James Fry of the Moscow Police Department ultimately conceded, three days after the crimes, that the police “cannot say that there is no threat.”

The back and forth has done little to calm residents like Angelica Silva, who said her husband had come home last week to find one of their windows wide open. What might have been considered odd in normal times was instead “super unsettling,” Ms. Silva said, with their young daughter at home.

“The curtains were hanging out the window,” said Ms. Silva, who has lived in Moscow since she was a child. “We are definitely triple-checking everything now.”

As the case drags on, there are worries that the investigation could go cold, leaving the town in a state of paralysis. But Chief Fry dismissed that idea this week.

“We’re going to solve this,” he told The Moscow-Pullman Daily News. “We’re going to continue to work until we solve it.”

Blaine Eckles, the dean of students at the university, said about a third of students who live in residence halls had not returned, though he did not have a figure for how many of the vast majority of students who live off campus have switched to online learning. As some students returned to campus on Monday following the holiday break, they said their classes were emptier than usual, and a heaviness could be felt over campus.

“It’s still so unknown and you don’t know what’s going on,” said Helen C., a senior who declined to give her full last name because she feared for her safety. “I’m hopeful, but it also seems like the further you get away from it, the easier it is to not find anyone, and then — not to be scary — you start thinking about Ted Bundy and all the stuff he did.”

Helen said she and her roommate had recently invited a friend to spend the night with them after learning that the friend’s roommates had not yet returned to town, leaving her alone at home.

Some students said that even though they worried about the possibility of another attack, they did not like the thought of returning to remote classes after doing so for long stretches during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Being an engineering student, I didn’t really have a choice,” Jaydon Morgan, a freshman, said after attending a noticeably empty calculus class. “It’s either in-person or struggling at home.”

At a vigil on the football field of the Kibbie Dome this week, students wiped their eyes as relatives of the victims spoke of their grief.

Ms. Mogen’s father, Ben Mogen, said he had always been proud to brag about his daughter to friends or people he was meeting for the first time, rattling off her academic accomplishments and pulling out pictures.

“I just would tell them all about Maddie,” he said.

All of the victims were members of fraternities and sororities, and many of those in attendance were in the university’s Greek organizations.

Chris Bofenkamp, a University of Idaho graduate, attended the vigil and said the killings had hit her especially hard because she had been a member of the same sorority as Ms. Kernodle and Ms. Mogen.

“That hit home for me because I remember how tight it was with the people I lived with,” Ms. Bofenkamp said. “You’re away from home, they become your family, and when they say, ‘It’s your sisters,’ it really feels like that.”

Mike Baker and Serge F. Kovaleski contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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The Pandemic May Have Eased, But There’s No Going Back for Districts (Opinion)



(This is final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders should learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?

In Part One, Chandra Shaw, Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Paul Forbes, and Andrea Honigsfeld shared their commentaries.

In Part Two, PJ Caposey, Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., Stepan Mekhitarian, Ph.D., Holly Skadsem, and Lana Peterson answered the question.

Today, Diana Laufenberg, Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., July Hill-Wilkinson, T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, Joseph Jones, and Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D. wrap up this series.

‘Rigid Systems Cannot Thrive With Dynamic Conditions’

Diana Laufenberg is a former teacher who currently serves as the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting schools to become more inquiry-driven and project-based. She currently lives near the family farm where she grew up in rural Wisconsin:

The word “should” is one that I try to avoid for a number of reasons that far smarter folks than I have spent time explaining (example). So indulge me as I tweak the language of this question a bit by responding to “What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders *could* learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?”

Important lessons, there are so very many. I will highlight a few that continue to ping around in my brain years later. The fascinating thing is that many of them are also things that I was trying to get attention for pre-COVID.

  1. Care structures
  2. Flexibility/resiliency
  3. Student agency

My entry into COVID school was a unique one to be sure. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, I was asked by a local history teacher to sub for her from February through April. I was thrilled for the opportunity as I believe that returning to the classroom periodically is important when doing school-based consultancy work. This was the second time I was afforded this gift since 2012. I readjusted my travel schedule to open up flexibility for the long-term sub job and very much looked forward to a less travel-filled start to 2020. (That turned out to be one heck of an understatement.)

I was both teaching and consulting during the first months of the pandemic. This proved to be an interesting vantage point from which to observe all the different approaches and machinations being attempted to deliver school in new and unknown ways. One simple yet powerful concept that popped up consistently was that schools with established care structures (homeroom, advisory, family, etc.) were able to meet the immediate needs of students and families much more easily and effectively. Every student was already in a small group that was connected to a staff member.

This attention to the importance of having an in-school advocate and connection yielded incredible results when trying to find all the students and make meaningful contact with them in the initial days of the pandemic. I do see evidence that this feature is being incorporated more into school environments and given time to strengthen as school communities still struggle to bring back all the students successfully to the classroom. These kinds of classes for the students, including advisories or SEL-based homerooms, are highly recommended to support, connect, and advocate for each learner in your schools.

The second major learning point was the idea of flexibility and resiliency. Throughout the past decade, I’ve been asked what the future of education will look like. My answer consistently was … I have no idea. The only thing I was sure of is that the future will demand greater flexibility and resiliency in the systems and the people. Rigid systems cannot thrive with dynamic conditions. This is a fact. I think the most notable example is the state testing schemes that were undone by COVID.

The lesson I hoped would be learned in this moment is that a rigid system like state testing is not compatible with the dynamic conditions of a world still grappling with a pandemic years later. As we start the fourth school year affected by the pandemic, I have observed some moves that are encouraging on this front (summer learning that is much more experiential and inquiry-based) and others that trouble me (hyperfocus on “learning loss”). If you are in a position to lead a school or district forward through this, continue to ask how these decisions will make your institution more flexible, responsive, and resilient.

That leaves student agency. Students know that gig is up for school as it was. It’s time to truly invest educational time in the idea that student ideas, interests, dreams can have an integral and powerful place in their formal educational journey. What students think, their experiences need to play a prominent role in their educational path. Getting the students “back” means actually attending to the humans who present themselves to school on a daily basis. They are not a number, a stanine, a seat, a desk. … These are humans. Humans need systems and experiences built for humans. Increasing opportunities for student agency help solve the impersonal or overly institutional experience that many students endure.

Maya Angelou knocks around my head frequently as I work alongside schools to adjust, adapt, grow: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Let’s do better, folks.

‘Now Is the Time to Reinvent’

Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., is a professor in educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia. Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., is a former superintendent and high school principal, and he is the 2015 American Association of School Administrators (AASA) National Superintendent of the Year. Philip co-authored (with Sally), A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19 (Routledge) and The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children:

When schools reopened, leaders faced issues ranging from addressing student learning loss to supporting new social-emotional needs of students and staff. There was little time to plan with any certainty. COVID-19 brought forward questions.

Should schools and their systems go back to pre-COVID days? While the turbulence created in response to COVID-19 thrust leaders and teachers into a dizzying whirl of continuous change, the more important question now for leaders is, “Will schools change as a result of what was learned from the experiences with the pandemic?” If districts return to the way they have operated in the past, then we have learned very little, missing significant opportunities to improve in ways to be successful in the ever-changing world that lies ahead. Now is the time to reinvent.

The journey ahead will be embedded as much in process as it is in program decisions. For systems to reinvent themselves post-COVID-19, leaders must understand the dynamics of internal change if they are to be successful in navigating constantly changing external forces.

Through our conversations and work with districts, we have walked away with some insights to help leaders anchor their work in adapting and responding to the ever-changing internal dynamics and turbulence. We believe that:

Systems now must be agile and adaptable and ready to pivot quickly in making changes through a lens of the often unknown. Returning to the rigid structures that framed how districts and schools operated will only create the same conditions before the pandemic where some children were successful and others were not, with the impacted majority being the groups that need schools to be successful.

Systems now must listen to the voices of teachers who learned how to make midcourse adjustments, redesigning different instructional models compared with “in front of the room” instruction. Agility and adaptability require teachers to have a new sense of freedom in stark contrast from structured curricular guides, unified instructional practices, and strict content timelines.

Teachers and leaders have new insights into the strengths and deficiencies in instructional designs based on student needs. Critical conversations must emerge from these insights to create new pathways for teaching and learning never scaled at this level.

Systems now must be attentive to the social-emotional needs of their teachers and leaders. Substantial social-emotional needs have emerged for students, teachers, and leaders. Students struggled with the loss of in-person interactions critical to the formative years. Similarly, teachers’ social-emotional needs surfaced and weighed heavily on them. Systems are experiencing a significant depletion of the teaching force by those leaving the profession that is exacerbated by those no longer entering teaching as a career.

Similarly, school leaders have felt tremendous pressure as they struggle with daunting challenges to keep students and teachers safe while maintaining effective learning experiences. Moving forward, systems will undoubtedly grapple with looming building-level leadership shortages affecting succession efforts for every school to have a highly qualified and effective principal.

Prior to COVID-19, the work of teachers was mostly misunderstood and often distilled to test scores of the students on their rosters. Throughout the pandemic, the true work of teachers could be seen, and they were responsible for showing the world hope, giving students much-needed support.

Systems now must prioritize the needs of students given the turmoil for them over the last two years, which has taken a toll at every level. While younger students are experiencing remarkable rebounds as they return, others are experiencing significant learning gaps in combination with much confusion about their learning trajectory and emotional stability. There exists an immediate need to address the magnified learning gaps and inequities as well as the social stress students face today which will leave the traditional approaches to addressing these concerns woefully inadequate.

We believe there are new opportunities post-COVID-19 that can reshape the educational space, but only if leaders and teachers examine what was learned about the educational and social-emotional needs of students and the teachers who have answered the call to work with them. In the end, the future of education and its success lies not in going back but solely on how we move forward in this journey.



July Hill-Wilkinson is a veteran classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and former administrator. She currently works as an instructional coach and curriculum leader in Southern California high schools:

Less. Is. More. The motto for too long has been “more is more.” More testing gives more results and more students in classrooms makes more room in the budget. Some have touted COVID as the reset button, even the needed wake-up call for an education.

When COVID sent us home for a year and half, there was definitely less learning, which is devastating and will impact all for a long time to come. Students spending less time with their friends was, for many, a black hole of isolation from which they have not yet recovered. Terrible, terrible things happened as a result of the pandemic, but it forced our hand when it comes to narrowing the focus of what students really need to know at the end of the day.

Online school made it impossible to do a lot of the activities and lessons that some of us have done year after year. We could not do group work or give students opportunities to feed off each other in whole-group discussions—not well anyway. There was so much adjustment that we simply didn’t have the time, space, or capacity to do the same things we always do, so we had to really, really think about what exactly made the cut.

We had considerably less time face to face with students, too, because no one in their right mind is going to have them on screen six hours in a row. Lecture times and independent work times were in a far different balance from what has ever been possible in public schools. Online schooling created a more collegelike and worklike situation for high school students for which they had to take responsibility for their own learning and their own time. They were not supervised every single minute of every day. We could offer small-group instruction in meetings and not have to monitor the behavior of 30 other bodies in the room. We could finally use time differently for those who needed support and those who aced material easily.

These situations could be repeated, at least in part, with some creative scheduling and planning at schools post-pandemic. Districts can guide curriculum teams to pair down to fewer standards that have to be mastered as opposed to dozens which are “touched upon.” Time and online opportunities could be leveraged to create the individualized learning 21stcentury students need. Those who succeeded in teaching or learning in an online environment should have the opportunity to blend that into the return to the traditional. Do I think they actually learned them? Not enough. Not nearly enough. But I have hopes for changes to come now that we see what we can do with less.

timeand onlinejuly

‘A Crisis Mindset’

T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, and Joseph Jones have experience as building and district school leaders. They have authored or co-authored nine books, including their most recent publication with Corwin Press, 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders. You can learn more about them at and

Wild change occurred during the pandemic whether school leaders were prepared to initiate it or not. So, what was the difference between leading during COVID that allowed schools to have the confidence, innovation, and dedication to commit to solutions?

We believe the lesson that surfaced during the pandemic is the way we think about problems. The mindset that emerges within effective leaders during a crisis is not one of can we or should we solve it but instead a laser focus on how we solve it. One by one, barriers to students accessing education were tackled by every school district in the country. Every one of them implemented strategies and structures that never would have been on the radar if we were not in a crisis. It made us wonder if a crisis mindset is a way of thinking that should be applied to our biggest perennial problems in education.

To some degree, many of our greatest challenges in education have been accepted as impossible to change or can only be addressed over a multiyear timeline. We now have experience that shows us that enormous problems can be tackled with massive change in lightning speed. Because the pandemic upended everything and created so much instability and uncertainty, district leaders were forced to think about problems differently and with a greater sense of urgency than ever before.

Some of these problems were new, like distance learning, but others were simply exacerbated, spotlighting the already inequitable circumstances for students. This exposure forced us to treat them like the crisis that they are and always were. These lived experiences have the potential to shift how we approach other problems in education, like teacher retention, equity, and school safety that, like a pandemic, cannot be put on a long-term plan for uncertain change.

There are other, more obvious lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Take, for example, student access to the internet at home. When everything shut down, students needed devices. Many districts had been slowly increasing their technology inventory but faced an immediate need to get devices to every single student. Suddenly, they were able to make happen what normally would have taken years. But students didn’t just need devices, they also needed internet connectivity. While this was a more complex nightmare, it was also solved, often through collaboration with community resources.

There is no denying that without a shift in thinking about these problems, many students would still not have devices or internet access at home today. It was the pandemic that triggered the shift. Again, a result of a crisis mindset.

Unfortunately, the numerous challenges that COVID-19 created also left many people craving “normal again.” We heard from educators that they couldn’t wait for a time when things got back to the way they were. There’s much to be said for the human spirit that soared during the pandemic and what we all lived through together, but our desire for normalcy shouldn’t bring us back to the same problems that we lived with prior to the pandemic. This would leave the benefits of a crisis mindset behind us and a retreat to an acceptance of issues in education that remain crises.

We are inspired by how a crisis mindset allowed us to achieve what no educator would have thought possible before the pandemic. What we’re most hopeful about, in terms of lessons learned during the pandemic, is the breaking of the mold for the way that we think about problems, both old and new.

Whether getting food to families whose kids weren’t in school or providing mental health services, communities came together to solve real problems. A new way of thinking emerged in those pandemic years. We hope that leaders, both within education and the community, will continue to look at old problems with a crisis mindset and not just treat them as perpetual issues that are never likely to change. Things can and will change, change doesn’t need to be slow, and we don’t need to snap back to a “normal” that includes suffering with problems that could be solved with the right mindset.


‘That’s Outside Our Boat’

Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D., is an educational consultant coaching principals, district leaders, and administrative teams in the complex and ever-challenging work of leading schools. She is the author of The Deliberate & Courageous Principal:

One of the most important lessons that principals should have learned during the pandemic and should continue to hone in their leadership is the fundamental skill of bringing clarity to the work of their staff.

Effective leaders know their most significant responsibility is to provide clarity for the work ahead. Teachers have had to deal with so much, and the gift of clarity from their leaders should be given to each of them. Marcus Buckingham, a British author and business consultant, writes that clarity is “the antidote to anxiety, and that clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.”

During the height of the pandemic and now that it has eased, principals must take the time to fine-tune the learning objectives with teachers, let go of unnecessary work, and focus in on the essentials. Effective principals don’t sit and wait for answers from the district office; they don’t sit and blame the state for requirements and mandates; and they don’t make excuses for why they can’t get initiatives going at their school.

It’s easy for school leaders to spend entirely too much time thinking about the problems “out there” instead of the ones right inside their own school. Don’t waste time on things out of your control. Focus on the critical, essential, and difficult work for which every principal should be held accountable—the work of answering the ultimate question, “How are students learning and achieving in my school?”

In a book entitled That’s Outside My Boat (2001), veteran television announcer Charlie Jones tells the story of when he was getting ready to report on the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He was incredibly disappointed when he was assigned to broadcast the rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events. In previous years, he had been assigned to the excitement of track and field, swimming, and diving. He had witnessed and reported on the amazing feats of Flo Jo in Seoul and Pablo Morales in Barcelona.

When he arrived in Atlanta a week before the Games, he began interviewing Olympic rowers from all over the world. He asked the basic question of, “What if it’s raining?” The answer was always, “That’s outside my boat.” Then he would ask, “What if the wind blows you off course?” The reply would be, “That’s outside my boat.” What if one of your oars breaks?” “That’s outside my boat.”

By the end of those Atlanta Games, he reported that they were by far the best of his life. Why? Because he learned so much. He learned invaluable lessons. He came to understand for those Olympic rowers that they were only interested in and focused on what they could control. They let the outside circumstances go. The rowers knew they had to dismiss the extraneous factors and concentrate all of their focus and talent on what was inside their boat. Other reporters questioned the teams about the rain, the heavy winds, the possibility of broken oars, and other negative aspects, too. But each team member consistently responded, “That’s outside our boat.” It’s another way of saying that the team was only concentrating on what was inside their circle of influence. They were determined not to waste any mental energy on things that could distract them from the real work they had to do.

Jones (2001) wrote, “It slowly began to dawn on me that my assignment was ‘outside my boat’ . . . the president of NBC Sports hadn’t called and asked me what I would like to cover; he had simply given me this venue. What I did with it was up to me.” Principals have been given a precious venue of their school. Effective leaders clarify the work—each and every semester—that needs to get done.They focus on specific areas until those are embedded and strong before moving to the next areas of work. These principals are building a solid base for continued achievement. As author Brene Brown writes, “Clear is kind; unclear is unkind.”


Thanks to Diana, Sally, Philip, July, T.J., Connie, Joseph, and Rhonda for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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3 Guiding Principles for High-Quality Virtual Learning (Opinion)



A lot of folks are justifiably down on virtual learning after the half-baked, mic-muted, camera-off mess that so often passed for remote learning. After that experience, I’ve had a lot of parents, policymakers, and educators ask whether the past few years should disabuse us of our enthusiasm for the promise of technology in K-12. This is a topic I consider at some length in my forthcoming book The Great School Rethink (out from Harvard Ed Press next spring), which is how I wound up in an extended exchange about all this with the always-provocative Evo Popoff, a VP of Whiteboard Advisors. Evo, formerly the chief innovation officer for the New Jersey education department and a VP at EdisonLearning, retains an upbeat take on virtual learning that I thought well worth sharing. Here’s what he had to say.

Many of us might equate virtual learning to the remote learning that occurred during the COVID-19 school closures—much of which was haphazard and unsatisfactory. Stories abound of students who wilted when their education shifted to Zoom and they were largely cut off from others, as even once-stellar pupils—many of whom began facing mental health challenges—stopped turning in work or attending class. All of this might lead us to adopt a simplistic binary that all virtual learning is bad and in-person learning is good. But reality is far more nuanced because while many students wilted, others have thrived.

In “A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning,” commissioned by Edmentum, we drew on research and interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners, including educators and school and district leaders, to try to better understand what separates high-quality virtual programs from unsatisfactory experiences. We heard a very different story of what virtual learning could be and do—for instance, connecting students to resources that otherwise might not be available at their schools or providing additional support in vital areas like English/language arts.

In the report, we captured this potential in a “day in the life” of a hypothetical 8th grader, Maya, who seamlessly navigates a world that is both virtual and in person to pursue learning in a way that makes sense for her—bouncing from a one-on-one prealgebra tutoring session to an online college course in environmental engineering to an in-person writing workshop.

But while Maya is hypothetical, her experience isn’t. Everything we write about in her journey is taken from what school leaders told us. It represents a future where learning is not tied to one particular time or place. As D’Andre Weaver, the chief digital equity officer of Digital Promise, said to us: “The future of learning is hybrid and ubiquitous. Kids can learn anytime and everywhere.”

So, if high-quality virtual learning is something distinct from the emergency remote learning of the pandemic, what actually is it? Our report presents three key themes that are central to a vision for top-quality virtual learning. (I should note that these are not meant to be an exhaustive list of best practices but a way to level-set this view of education.)

First, high-quality virtual learning is about people, not technology. Too often, we imagine virtual learning as a student sitting alone for hours at a time in front of a computer screen, isolated. While independent work has a role in virtual learning, learning experiences must be designed with human relationships at the center if all students are to succeed. The flexibility of virtual models and the technologies they use create potential opportunities for core relationships to thrive—and help make virtual learning “part of the DNA of who we are as educators and an education system,” in the words of Friendship Public Charter Schools chief of staff Ken Cherry.

What might this look like? At Odyssey Junior and Senior Charter High School in Palm Bay, Fla., every virtual student receives a “champion” who facilitates relationship-building between students and their online instructures. The Akron school district, in Ohio, which established a new online school for the 2021-22 school year, paired its virtual students with mentors who help the students navigate online platforms, stay engaged, and achieve their goals. This allowed their teachers to focus more on teaching, knowing that there was another adult whose full-time job was monitoring students’ educational progress and personal journeys.

Second, good instruction is good instruction—regardless of modality. As Zach Blattner, the senior director of teacher professional education at the Relay Graduate School of Education, observed, “At the end of it all, it just gets back to good teaching. You have to plan; you can’t just wing it.” At the same time, different modalities can require different approaches to instruction. Not surprisingly, planning lessons, customizing curricula, classroom management, and other teacher tasks can look or feel different in a virtual environment. In virtual settings, Blattner said, “Educators must be even more intentional about their norms and routines to not waste class time with what can be the distractions and disruptions of technology.” Teachers might need access to specialists who can help them adjust virtual delivery to accommodate students with different learning abilities.

Finally, a culture focused on the success of all students is nonnegotiable. Based on interviews with virtual program operators and other experts in the field, the secret to their successes lies in their focus on people and creating a culture that encompasses both in-person and virtual experiences. Districts that are growing their virtual learning programs need to adapt their systems and practices to build a culture focused on success for every student. This can be as simple as relying on one learning-management system to limit switching between platforms or offering resources to families in multiple languages, or it can be as complicated as ensuring home access to broadband internet and devices for all students. It includes embracing the more flexible approach to scheduling that virtual programming offers and rethinking roles, expanding the view of the teaching team to include outside teachers, experts, and support staff. And it can entail clearly identifying the person in the district who is responsible for overseeing virtual programs and ensuring their success.

For those of your readers with whom this resonates, we suggest referencing the “Putting It All Together” page of the report, where we present key practical points for virtual learning stakeholders to consider. For instance, we suggest district leaders who are developing a virtual program or school ask themselves questions such as “How are we measuring success? Are there measures of success or engagement that are unique to the virtual environment?” And, for families who want to enroll their child in a virtual learning experience, we suggest asking questions like “Who is the adult responsible for caring about my student and identifying what they need to succeed?”

Districts are currently facing unprecedented challenges, from teacher shortages to helping students recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. Unless we change our way of thinking about virtual learning, it’s possible we might miss out on key ways to help solve these challenges. Our hope in this report is to begin a more nuanced discussion around virtual learning, beyond the simplistic binary that virtual instruction is bad and in-person is good. The goal is to help capture those characteristics of high-quality virtual learning to help equip school leaders, parents, policymakers, and others to more thoughtfully approach what successful virtual learning can and should entail.

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