From Start to Finish, A Focus on Relationships During At-Home Learning

by | April 9, 2020

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, April 9, 2020

Multi-Classroom Leader Candace Butler, at right, meets with one of her team teachers before the COVID-19 shutdown.

For Candace Butler, who leads a middle-school team of English language arts and social studies teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Wilson STEM Academy, relationships are everything. That was true before COVID-19 sent everyone home, and even more so now.

Pre-pandemic, Butler’s weeks were filled with classroom observations, small-group instruction, co-teaching, and team meetings for planning and data analysis.

Now, she continues to meet with the teachers on her team at least weekly, and many daily—sometimes twice a day—paying extra attention to her first-year teachers, and on flexible schedules that work around their time with students. In the early weeks of the transition, her focus has been on providing distance learning resources and helping the team understand how to break them down to meet each student’s needs, and on helping teachers through the stress.

When Butler and I talked, we focused on what teachers, schools, and districts should remember to do if the shutdown continues into the fall or sporadically recurs. It wasn’t a surprise to hear her focus almost completely on the personal side of things. Describing herself as “positive affirmation Candace,” Butler, a 2016-17 Opportunity Culture® Fellow, reiterated many of the points she made in previous conversations, which hold true no matter where teaching and learning take place:

—Stay focused on relationships with students and teachers. “The biggest thing long-term for me is relationship-building,” she said. “I’ve said it from the beginning and I’ll say it til the end—we have to keep building the relationship…not only with the students, but also with the parents and the community because we need everybody’s support in order to make sure that our students are getting exactly what they need.”

Continue the social-emotional routines from in-school days, she said. “When we come in, we do a protocol called roses and thorns. Roses is the beauty of the day—anything that you want to discuss—and the thorn is still something that is sticking at your side, then trying to see if there are any solutions or coping skills that we can utilize to help support them in that.”

They also continue to use a “community connections circle.”

“Students are allowed to send in videos and pictures of friends and positive words of encouragement, and they share [a compiled] video every day so that the students can see, and there’s a sense of normalcy. That’s been really supportive [for students and teachers] because at first it was like, ‘Yeah, virtual learning!’ And now it’s like, ‘I miss my babies [or] I miss the school.’ Just seeing the students smiling and taking pictures, or to see them put little notes up like, ‘I miss you Ms. Butler,’ it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I miss you guys, too.’ ”

—Build stronger relationships with families, too. Butler also tries to offer quiet support, even when unsolicited, to students’ families. When a student is on videoconference with her, she asks to see their parents as well, and lists for them what schools continue to provide, such as food and computer support. She does so “to remind mama, too, that it’s OK if you need some help. In case we’re not that close yet and you don’t want to tell me your business, I’m still just going to drop those nuggets, and if you need them, you pick them up. I’m letting them know that I care not only about your baby, but I also care about how you’re doing. That’s been fun building that relationship with them.”

—Take care of yourself. When Candace Butler talks to the teachers she supports, she says, “ ‘I care that, one, you’re taking care of yourself, because you cannot be productive if you’re not doing self-care… just keep taking care of yourself, because if you break down, then that’s where it’s all going to break down.’ So we have had a couple of “Ahh!” and some, like, scream, cry, let’s get it out, c’mon, we’ll do it together; it’s necessary, you know—it cleanses the soul, and then let’s get back on the horse and let’s ride it, because we’ve got to do it for the students.”

Butler gave each of her team teachers a rubber band as a reminder to be flexible. Repeatedly in interviews with Opportunity Culture® Fellows, I’ve heard the need for grace and flexibility. “Put a rubber band on your arm and remember, there are going to be hiccups—we may make five schedule changes in one week, but we’re trying to do what is best for students first,” she said. “Whenever you get frustrated, just look at your rubber band and remember to be in this moment as flexible as you can be.”

—Plan well to support students with special needs and English language learners. “My major concern really goes out to my babies that are EC and ELL,” Butler said, “to make sure that their needs…are getting met and they’re not getting further behind because of this.”

—Guide students in becoming more self-directed, and work to meet each student’s needs, which may look different now. “One size doesn’t fit all, so just because you give me a laptop and the internet, if I don’t know how to utilize the computer, or if I’m a dependent learner more so than an independent learner and I really need my teacher, this is going to be a huge shift for me, and a huge place of being uncomfortable,” Butler said. “Teachers have to slow down and realize that just because you’re putting this up on Google Classroom or on Canvas, it doesn’t mean that every student is getting it. You still have to differentiate.”

Circling back to personal relationships, Butler had one more recommendation specifically for multi-classroom leaders, expanded-impact teachers, and teacher-leaders in non-Opportunity Culture® schools: Take a bit of time to care for those above you. “Check on your admin, because it’s a lot for them as well—understanding how to run your school now while also planning for a new school year, so many unanswered questions,” she says. “I try to just do weekly emails and phone calls and say, ‘what do you need, take a breather,’ because they have a lot of stress as well.”

For more on Candace Butler, see her column, Finding Inspiration Again Through Teacher Leadership, and short videos: Follow Behavior Management Protocols to Hold Everyone Accountable; As a Teacher-Leader, Encourage Feedback to Grow Other Leaders; Set Classroom Expectations Together with Students.

This column is one of a series of interviews about the COVID-19 shift to at-home teaching:

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