There is an old proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago but the second-best time is today.
For Julie Ambler and her staff at The Woodlands Christian Academy in suburban Houston, Texas, investments in technology and its use have paid dividends as they transition to a 100 percent distance learning model in the wake of COVID-19. Most schools are not where they are. Nevertheless, she has advice for schools who might be just getting started today.
The Woodlands Christian Academy was on its week-long spring break when it became clear that COVID-19 was going to shut down in-person schooling for the foreseeable future. By the time students returned on Monday, the school had transitioned to a full-time virtual model.
Ambler credits her staff and technology department with ramping up so quickly. The school has been an Apple Distinguished School for several years now, and students in grades Pre-K thorough 12 are used to integrating laptops, iPads, and iPhones in their learning. High school students already had laptops at home with them, but for middle- and elementary-school students who did not, teachers put together packages both of devices and of other necessary resources and administrators created a schedule to have parents drive through campus to pick them up while maintaining appropriate social distancing practices.
When the time came for the first bell to ring Monday morning, students were expected to attend class virtually at the usual time. Teachers are adapting their lessons for the new delivery model. Ambler gives the example of the school’s drama teacher working with students to create videos and the P.E. teachers recording workouts for students to do. It hasn’t always been smooth, but the wrinkles are being ironed out.
So I had to ask her, what are some lessons that you might have for other schools? We would be remiss if we didn’t note that not all private schools have the same resources that Woodlands does, and the school was well ahead of the curve adopting technology into its classrooms. That said, it does have several important things to teach.
Lesson #1: Communication
Ambler’s first piece of advice for any school is to communicate, communicate, communicate. The Woodlands Christian Academy set up a Zoom meeting for parents before the transition to make sure everyone was on the same page and teachers reached out to their students’ parents.
“Parents are feeling so much anxiety, so I’d say the first thing you should do is reach out to your parents to let them know you care and that you’re here and working on a plan, even if you don’t have it.”
Everyone in the school community is in this together, so recognizing that parents are going to be worried and are going to be stressed and giving them a call is a simple, human gesture that teachers and administrators can make that can help dial down some of those negative feelings. Letting them know that a plan is coming, even if it is hazy and needs details filled in, can accomplish the same thing.
But schools can do more. Schools can also communicate resources. The school’s librarian reached out to families to make them aware of subscriptions that the school had to various services and resource catalogs. Calling or emailing parents with login information or lists of popular books or links to quality educational videos could help keep kids occupied while more formal plans are worked out.
Lesson #2: It all comes down to teachers
Ambler could not speak highly enough about her faculty, but the challenges are real. “The biggest burden [has been] on the teachers’ time, because they think they’re going to come back and walk in a classroom and teach something. Now they’re doing some videos they’re preparing in advance, they have to grade differently, they have to think differently from what they thought they already had laid out for this quarter.”
This is a tough time for teachers. Many have planned out the next weeks or months and many of those plans are about to be upended. It is substantially harder to teach when students are not in the room, and teachers are going to have to adapt.
It is also true that many teachers now have their own children with them, and their schools might be not be as organized or prepared. Having to take care of their children in addition to teaching is an additional stress and puts more pressure on teachers.
Ambler advised flexibility, humility, and charity. “You can’t fix it all immediately,” she said, adding “we’re going to make mistakes, but parents really appreciate knowing that educators care and are trying things.” It’s important to set expectations from the top that perfection is not the standard, and that challenges and hiccups are going to come up, whether that is technology not working or other strains being put on teachers.
The elementary division of the school, for example, has decided to do one subject per day, rather than try and rotate through different subjects. This is the type of on-the-fly adjustment that need to be made based on how well things are going. Teachers need the space to problem-solve.
Parents need to be flexible and charitable as well. This is an unprecedented episode, so cutting educators some slack as they try and make this abrupt transition will be key.
Lesson #3: Meeting children’s needs
Education is more than simply imparting academic content. Schools are communities where children make friends, have fun, and learn important social skills. Social isolation is throwing a wrench in all of that. The Woodlands Christian School is working to create community virtually as much as they can.
For young children, they are starting the day with class Zoom meetings where children can talk to their friends, pray, sing songs, and talk about what they are doing at home.
Even for schools that will not be able to the kind of full-time synchronous learning that The Woodlands Christian School is doing, trying to find ways for students to connect with each other, process all of the crazy stuff that is happening, check in on their friends, and talk about their experiences will be very important.
There might only be a few schools in America that are able to do what The Woodlands Christian School is doing. This is a testament to the incredible work that the educators there have put in not just in the past week, but in the preceding months and years to be so tech-integrated as to be able to transition this quickly.
But schools without the same resources and without the same history can learn from The Woodlands Christian School and the steps that they are taking. Keeping communication lines open with parents is not expensive. Pushing resources to families isn’t either. Creating virtual spaces for students to check in with each other is possible, too.
But, like so many things in education, it all comes down to teachers. These transitions are tough and will rise and fall on the talent and willpower of teachers. School leaders need to support their teachers, to be understanding when the inevitable hiccups emerge, and to give them the space and flexibility to make changes as they go.
Not every school can be The Woodlands Christian School, but many schools can create meaningful experiences for students in a virtual setting and have teachers in their employ who can create amazing things. Let’s see what they can do!