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Balancing Instructional Coaching and Social-Emotional Support During the COVID-19 Crisis

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Today's guest post is written by Rachel Caulder, a K-8 instructional coach at Creek Bridge STEM Academy in Marion County, S.C.

If you work in education, you are probably learning that transitioning to an online learning environment from a brick-and-mortar school is a significant challenge, and we know that for many schools, we will once again be in a similar situation in the fall. With unexpected school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers rushed to learn and implement different distance learning tools. They also learned how to take curriculum and move it into a remote setting. 

As a K-8 instructional coach for the Marion County public schools in South Carolina, I support both teachers and students in different academic settings. Although students are still my top priority, I am honored to coach teachers so they can become more effective educators every day. One of the most critical areas I'm addressing at the moment, and will continue to address in the fall, is how to find a sense of peace, balance, and rejuvenation in these unprecedented times. Many of the social-emotional needs we talk about in the brick-and-mortar setting can typically be met through classes, programs, and within social support systems schools provide. However, it is not so easy to meet these needs for a school community working in a remote environment. 

To support the teachers in my district, we have been focusing on the relationships we build, the support we provide, and the school culture we create. Our instructional-coaching team has been providing teachers the guidance they need and helping them maintain a sense of calm and balance. Here's how we're doing it and how other district leaders can learn from our journey. 

Keeping the Human Connection Alive
The teachers in my district have been utilizing ADVANCEfeedback®, a tool for recording and sharing videos for their own self-reflection and getting feedback from peers and coaches. As a coach who needs to interact on a human level as much as possible, I connect with teachers using the tool, which is available at no cost during this crisis to help district leaders, instructional coaches, and educators connect. 

For live meetings and coaching with teachers, I use ADVANCElive so I can check in with them and help fill the void of human connection that so many of us feel right now. These check-ins are essential in keeping our educator community connected, and they also help keep our spirits up. These meetings are informal and relaxed. Teachers can lean on each other, ask questions, share wins, and be there for one another as they make their way through these unusual circumstances.

Many of our teachers took the move to remote learning in stride. Our district didn't move fully to online learning, mostly due to infrastructure issues out of the education system's control. My school is particularly rural, with students spread across a wide geographic area of the county. However, teachers in the middle and high school grades have started using Microsoft Teams as an LMS to support students as they work on their learning materials at home. Many elementary teachers have also created groups in Teams to provide resources for and communicate with parents and students.

When teachers were first faced with virtual meetings, some were hesitant to participate, while others readily contributed. As a coach navigating this new realm, I had to be consciously mindful of differing personalities and perceptions. While it's easy to discount a teacher's lack of participation in a virtual meeting, I have learned to acknowledge—for me as a facilitator—the reasons why someone might choose not to participate openly in virtual sessions but may be more comfortable emailing or texting questions. In the same way, some of our students have not been overly active participants in virtual class meetings, but they are more open to asking questions through chat features or by emailing teachers. 

Taking Instructional Coaching Online
Even while we're in school, creating standards-aligned instruction can be a challenge for any school district. Before the pandemic, teachers in my school district were already working together as districtwide teams to collaboratively produce standards-aligned instructional plans. To continue this critical work, I'm using video training sessions that teachers can join live or watch on their own time. In these sessions, teachers can gather information, brainstorm ideas, and then come back together with their own findings. We may not be in the same room, but we can still meet and continue to work through the building process. 

Many of our teachers have never taught using an online platform. Teaching remotely to a group of students who are at home dealing with various issues at the moment can feel overwhelming. As educators push through these hurdles, they deserve quality feedback from their instructional leaders. Having the ability to share different digital lessons with colleagues and coaches provides an incredible opportunity not only for input but also for future innovation. 

Action Steps for the Future
Our teachers have begun the work of forward planning. They've started with standards, looking at what hasn't been covered this year, and finding the commonalities between grade levels so that they're able to overlay concepts. To make this happen, teachers are collaborating in grade-level teams, using virtual calls and shared documents, to collect standards information. Once grade-level teams identify concepts that need to be covered, we'll move into vertical teams to narrow down specific concepts and key learning, utilizing the same shared-documents and virtual-calls process. While many state departments of education and district curriculum departments will also work on similar guidelines, our teachers felt that it would be important to complete this process in-house, too, so that we can keep our students at the forefront of the conversation. That's our current focus and one that will continue into the end of the school year.

As coaches trying to filter the needs of students, the needs of educators, the requests of administration at the school and district levels, and the demands of this current crisis, we can overwhelm ourselves and our teachers. My mindset moving forward is focused on the idea of balance. I have to remember that my teachers are humans and to truly support them in our common goal of providing the best possible teaching and learning. I have to go back to the relationship level. Our school recently hosted a virtual Kahoot! game for teachers, and we're planning another session to close out the year. It was so refreshing to sit "together" virtually and laugh at everyone trying to stay on top of the leaderboard. As we begin to learn more about what our return to school in the fall might look like, I plan to host professional-development sessions as optional webinars over the summer to prepare for any changes in instructional practices that teachers might have to put in place. 

As we do our best to plan in a situation when the facts on the ground seem to change every day, the questions I ponder on a daily basis are:

  • What do my teachers need from me? 
  • How can my teachers best support our students? 
  • What does education look like when it lacks direct human connection? 
  • How can I maintain a "long distance" relationship with my colleagues who are normally just a few steps down the hall? 
  • What does our new normal look like right now, and what will happen when we are finally back to an actual normal?

In the middle of all of these swirling questions is the one that led me to where I am now: How can I support my teachers so that they are able to support our students? 

Rachel Caulder is a K-8 instructional coach at Creek Bridge STEM Academy in Marion County, S.C. Prior to her current coaching role, she taught high school ELA for 12 years and worked as a middle/high school literacy coach. Rachel enjoys supporting students and teachers to promote growth and learning through reflection. Connect with Rachel on Twitter. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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