For many years, people have discussed doing school differently. Educators can see how the world has changed—and with it, the needs of our students. This is evident not only in so much of what we see on a daily basis in our classrooms, but also from numerous studies related to engagement and learning.

Educators have continuously talked about changing what we do—and talked, and talked, and talked!

Then the coronavirus hit. Wow! All of the sudden, school everything has changed. I’ve always been a contrarian when it comes to, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” but since COVID-19 hit the United States, those changes have been dramatic. We need to take the obstacles and challenges provided by the “all of the sudden” need for remote learning and turn them into opportunities that will change schools forever in order to make learning more about our students and less about our teachers.

For far too long, we have been stuck in the industrialized version of school—with kids sitting in rows, learning from the teachers (who are the keepers of all knowledge), and following a curriculum that was designed in a standardized fashion in order to achieve college entrance. There are often unstandardized children who get left on the sidelines because they don’t fit into the mold of what many think school should be about.

So what should we do?

First of all, we need to look at the rapidly changing world around us and find ways to engage and empower our students in order to create grown-ups who can innovate, adapt, and lead with empathy. We need to listen to what our students want and need. Student agency refers to listening to our students and giving them voice and choice in what, and how, they learn. It should be driven by student passions and interests. Instruction should be individualized in order to meet each student’s wants and needs. When we support students’ interests, we engage and empower them in their learning.

  • We need to build in purposeful tech integration that supports our students and their needs.
  • We can’t forget to support the social-emotional learning of our kids and provide them with strong character education initiatives that start with empathy.
  • We need to look at our classrooms and redesign them to meet the needs of today’s students.
  • We need to look at our community and the world as our classroom, instead of the 30- by 40-foot box with desks and chairs.
  • We need to support our teachers in learning a better way through meaningful professional development and provide resources that lead them in the right directions.
  • We need to give our teachers and students autonomy and power to pursue passions and make schools about risk-taking, resilience, adaptability, collaboration, and learning instead of just the grade.

Self-directed, less structured learning opportunities occurred because of the coronavirus and social distancing. Let’s not let it end when we go back in classrooms. We need to continue to challenge the status quo and push what is possible. Let’s change education and do this thing we call school differently…and better.

This post provides a preview of the National Principals Conference (NPC) session: “Doing School Differently: How Student Agency and Out-Of-The-Box Thinking Will Change Schools Forever.” To learn more about NPC, visit

Jay Billy is the principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, NJ.

About the Author

Jay Billy is the principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, NJ.


  • Anonymous says:

    Love this article and agree wholeheartedly.

  • Ambey says:

    This is definitely the way of the future. Awesome!!

  • Enjoyed reading this and your thoughts! Great points! Especially focusing on self-directed and new opportunities.

  • Jacie Maslyk says:

    Yes, Jay! Let’s continue to push our thinking and transform education.

  • daniel Schulist says:

    You lost me with Social Emotional Learning. We need to put the responsibility back on the parent to be a parent and let the school teach reading and writing. We need better discipline policies that put the pressure on the parent to get their children right. We also need to stop thinking that we need to keep every child in school to be college ready. College has become no more than a cash cow that turns out a bad product by offering students unnecessary classes for junk degrees and in exchange for trying to make feel good that they are kicking off their adult life in a pile of debt.

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