FETC preview: 6 ways the challenges of COVID show the way forward

'Sit and get' is rarely the most effective teaching strategy for face-to-face or remote environments, FETC speaker says
By: | August 10, 2021
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Ann McMullan

Ann McMullan

Some of COVID’s biggest challenges—such as connecting students to the internet and finding online learning’s full potential—provided key leadership lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

Attendees of the Future of Education Technology® Conference 2022 will get more insight into navigating a more digital future from featured Administrator Track speaker Ann McMullan, the former executive director of educational technology for Klein ISD and Project Director for CoSN’s Empowered Superintendents Initiative.

“Long-standing issues around diversity, equity and inclusion came to light during the months of COVID in ways that illustrated the problems more dramatically than ever,” says McMullan, now a Los Angeles-based consultant and a co-author of  Life Lessons in Leadership.

“The efforts to seek viable solutions are now heightened and we should expect them to be part of the K-12 leadership conversations today and in the future. ”

DA spoke with her about FETC and how education leaders can emerge from the pandemic successfully.

1. What are some of the most important lessons K-12 leaders have learned about digital instructional strategies during COVID?

1.) “Sit and get” was rarely the most effective teaching strategy for all students in face-to-face environments and does not work well for most students and teachers when learning is done remotely. K-12 leaders need to assure that all teachers have the knowledge, expertise and resources to truly engage all students when implementing digital learning.

One powerful way to help teachers learn how to maximize learning opportunities in a digital environment is to conduct online professional learning events in ways that model the effective strategies that teachers should be using with their students.

2.) Truly understanding that one size does not fit all is another lesson learned over the past year and a half. Digital tools can provide impactful learning data. The need to leverage learning data and truly analyze what is working for each individual student is another skill set that K-12 leaders must assure that all teachers and administrators truly comprehend and practice.

Using data appropriately greatly supports the efforts to personalize learning to meet the needs of each individual student.

2. What are some of the biggest lessons K-12 leaders have learned about leadership during COVID?

1.) Listening: I have always believed that truly listening is one of the most important leadership skills required for a leader in any environment to be really successful. During COVID, K-12 leaders had to genuinely listen, question and understand information that was coming at them from a variety of sources, many of which they had not been dealing with prior to COVID.

It was more critical than ever that K-12 leaders honestly listen with open minds and question what they may not have initially understood whenever they were receiving new directions from multiple sources.

2.) Collaboration: The need to collaborate with others, both inside and outside one’s school or school district, was critical during COVID. And the fact that the opportunities for collaboration did not happen accidentally but had to be scheduled via multiple remote platforms meant that the collaboration had to be deliberate and intentional.

I had the privilege of sitting in on a number of remote superintendent cohort group conversations hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. It was inspiring to see and hear the way superintendents shared their challenges openly and honestly and worked together to help each other resolve problems successfully.

FETC Live 2022

The Future of Education Technology® Conference takes place live and in-person Jan. 25-28, 2022, in Orlando.

3.) Agility: K-12 education has in many ways always operated under systems and practices that were put in place years or even decades ago. Living through the months of COVID taught us that in many situations “That’s the way we’ve always done it” was not going to work any longer. K-12 leaders had to learn to be agile and make swift changes as the days and months of COVID evolved.

4.) Clear, effective, communication: With the need to be agile and make changes quickly came the critical skill of being able to effectively communicate the needs and processes for those changes with a variety of audiences via multiple formats. For many K-12 leaders, embracing social media became a strategy that had to be employed in order to confirm and/or clarify items related to their efforts that were posted online on an almost daily basis.

3. What are the keys to getting buy-in from teachers and staff to transform learning to take advantage of online and digital tools?

1.) Celebrate and publicize successes: Focusing on the negatives is all too easy in our world today. It is critical that K-12 leaders do all they can to share and honor the success they and their teachers and students have had with online and digital tools. When leaders publicize the stories of their student and teacher successes they inspire others to follow that same path.

2.) Give grace: When teachers and staff try new learning strategies with online and digital tools and are not initially successful, find ways to help them move beyond that first FAIL (First Attempt In Learning) without criticism.

3.) Encourage and support collaboration: Provide timely and relevant ways for teachers and staff to collaborate with each other in designing learning that makes the most of online and digital tools.

4. What new professional learning strategies have emerged over the last year, and how can K-12 leaders ensure these become a regular part of PD?

1.) Collaboration with colleagues outside your own school district. The rise of Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft TEAMS and other online collaborative tools provided everyone with the opportunity to meet with people from around the globe with a growing familiarity that used to only be possible within your own district. K-12 leaders should continue to encourage this type of online professional learning with colleagues near and far.

2) Voice and choice. K-12 leaders should find ways to give teachers and staff a voice and a choice in finding and participating in the professional learning events that meet their individual needs.

Along with voice and choice (i.e. “Choose Your Own Professional Learning Adventure”) must come ways to assure that the professional learning activities are aligned with the school or district mission, vision and values, and impact student learning in positive ways.

5. How are you guiding K-12 leaders in setting a long-term vision, particularly when it comes to spending COVID relief funds?

My primary work with school leaders comes through my work as project director for CoSN’s EmpowerED Superintendent Initiative, which is done in partnership with AASA and edWeb.net. One of the ways we come together to address multiple issues for K-12 leaders is through the monthly EmpowerED Superintendent edWebinar Series, where we feature panel discussions with multiple superintendents on issues around planning, visioning, funding and more. The webinars are sponsored by ClassLink and are free for participants to attend either during the live broadcast or via recordings and podcasts after the broadcast.

Digital Promise, in partnership with Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, recently released a Technology Sustainability Toolkit which specifically focuses on the new funding resources. The goal of the toolkit is to help school districts plan to use these new funds to bolster their existing technology and related systems. The toolkit will help K-12 leaders develop a funding plan that addresses both the new funding as well as the expected typical funding in the future.

6. How are you helping K-12 leaders strategize for closing learning gaps that widened during COVID?

This once again falls back on the idea of creating a variety of collaboration opportunities among school leaders. The best strategy is always to lead learning by pulling together great minds and creative thinkers to come up with innovative solutions as well as validate current practices.

One example: During a recent virtual meeting of the CoSN EmpowerED Superintendent Advisory Panel we broke the meeting up into small group breakout sessions and asked the superintendents and corporate sponsor representatives to share their thinking on the following: “Given the documentation of learning loss, what do you see as the role of technology to mitigate? How can educational use of technology be reimagined to assist all learners, especially those most at-risk?”

Whenever school leaders have the chance to collaborate together—and work with their vendors as partners—new ideas for solving challenges like the learning gaps that widened during COVID always emerge.