“2020, a year unlike any other” may be the greatest understatement I have made in my professional career. I have had the good fortune of working with outstanding teachers, staff, families, and students. As a basketball coach, I always told my players that I believe preparation creates separation. That is, those who prepare separate themselves from those who do not. The same can be said in teaching. Regardless, nothing could have prepared me to be the principal of an intermediate school in this current environment.

At Hempfield School District in Landisville, PA, we provided families with the option of sending students back to school in person with increased health and safety protocols, or attending classes virtually with their assigned teachers. Many families chose the synchronous, virtual learning model where students log in to a Google Meet for instruction and assessment. As a district, we laid out a clear plan for students to continue learning in this format. We also dedicated most of our opening days’ professional development to this learning approach.

As the year began, I made it a priority to visit classrooms and speak with teachers one-on-one about their experiences. I was amazed—I still am—at the positivity and professionalism of our teachers. While there were numerous hurdles, our teachers were solution-oriented. Yet, I found myself unable to provide the highest level of guidance and support for their questions because, quite frankly, I had never taught in this format. When discussing this with Mike Bromirksi, our district’s superintendent, he suggested I teach a few classes to understand the dynamics. I asked one of our teachers if I could jump into the fray and teach a math class. (Jumping into things and acting like I can do it has earned me the dubious nickname “Buzz Lightyear” from my staff.)

One benefit of the mandated state shutdown and the ensuing summer was that it provided me time to reflect and seek out a wealth of professional development available to educators. I enjoyed listening to numerous podcasts during my 30-minute jogs. I became fascinated with a podcast interview conducted by Ollie Lovell with John Hollingsworth (www.ollielovell.com/errr/johnhollingsworth). Hollingsworth explained how he and his wife operationalized explicit direct instruction. I reflected on his work and the upcoming year and realized his format would be perfect for the rows and columns of social distance learning.

Honing the Method

Hollingsworth uses the acronym TAPPLE: Teach first, Ask a specific question, Pair-share, Pick a nonvolunteer, Listen to the response, and Effective feedback. I used his format to teach a big concept in number theory: greatest common factor and least common multiple. When I met with staff at the beginning of the school year, I discussed how difficult it would be to determine what students retained from the previous year. I told them to focus on big concepts that were critical to students’ future success. Number theory and place-value seemed to be the most important “big concepts” in our intermediate students’ math instruction.

For my classroom math lesson, I created a presentation that began with a three-question review: a question checking what students learned yesterday, a week ago, and last year. All students, including our virtual learners, were provided mini whiteboards. I asked the questions and had them respond. I also had the students do “turn and talks” with sentence stems to increase academic vocabulary. Thankfully, all students were able to connect to the Google Meet without issue. However, it took some cajoling to get them to turn on their cameras! This has been a concern in our current learning environment.

For the turn and talks, I made a point to start with my five virtual students first before circulating to the in-person students. I found I had to put great trust in my in-person learners to initiate the turn and talks. I then randomly selected students to share their answers after everyone showed me their whiteboards. If I had been their regular teacher, I would have made a note of students who made mistakes, and this would have been my focus during intervention periods of instruction.

I then moved to the learning goal for the lesson. I used some choral reading to help engage the students and to prevent me from doing all the talking. I really focused on keeping it a fast-paced class. I wanted there to be a question every five minutes or so to determine if students were learning what was being taught.

Overall, I found a few things to be true. One was that I ran out of time! There was no way I could have students learn what I wanted them to know in a normal math period. With the addition of virtual learners, it took more time to check and review their work. Also, in-person students were not bothered by their masks. (Prior to starting the year, I was convinced this would be a distraction.) However, I found that I couldn’t read them as well because of their masks. As a teacher, I gained energy from seeing the students’ smiles and facial expressions as I taught. I found as I was teaching this math lesson that I could not tell if they got it by the looks on their faces. Thankfully, the mini whiteboards allowed me to see their thinking and make quick instructional fixes for specific students. I also found I had a hard time getting to my students in the back corners of the room. I had to give myself the freedom to leave my virtual students who were on my iPad screen at the front of the room and go work with all of the students. It was a constant push-pull, making sure I was attending to everyone.

After the lesson, I received an email from a parent of one of our virtual learners thanking me for the fast-paced lesson. I did not take into account that I would be on camera for more than just my students! While this was a nerve-wracking realization after the fact, I was encouraged by the support and the gratitude from our parents.

Since this lesson, I have filled in for numerous teachers due to a lack of substitutes at any given time. I have improved and focused on building rapport with all students before jumping into instruction. The direct instruction model I used continues to work well. Mini whiteboards have been a wonderful resource as long as I can encourage the virtual students to turn on their cameras. I shared my thoughts, struggles, and realizations about my experiences in an email with my teachers, and also included the Hollingsworth podcast.

Through my decision to teach in this blended learning environment, my hope was to gain empathy for my stakeholders’ experiences. There are still struggles, but my teachers are amazing. They put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to provide great instruction and a welcoming environment. I have stressed to them in our conversations to be OK with everything not going according to plan. The last thing they need right now is added pressure to do a perfect job.

I have yet to walk into a classroom and not be incredibly encouraged by what is happening. I find teachers collaborating with each other and taking risks to see what will work best for our students. It is inspiring to me, as a principal, to see their work. I feel that I have become a better leader by understanding my teachers’ and students’ experiences, and this gives me further appreciation for why 2020 is, certainly, a year unlike any other.

Ian Daecher is the principal at Landisville Intermediate Center in Landisville, PA.