Updated: Jan 12, 2021

Routine can be a powerful force. For anyone who has been involved in education, you’d know that routine is relied on throughout and within the school day. We see routine embedded in daily schedules, lesson design, and classroom practices. Doing so helps to create the conditions to enable higher order thinking, promote differentiation strategies, and establish clear expectations; in short, these routines serve to bolster learning and equity — routines can influence a child’s social-emotional well-being, help them feel secure, and increase classroom engagement.

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What we also know is that a disruption to these routines, broadly speaking, is one of the variables that has the most negative influence on student achievement. Disruptions come in many forms. They can include students moving schools or cities, being out for extended periods of time due to health or family issues, or pivots from one learning model to another. It’s this last form of disruption that rings familiar to all of us these days. Students everywhere are suddenly experiencing disruptions to their familiar model of learning at unprecedented levels due to the pandemic — the effects of which are already and distressingly quantifiable.

While there has been much space and airtime given to the effects of remote learning, one experience that could use increased attention is the impact that these semi-regular yet unpredictable pivots have had on student learning.

Many students began this school year learning remotely. After several weeks, students slowly transitioned to in-person schooling through a hybrid model. Slowly but surely these students resumed in-person learning, only to find themselves learning remotely again following the Thanksgiving Break.

All of these pivots have left students with little time to establish purposeful routines and for these routines to be solidified as habits — a process that can take up to two months.

As disruptive as such pivots are, the uncertainty of the times ensure their inevitably — we know that pivoting from one learning model to another is simply something we will be living with for the foreseeable future. As such, it’s really not worth focusing on how we can eliminate such pivots altogether; rather, knowing that these disruptions are, in some form or another, inevitable — and also detrimental — the question we should be wrestling with is, “How can we limit the disruptive nature of these pivots for our students?”

For those of us in positions of leadership, our focus in answering this question should be on easing the severity and volatility of these pivots in order to minimize the negative effect they have on learning. The best way for us to do that is to eliminate confusion and increase clarity.

While each school setting is going to require its own solutions, here are three ways that I’ve sought to limit the disruptive nature of these pivots:

1. Build a Playlist; Share a Checklist:
Our students’ successfully pivoting from one learning model to another begins with our level of preparation and preparedness. We know the multiple models of learning that our students may experience over the course of the year. As such, we shouldn’t be caught underprepared when the district, mayor, or governor asks schools to pivot. Instead, we should have an emergency pivot playlist at the ready for each possible scenario. Why call it a playlist? Because all you should have to do is “press play” to bring it to life. There are myriad different things to do if we pivot from remote to hybrid or hybrid to remote, and each of these things can, for the most part, be anticipated. This playlist is meant to serve as our own personal compass, with a list of things we need to do and communicate to ensure the readiness of our school community. At the same time, this playlist is ours and would not necessarily be helpful to share with others. Instead, this playlist should include a to-do item titled “Student and Faculty Checklist.” This checklist should contain a list of those things that each group must do to be ready for whatever lies ahead. The checklist that you create should include all of the things that the faculty should do to ease the transition for their students — change class meeting times on Google Calendar, for example; and, the student checklist should include all of those things that students can do in anticipation of the pivot — review class material lists, for example. This personal playlist, and the checklist that grows out of it, will help to ensure that your own preparedness will set the tone for the rest of the school community.

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2. Solicit Feedback:
Each pivot should be seen as an opportunity to iterate. Rather than repeating what we’ve previously done, we should accept that in this new normal of remote, hybrid, and socially-distanced learning, we are discovering best practices in real time, and instead use these second and third passthroughs as opportunities to implement small but meaningful changes. Of course, it’s important that we recognize that these small changes are not something that we alone should be responsible to design — oftentimes, we, as school leaders, are the ones most removed from the impact of the changes we make. Thus, we want to be sure that after each period of remote, hybrid, or in-person learning, we are soliciting feedback from those stakeholders who are most directly impacted: students, teachers, and families. With this feedback in hand, we can then review the schedule, reconsider class lengths, and review homework policy. It is this feedback that will helpfully guide future changes.

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3. Check on New Teachers and Experienced Teachers:
Pivots from one learning model to the next are naturally going to be a bit bumpy; but, their degree of bumpiness is ultimately determined by the readiness of our teachers. As such, we need to be certain that all of our teachers are clear on what is expected of them and when it is expected. Rarely have I received an email from a student or a parent about a teacher’s instructional practices during remote learning. What I have received, however, are emails about outdated Google Meet links, Google Classrooms that aren’t updated, or Calendar invites that conflict with other classes. When it comes to pivoting, we have to move the small rocks first before we can move the boulders. In other words, before we design innovative lessons, we have to be sure that all students can actually join the Meet call. It is our job as school leaders to not just communicate what needs to be done with our teachers, but to overcommunicate with them by following up with faculty members on an individual basis. A frequent folly in this case is to check up and check in on our newest teachers multiple times, while forgetting about the needs of our most experienced teachers. Sure these teachers have been at the school for years, but experience with in-person schooling does not necessarily prepare one for the lengthy checklist that needs to be completed when pivoting to or from remote learning. To support students during these pivots, our priority as school leaders has to be to support the teachers.

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We know that remote learning does not always feel like the optimal learning model. And yet, we also know that remote learning is not, in and of itself, inherently harmful. Rather, it has a relatively neutral impact on student achievement. There are many things we can do to ensure that our students enjoy the best possible experience with remote learning. Where our attention should rest is in the seemingly constant pivots from one learning model to the next and back again.

As we consider all that we can do to maximize the distance learning experience, consider what you can do to ease just how disruptive these pivots are for your students. What will you do to ensure student success even after a pivot?