The teaching profession changed forever in a little over 6 months. From an emergency transition to remote learning, to a summer preparing for an uncertain fall, and then school reopenings in various forms, teachers now are writing a unique chapter in the history of education.
To do our small part to record the special insights emerging from these experiences, BloomBoard is interviewing educators across the nation to share their stories with you. Today we’re pleased to bring you the thoughts and learnings from Michelle Brewington, 4th grade teacher at Hinckley-Big Rock Elementary School, and Tory Brown, special education teacher at Hinckley-Big Rock Middle School for Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD, Illinois.
Student Needs Changing Overnight
When the pandemic disrupted school schedules, teachers learned very quickly that maintaining relationships just became much harder.
Michelle – “There were so many challenges in the spring, but the biggest one was it was really difficult to stay connected to students, especially knowing that there might be limited support for them at home. Technology helped, and I had used things like Google Meets and Classroom before, but not nearly to that extent, so there was a lot of learning on the fly for everyone. I tried to make it feel as normal as possible for the kids.”
Tory – “In special education, that connection, that proximity, all that time in a relationship face-to-face, you rely so much on connection – we had to find a different way to connect. It felt like it was 24 hours a day, putting out fires, on call all the time because kids weren’t just having learning difficulties, there were technology difficulties too and as their teacher they turned to me for help. But the hardest part was missing that in person connection, and for the kids it was navigating their learning needs with this completely new format.”
Anticipating the Fall
An uncertain summer led to an understanding that school coming back in the fall would require teachers to be flexible and ready for any number of scenarios.
Michelle – “Currently the set up is half a day with students, half day at home, but in the back of our minds we know that we can go fully remote at any time if we need to. In the spring we tried to focus on the academics, and lost sight that not every student was going to be able to have it the same at home. Now we know that we need to focus a lot more on the personal connection and how to build those relationships so that we’re ready if things do go remote, and make sure we individualize to student needs. We planned a real effort to instill in the kids a comfort with the technology needed for remote learning and prepare them for it, and that’s made a big difference.”
Tory – “ I didn’t want to come into the school year with too many expectations because I knew things were going to change. We made it a priority the first few days to really focus on the relationship, and understand what the kids were doing, how they were feeling, and figuring out some basics and how-tos in case they needed to go fully remote. My teaching style was to follow the students lead, and understand where they were at and what they needed. That meant being ready for conversations about what was working in their classes and what was not, and figuring out how to get them to an ok place. The world is still changing but I feel I have the right tools to keep the students in a good place.”
Rediscovering Connection with Students
Amid the turbulence of changing what school was like, a fresh opportunity to think about how to develop a deep understanding of students instilled a sense of optimism for teachers and a belief that even though things are hard, they can still be rewarding.
Michelle – “Time spent understanding every student’s needs as individuals has just been so valuable, and revealed so much. I have a student this year that was doing just fine with math at school, but when they went home and tried to work on their math they would just get so distressed and anxious and really struggled learning math and completing their math assignments. Taking the time to work with the student and understand their needs got us to a place where we could figure out that the math wasn’t the problem, the anxiety and stress were the issues, and we’ve been able to put a plan together to help with that. Everything looks good with the math now, and the student feels so much better.”
Tory – “So much has changed, but one thing that feels so freeing is I have so much more 1:1 time with my students, building that relationship and putting attention on their needs. I’ve learned some frameworks that help me ask questions and use practices I had never thought of. It’s been freeing because it’s given me the opportunity to think differently about our approach to educating kids before. It’s really restoring a lot of fun and excitement to learning that felt like it was missing.”
With so much learning now taking place outside of school, a critical part of educating students is to ensure a strong relationship with parents at home.
Michelle – “Relationships with parents are still challenging. A lot of the traditional activities we previously did to get to know students and their parents are off the table these days. Email helps, but it can sometimes be hard to read the tone of email conversations and things can get lost in communication. So I try to reach out as often as I can, and put in the time to make a video and things like that, but it can definitely be a challenge. It makes a huge difference when parents understand how things are working, and everyone’s on the same page about what happens in school and what happens at home to make all that time count, and help the parent feel like they’re not alone either.”
Finding Time to Do It Right
Over the summer, Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD implemented a fall readiness program to prepare teachers for the upcoming school year that included:
- A micro-endorsement in Foundations for Blended Learning
- The assistance of an external Blended Learning Coach
- Facilitated PLCs
- Synchronous online professional learning sessions for all teachers that correspond to each of the competencies represented by the micro-credentials in the Foundations for Blended Learning micro-endorsement
Teachers selected to earn the micro-endorsement are recognized as “Blended Ambassadors” within the district. Michelle and Tory are currently working to become a Blended Ambassador.
Michelle – “Oh, this program, it’s been really helpful. We tried some things with blended learning last year and it’s been reassuring to find that we’ve been on the right track. Skills like doing student needs analysis so I can understand my individual student’s needs are just so practical and relevant, and just what a teacher needs during crazy times like this. It’s never felt like something extra, what I’ve been working on with BloomBoard really has been beneficial. I’m looking forward to doing more, getting more into things like the student learning profiles. Having a learning experience like this of my own has been so applicable to everything teachers are dealing with now.”
Tory – “In the very beginning I was open to the idea of the micro-endorsement, and then when I saw the overview I almost backed out. Like, whoa, do I have time to do this? When am I going to do this? But the more I work in these micro-credentials and the more I explore the ones to come, I don’t mind spending the time on it because it’s changing the way I’m teaching and how students are responding. A lot of things I realize now, why haven’t I been doing this all along? It’s so useful and already having an impact and I look forward to the other changes it’ll inspire me to make as I teach in the future.
The biggest impact has been the weekly Blended Learning Arc. With special education a lot of what is done is individualized because of IEPS, but having a weekly blended learning plan allows me to structure our instructional time around where the kids were, where they are now, and where they’re going on an individual level.
The opportunity to have a responsive blended learning coach has offered an incredible level of support. Having a dedicated time to work as a PLC across the district to focus and have conversations together and collaborate with a different spread of teachers has been really enriching.
This year, everything felt overwhelming and like something new, but the skills I’m building are all things I would use again and the students find useful too. They never roll their eyes and ask why they’re doing this. They feel it’s all useful and helpful to their learning so they participate and actively bring up their learner profiles.
The learning profiles… that’s something with long-term impact (helping students to develop their own learning profiles is one of the exercises in the micro-credential Building Relationships with Individual Students in a Blended Environment). How great would it be for students to carry their learner profiles with them each year to their new teachers? We learn so much from student surveys, and help them build these great soft skills like defining what their goals are and how to reflect on what they’re learning and their own school, and they love having that kind of ownership.”
Do you know a teacher who has a great story to share about the impact they’ve had on their students this school year? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about our Foundations for Blended Learning offering, click here.