Thought leadership piece: Sharing our learning during the pandemic

A guest post by Phil Weinberg,
Former Deputy Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education

Last week I was privileged to be part of a webinar hosted by my friend Peter Bencivenga of Operoo, which brought together five stellar principals – each of whom spoke about leading their schools through the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After listening to those principals speak, I was reminded of the words of poet Stanley Kunitz. In an essay titled “From Feathers To Iron”, Kunitz wrote: “I can think of nothing more miraculous than the power of the mind to transform, to connect, to communicate.”

The generosity and intelligence of the ideas communicated during the webinar reminded me that, as educators, we are at our best when we connect across schools to learn with and from each other. That is how we transform and improve our work. And we all know that, right now, our students, our schools, and our cities need us to be at our best – which makes the contributions of the principals to the webinar even more impressive and important.

Four themes: Leading schools and managing remote education during COVID-19

The principals who shared their thinking were Trish Peterson from PS 8 in Brooklyn, Moses Ojeda from Thomas Edison High School in Queens, Mark Erlenwein from Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, Karen Ditolla from Mark Twain Junior High School in Brooklyn, and Nora DeRosa from IS 7 in Staten Island.

During their conversation, a few clear themes emerged:

  1. The deep emphasis that schools are placing on meeting the social-emotional needs of their students, and the variety of approaches they are taking to doing so,
  2. The necessity for clear communication; because this is such a chaotic time for our communities,
  3. The importance of their schools’ previous use of a variety of digital tools and platforms – both instructional and operational – as part of the knowledge base that helped them prepare for the changes necessitated by the pandemic,
  4. And finally, the ways in which the problems presented by the pandemic were enabling schools to explore new and different approaches to their work and turning the crisis into an opportunity to learn.

Sharing the wisdom: A summary of key takeaways

I would urge us all to listen to the less than one-hour long conversation in its entirety. But, allow me to provide a few examples of the wisdom shared during the webinar.

To begin, all the participants emphasized meeting the social-emotional needs of their students as a key responsibility during this time. Our imperative to keep students connected to their teachers and school communities in the coming months will only increase as time passes. Karen discussed holding a virtual talent show, as well as her faculty’s virtual poetry read aloud, as ways to continue to foster and strengthen the community. Moses discussed preparing for a virtual Senior Awards Night for his students. As Nora noted, during the pandemic academics will remain important, but not as important as focusing on the well-being of our students.

Moses was clear that clarity and consistency of communication across Thomas Edision’s constituencies was essential for maintaining a calm and organized environment, and Karen said that it is important for families to know exactly what schools can and cannot do as we move to online instruction. That thought was echoed by Mark, who created specific landing pages for staff and students with information enabling them to best negotiate the new structures Staten Island Tech has created. Trish and others discussed the importance of Operoo’s platform, especially how critical and efficient it was to have Blue Cards digitized for the PS 8 community.

The digitization of Blue Cards is an important and essential evolution of a core responsibility all schools share. That process has been made all the more apparent by the strictures imposed upon us during the pandemic. Other opportunities for this kind of innovation that were identified by the participants included moving key meetings (PTA, SLT, C-30) online. Such innovations will enable us to make these key conversations available to more members of the community in the future. For example, if PTA meetings can continue to be held virtually, we have the potential to greatly increase participation next year.

Trish shared a key idea she is working on with her staff: instruct, don’t assign. That seems like a mantra that will become increasingly important as we move forward with the remainder of the year being conducted online – and an opportunity to learn how to improve our use of online instruction in general. Mark sees this as a chance to investigate the flexibility that online instruction can bring to the repertoire of all schools. And Nora discussed regularly visiting our new digital classrooms so we remain in a position to help and support our teachers, which remains the chief responsibility of a school leader. It’s also a reminder of how crucial it will be to share what is working across classrooms, as we try to optimize the learning our students will be doing from their homes.

What I heard most clearly was five amazing school leaders describe how they are turning this crisis into a way to experiment, learn, and improve what we do for our students. Their willingness to share the work that is being developed in their schools was generous, and their desire to contribute to the learning of their colleagues speaks to the best impulse in all educators: we share what we learn in order to help all students.

Where to next?

More conversations like this one will be necessary as we get further along in the school year, so that we continue to learn and share. And soon I hope we will also come together to tackle the very difficult question of how schools will prepare for the multitude of challenges we will face next year.

For now, I urge you to view the webinar recording, and a collection of resources for virtual schooling, HERE >