Friends, I hope this finds you well. I can’t believe it’s so long since I wrote a Coaching Letter, and I can’t believe that when schools closed several weeks ago I thought I was going to have more time to read books. I bought a pile of them from A book purchase is never a waste, I always say, but still, I just feel silly that I thought I was going to have two weeks of downtime. This Coaching Letter is about thinking about re-opening schools.

My work is endlessly fascinating, and I am endlessly grateful for that. The project that is occupying most of my time right now is figuring out how to support districts in their planning for what to do when schools re-open. The Center is running a virtual workshop in four parts (more information on our website—not Connecticut-specific, I would like to add), and while I am involved in all of them at some level, my particular focus has been teaching and learning. (Welcome to the folks who have registered already—you should have received an email yesterday with information about the workshop, and pre-work.)

We had a planning meeting this week, which I was running—one of my less focused efforts, to be charitable. The whole notion was very hard for me to get my head around, and I was having a hard time understanding why. Listening to myself talk—and others, of course, but as a coach I know that most of what you understand is because you heard yourself say it—I realized that I was really stuck on finding the balance between facilitating a planning process and advocating for a particular path forward. It’s the difference between saying “have you thought of this?” and “you should do this” (or even “you definitely should not do that.”) And it should be the former, not least because that’s what a good coach does.

At the same time, just this week I’ve had emails from some people and conversations with others who have said, more or less: this could be an opportunity to do things differently—are you hearing that from anyone else? And the answer is yes, I have. I think there are lots of people who are very interested in re-thinking what school might look like—at the bottom of this CL are some of my notes from a couple of conversations in one district, which reflect the most expansive version so far of what I hope will be many more such discussions. I am impressed at the strategic thinking that is going on, and I always feel privileged to be part of such creative thinking. So here’s the advocacy, using a phrase I heard on one of my Zoom calls: let’s not let the system snap back to its previous shape.

Having a coaching framework to draw on is very helpful to me—another reason why leaders might benefit from coaching training, and a reminder to leaders to lean on their coaches for process facilitation, and a reminder to coaches that they have knowledge and skills to contribute to vision-building conversations. Coaching is all about creating a bright picture of the future and figuring out how to get there, and there are a couple of resources I had forgotten about until I heard myself recommend them to someone else the other day: The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook and World Café. They are now on my list of topics for future Coaching Letters. (Toyota Kata should also be on that list, and here’s a brief take on it from CL #103.)

Here are some resources you might check into as both fuel and guidance for future-facing conversations. The Return to School Roadmap and A Blueprint for Back to School (and the short version in Ed Week) in case you haven’t seen them yet. And some pieces that bring equity to the forefront: What if We Don’t Return to School as Usual?, An article from The 74 about accelerating rather than remediating , the TNTP Report, The Opportunity Myth (the formatting is very impressive but drove me crazy, just so you know), and Formative Assessment during Distance Learning—which also offers food for thought as we think about re-opening schools—and keep scrolling, there are more useful posts below this one. Also, Robin Lake at CPRE is getting a lot of attention. Here’s her latest, which is pretty good although lacking details: Flattening the learning loss curve.

You should read my colleague Richard Lemons’ blog post, Myths of the Pandemic, if you haven’t already. And speaking of grades, here are two very different takes on grading: an article about one district’s approach, and one on the downsides of “do no harm” grading policies. Reading them just reinforced for me how important it is to have thought through what you think grades do, for whom, and to whom.

If you need further encouragement for thinking about reimagining schools, let me know. This is really challenging work. Happy to help. Best, Isobel

Notes from my meetings with one district, with kind permission of the superintendent:

  1. This is an opportunity to re-define normal. Under the guise of having to deal with the unprecedented situation of a whole district full of kids who have been out of school for 6 months, the district can issue stronger guidelines to teachers about what high quality instruction should look like. (We used writing as an example, but it could be much larger than that.)
  2. The messaging to teachers around this needs to be very similar to the message they got at the beginning of the shutdown: don’t worry about implementing something new, this is about learning to do something together, the most important thing is to figure out what works for students…
  3. We need to be proactive, and build all units and lessons as if schools could close again at short notice. How do we capitalize on what we are learning right now?
  4. This could also be an opportunity to re-think grading. Grades should reflect what kids know and can do.
  5. If we are going to seize the moment to make changes, leadership is crucial—principals and central office can’t blink.
  6. Resist the pressure to begin the year doing a whole lot of testing. In almost all situations, the results of the tests won’t make a difference to the instruction that students receive. Let’s figure out where testing really is necessary, and then figure out how to do it well.
  7. We need to build understanding and practice of formative assessment so that teachers can gather information about what students’ capacities are without additional testing, and use that information to adjust instruction.
  8. If there are key skills that students need to be successful at the next grade level, let’s make sure that their current teachers know what they are and focus on those.
  9. We need to guard against a deficit mindset. It is easy to focus on what kids missed, and not on what they gained—for most of them, they have been required to be more independent learners than ever before. How do we assess what their experience has been and build on that?
  10. We need a new model for accelerating learning. Right now, when kids are behind, the research tells us that they tend to get further behind, partly because teacher expectations are lower and partly because the curriculum tends to slow down for them. Acceleration is typically associated with gifted programs, but we need to extend this to all children and especially those who are farthest behind.
  11. We need to do a needs assessment of teachers—what have they learned, and what do they need if this happens again?
  12. It’s not too soon to start communicating these ideas and whatever plans we decide on—teachers are hungry for information.

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
Center Staff
Coaching Letter
Tools and Resources

Stevenson logo