The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated to many of us who work in public education that if we pool our limited resources and focus on teaching and learning in a variety of models—remote, hybrid, and in-person—we can achieve anything we set our minds to. For the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District in Spencer, MA, administrators also had to break through the old paradigms and beliefs of what schooling—specifically teaching and learning—needs to look like in the 21st century. Here are a few takeaways from the pandemic that are helping us move forward in the 2021–22 school year.
Leadership and Collaboration Matter
Consistent and collaborative leadership makes a difference. In our school district, our operational practices align to our policies and our shared core values. This alignment made difficult conversations easier when times became uncertain and beyond our control—we remained consistent in our messaging while remaining positive and collaborative in our work. Our cohesive leadership helped us to prepare well by planning and providing high-quality professional development opportunities for staff, specifically in remote teaching and learning, as well as workshops in ELA, math, and science programs. In addition, we were able to deliver high-quality training in remote teaching and learning for our special education staff. We also provided each staff member and student with 1:1 access to technology and Wi-Fi capabilities. In the end, every student could access content and learn at any time—synchronously or asynchronously.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
With public health guidance changing weekly, we worked together with all of our stakeholders to create a “COVID-19 Reopening Plan” that was tailored to fit the needs of the communities we serve. With this plan in place, we reopened safely in early September. Key elements to our reopening plan emphasized safety, health, and wellness by front-loading our ability to organize and problem solve effectively using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local public health entities. The plan encouraged us as principals and superintendents to accept when we did not know something and then work together with our teams to identify solutions. We had to lean on one another in ways we had never imagined, thus promoting and accentuating the positive school climates and cultures throughout our district through our programs and services. As a result, each school had a stronger culture as the needs of the “whole child” were paramount. We were no longer just teaching to get through material or cover the standards; we were teaching staff and students to focus on relationships, then rigor and relevance aimed at social-emotional learning needs. How did we achieve all of this? It was thanks to our shared core values.
Shared Core Values
Established long before the pandemic, our shared core values provided us with the opportunity to foster stronger relationships. In the end, everyone had an essential role and responsibility. Principals, teachers, and staff modeled honesty, integrity, empathy, care, and composure, especially when any one of us did not have all the answers. We began our school days by listening first, taking the time to build relationships, and learning what our faculty and students needed. By working together, we created a sense of belonging for everyone within our schools.
The Importance of Togetherness
Together, we gave students voice and choice. We provided teaching and learning opportunities that promoted student engagement, as well as critical thinking and problem solving during a time when we all faced real-world issues. As the adults in the school, we leaned on one another and were able to be resourceful by leveraging our strong curricular and extra-curricular programs and services. These efforts resulted in positive lines of communication among teachers, staff, students, and families. Finally, by working together we learned that, as one faculty member noted, “If we can do this, we can do anything!” We realized that the old days and old ways before the pandemic were no longer effective or “good enough.” We shifted to ensure that we were teaching and learning with purpose every day for every student. And now, we are not only ready but prepared for anything that comes our way.
Paul S. Haughey, EdD, is the superintendent of schools of the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District in Spencer, MA.