Spreading Support in Vance County During At-Home Learning

by | April 9, 2020

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, April 9, 2020

In a crisis, everyone could use the support that Opportunity Culture® multi-classroom leaders (MCLs) offer their small teaching teams, and fast. Vance County Schools, located in North Carolina at the Virginia border, moved quickly post-COVID-19 shutdown to provide that support through a temporary “remote learner leads” team that takes advantage of MCLs’ skills.

Principal Kristen Boyd, at left, and Multi-Classroom Leader Casey Jackson, meeting in pre-COVID days.

Vance County faces many of the same issues as other rural areas, especially a lack of district-wide internet connectivity. That left many teachers initially overwhelmed by the need to move to technology-based teaching. But even as they deeply missed their students, they quickly began to embrace learning how to use the tools as the district confronts the access issues, Principal Kristen Boyd and MCL Casey Jackson of Aycock Elementary said in a recent interview. And they could do so with the support of the remote learner lead team—support that should be there through the rest of this school year.

As a remote learner lead, “our role was to get the ball rolling and to get [remote learning] implemented,” said Jackson, who, like Boyd, is an Opportunity Culture® Fellow. “Within a week and a half, [teachers were] owning it, they’re taking off and doing it. So I now have a little bit of a new team spread out across the county, but I’m still continuing the same steps that I do with my MCL team.”

That meant first building relationships with her new temporary team members. “We’re letting them know that we’re here as support, that we’re not going to be evaluative of the work that they’re putting in Google Classroom,” Jackson said. “We check on them daily or weekly. So I’m still continuing all of the pieces that I did, it’s just now doing it virtually and with some new members.”

That’s a real win-win for the district during a crisis, Boyd said. “The teachers that they are coaching across the district at other schools, how lucky are they? Because now they’ve got an expert helping them.”

Just as Jackson is doing some of the work she ordinarily does at the beginning of the year to begin to build team relationships, Boyd said she realizes that the shift to at-home learning means both continuing to do what works well but also, in some ways, starting over. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading and some webinars and things talking about how I actually as a principal need to treat this as a brand-new school year,” she said.

As they look ahead to the possibility that at-home learning may extend beyond this school year, Jackson and Boyd said, they think districts and schools should remember to:

—Help multi-classroom leaders (or other team leaders) maintain personal connections: As the district works to get internet access and devices for everyone, another obstacle in a long-term move to at-home learning that Jackson foresees is the challenge of maintaining connections and watching out for teachers’ mental health needs. She intends to take time for simple, personal touches. “I might need to send cards through the mail or just do positive video chats of my team members just to keep their spirits up, because it is lonely, and even though you’re chatting virtually and seeing each other, it’s just not the same.” Aside from continuing regular team planning, coaching, and data analysis meetings, such personal chats will need to be intentionally scheduled, replacing the in-school hallway greetings and quick conversations that help cement team relationships.

—Use co-teaching to make breakout rooms possible for small groups: Jackson and Boyd are looking forward to the opportunities online breakout rooms afford. Opportunity Culture® schools that already emphasized small groups for more personalized instruction should find it fairly easy to move small-group practices to videoconference platforms; non-Opportunity Culture® schools should create co-teaching opportunities that make this possible.

—Provide multiple opportunities for students to join live classes online: “I’ve got kids responding to assignments at 7:30 in the morning and some at 11 o’clock at night,” Jackson said. Students may be caring for younger siblings or sharing devices or Wi-Fi and thus not able to get online for one specific time every day; providing several chances to join live instruction will help keep learning going.

—Provide flexibility that prioritizes student learning while acknowledging the challenges for teachers working from home. Again, look for ways to do this within a team setting. Sharing live sessions with a co-teacher may make an at-home teaching schedule more doable for teachers who are caring for their own children or other family members at home. Boyd noted the expectation for a teacher she knew in another district to be online from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.—while caring for her own three young children.

“That makes me worry about the mental health of our teachers, because I’m going to tell you—I’m a pretty strong teacher and a pretty strong coach, and it’s gotten to me, too,” Jackson said.

—Keep it simple: This is a repeated theme in the interviews with Opportunity Culture® educators since the crisis began. Like MCLs Tu Willingham and Amy Pearce, Boyd and Jackson emphasized the need to not overload teachers or students with scattered communications or a variety of remote-learning resources.

“You get on Facebook and you see them, you check your email and you have tons of them. You go to Instagram and they’re pushed,” Jackson said. “So I’m trying to keep that in mind with my team as well, not to send 10 emails a day, but, how can I chunk this all into one email or one video?”

Boyd agreed, noting that their tools have generally been limited to Google Classroom, Loom, Flipgrid, and Zoom.

The shift to at-home learning has been “a learning curve, but I’m very impressed with how Vance County rolled it out in such a short amount of time,” Jackson said. “There are a few kinks in it, but overall, I’m proud of the work Vance County did.”

For more on Jackson, Boyd, and Vance County Schools, see: Voices from Vance: How Opportunity Culture® Is Working for One N.C. DistrictBuilding Team Cohesion: Opportunity Culture® Fellows Share Strategies

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

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