Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Let’s Talk Strengths and Celebrations

When I am working with teacher groups to analyze student work, our first area of focus is always student strengths. By identifying areas of celebration from the outset, we nurture optimism and hope in teachers, which they can then pass on to learners.

I have seen the power of this approach, and this is why I would love to show it to you in this blog post. By making time to focus on strengths and celebrations, I am explicitly acknowledging the progress educators are demonstrating—and make no mistake, we are doing some amazing things in education right now!

Deep reflection

When immersed in times of great flux and change, it can feel difficult to get a hold on any kind of stability. I think of it like wading into waves and struggling to find a foothold; every time we think we can stand, another wave washes our feet out from under us. This is how education feels right now. We make decisions and plans, only to have our contexts change in the blink of an eye. 

Despite this volatility, I have witnessed deep reflection by educators. We are asking ourselves all kinds of important questions: 

  • What matters most in education? 
  • How might we support student emotional health while also sustaining an academic focus? 
  • How can we collect the evidence we need to make good instructional decisions in the time we have? 
  • What are our priorities? How can we support partnership with families and clarity for students? 

The fact that these conversations are happening on Twitter, in hallways, over Zoom gatherings, and during collaborative time speaks to the commitment of educators to make intentional and considered decisions. This kind of reflection is essential if we are going to serve our own needs, those of our learners, and of the system as a whole.

Prioritization

Considering—and then reconsidering—priorities feels like my bread and butter in my own teaching context, and this is echoed in my conversations with teachers across North America. We are thinking about our learning goals and making decisions about which ones will guide instruction, feedback, revision, and assessment. We acknowledge that the demands on our day are many, our timetables have shifted, our ability to engage students has diminished in some cases, and our need to revisit previous learning has increased. 

We are noticing a reduction in stamina and a focus on social-emotional health that requires us to slow down and breathe. This means we cannot proceed as usual, at a steady rate, with little interruption (I am not sure this was ever the case, but that is a different blog post). So, we have to make decisions. We have to ask ourselves what matters most; what is non-negotiable for every single learner. We also have to prioritize our success criteria because we know we need to teach and develop these criteria and so our focus is narrowing by necessity. I listen to teachers engage in these difficult decisions and I recognize that this is a matter of the heart. We love our content. We love developing skills and we want to do as much as we can with our students. Nevertheless, teachers are working together to have these difficult discussions and this speaks to a pragmatism that is truly admirable.

Collaboration

The level of honesty and support on staffs and within collaborative teams is astounding. Every day I work with educators, I am floored by the level of compassion and care I am witnessing. Teachers are grieving together (and make no mistake, there is much to grieve), they are problem-solving, they are asking hard questions, and they are working through less-than-perfect solutions. I have always believed in the necessity of collaboration, but during a collective crisis, when we witness humans coming together rather than moving apart, it speaks to the professionalism on which our efforts are built. This bodes well for teachers and students, and reflects exactly the kind of hope we need right now.

Flexibility

We are having to pivot and bend in ways we didn’t expect, and I hope it is clear how amazing teachers are. We don’t need to be reminded how difficult it has been to move to virtual teaching with a moment’s notice, and then to move back to face-to-face, blended, or remain remote from our students. All permutations have come with stress and worry, with organization and forward-thinking, and with a good dose of “I have no idea if this will work but let’s give it a shot.” 

I have witnessed teachers trying new ways of collecting assessment evidence and making instructional decisions. I have seen teachers flexibly group students virtually and in a room where physical distancing is required. I have worked with teams to figure out how to encourage collaboration and co-construction when students cannot face each other. I have seen teachers listen to students read through apps and observed them offer feedback using embedded tools, video and audio capture, and in written form. I have seen them work hard to connect with students in amazing ways. This flexibility has stretched us to our capacity at times and it demonstrates a commitment to learning that is profound.

Clarity

These days, I repeat Brené Brown’s mantra “clear is kind” to anyone who will listen—and teachers are listening. I have worked with several groups of educators who are exploring ways to make their learning goals explicit and student-friendly. 

They are inviting students to track their progress on these goals and they are also embedding accompanying success criteria to really make proficiency tangible for students. They are working on ways to explain learning processes in multiple ways, offering video libraries to support students at home and at school. Teachers are using examples to show students how their products may demonstrate goals and they are using samples of work of varying degrees of proficiency to invite students to offer feedback or co-construct criteria. This desire to make learning paths clear to students (and families) is worth celebrating because it will yield results now and in the future.

Shifting assessment focus

Each and every day, I hear teachers talking about assessment. The questions are flowing unlike any other time in my recent memory. Teachers are asking: 

  • How do I assess online? 
  • What am I assessing? 
  • How do I get the best from my students? 
  • How do I avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty? 
  • How do I make summative decisions? 
  • How should we share assessment information with students and families? 
  • What role does professional judgment hold in assessment systems? 
  • How do I collect formative evidence when I cannot be in the same room with my learners and/or when faces are covered and we have to stay apart? 
  • How do I offer feedback that is actually actionable? 

These kinds of questions speak to an acknowledgement that things are different, that equity is important and challenging to ensure, and that assessment feels like a critical thing to figure out (which it is). The fact that teachers are asking these kinds of questions speaks to their desire to use assessment in fair and supportive ways. It speaks to a commitment to learning and the students we serve that is of the utmost importance right now.

Relationships

Teaching is a social endeavor. We work with colleagues, leaders, parents, and students every day and we know that relationships make or break our work. I have not heard a single teacher say any different. 

There is a collective emphasis on nurturing relationships and providing care and compassion that bodes well for humanity. After all, teachers have tremendous influence on the future of our communities and countries. When we put relationships first, we model for our students the interdependence we know is essential for a healthy society. I see teachers caring to the point of exhaustion. I see them putting the needs of others before themselves every single day. And while this feels so challenging, it is this commitment to other people that makes teachers essential in our society. 

Let’s celebrate the clear evidence that teachers care and are working hard for students. This is what makes our profession so profoundly meaningful.

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