In Arizona, Turning Vulnerabilities Into Strengths as Teaching Goes Home

by | April 10, 2020

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, April 10, 2020

“Really, everyone’s a first-year teacher at this.”

When Christina Ross’s small Arizona school shut down for COVID-19, educators knew they needed to move quickly to meet students’ immediate needs. Fifty miles northwest of downtown Phoenix, Desert Oasis Elementary is one of two schools in Nadaburg Unified School District, which Ross describes as “half-rural,” serving a total of 1,200 K-8 students.

“The weight of how education has shifted in Arizona, and life in general, hit me hard today,” said Ross, a multi-classroom leader for a team of five math teachers covering third through eighth grade and a 2019–20 Opportunity Culture® Fellow, when we talked at the end of last week. “My heart is breaking for all these families that were struggling before this curveball, and everyone whose lives just got flipped upside down.”

I spoke with Ross late last week; she called me from her classroom, where she had gone to work and pick up some items. Later, she emailed a few more thoughts, explaining why she briefly got emotional during our discussion—and echoing what so many teachers say they feel now.

“It hit me hard as I was sitting there prepared for questions, and couldn’t concentrate because I was staring into an empty classroom. The classroom should have been filled with my learners that I have had the privilege of teaching for two consecutive years. [I was thinking] that for once I am ecstatic that they left personal stuff, so I can drop it of at their door,” Ross wrote. “I also just finished my first live lesson and was thinking, ‘Wow, and just like that, after 13 years of teaching, a master’s degree in education, and thousands of professional development hours, I am a first-year teacher all over again.’”

But don’t take that to mean Ross and her teaching team aren’t charging ahead; after a few emotional moments, she proceeded to discuss how much they are embracing the work of teaching and leading from home.

Making sure that all students have access to technology—devices and reliable Wi-Fi—for distance learning was the first challenge for the district, with a true split of students who do and do not have access, she said. As that gets resolved, the district will need educators who have thought ahead to making at-home learning work long-term if needed, and Ross shared her thoughts about what all educators and districts should consider:

—Teach with trauma in mind. “When my superintendent shared this article on teaching with trauma, I kind-of was like ‘yeah, yeah’ at first. But I realized that everything I am doing to get the learning up and running are the things I had read about teaching children with trauma in mind,” Ross said. “People who go through dramatic changes approach it like they would go through trauma.” So teachers must focus first on meeting social-emotional needs through strong relationships, she said.

—Maintain something like the regular classroom schedule, with flexibility. “That’s one of the greatest things our district has done, by not micromanaging with our lesson plans. They’re allowing us to chunk it for us, chunk it for our classroom, so we can figure out how to make this look as close as possible to our classroom,” Ross said.

—Provide intensive support through ongoing team meetings. Ross continues to meet with her team weekly for 40-minute meetings—though she had teachers recently keep a meeting going for two hours, a sign of the desire for collaboration and support. Ross also meets weekly with each teacher for an hour of coaching and feedback, and has regular meetings with the principal. MCLs should expect to have to rebuild relationships with team teachers through this support, she said, because their needs will change with the distance learning changes.

—Stay focused on student learning data. In the early days of the transition to at-home learning, Ross said, she needed to focus on providing instructional support and resources. But teams should work to stay focused on student data analysis, she said, and how to close the gaps the data highlight.

—Be prepared to identify weaknesses that may previously have been covered up but come to the fore in the move to online learning, technology access being an obvious first weakness of many districts.

—Then, turn vulnerabilities into strengths. “We are in a constant state of problem and solution to improve our weaknesses so they can become our strengths,” Ross said. “Change is amazing, and this is the fastest change you will ever see in education. It is the best and most effective professional development our district has ever provided. Our adult-to-adult, colleague-to-colleague, parent-to-teacher, and school-to-community relationships are the strongest they have ever been. It has been the best collaboration our district has ever had, while building 21st-century skills. Any weakness that you have in your district or in your teaching is going to make you feel the most vulnerable you have ever felt. That vulnerability is going to make you and your district grow faster than ever, to meet the needs of your students and community.”

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

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