When schools were turned upside down during the pandemic, education leaders needed to react quickly. In times of crisis, the urgency to make decisions and move priorities forward can feel monumental. However, slowing down to do a leadership analysis of needs—that is, pausing to collect and reflect on data to manage time and effort more effectively—will go a long way in building trust a responsiveness among staff. In fact, thoughtful data-driven analysis is especially important when time is short.
These are lessons that I learned as a K-12 school administrator prior to the pandemic and during the shift to remote learning in 2020. In my current role as a BetterLesson instructional coach, I’ve worked with teachers and leaders as they develop these reflective practices in their schools. The examples below illustrate some of the ways in which educators are reflecting on data to improve their practice, before and after the pandemic.
Example #1: Using Data to Support Teacher Planning
As the 2020 school year was approaching the mid-term, Phil* was struggling to keep pace with the planning, teaching, and grading for his multiple high school language classes. He had a passion for teaching, but students struggled to understand their progress due to delays in receiving feedback and unclear learning targets. Working together, we took steps to collect data on where his process was going awry.
- We implemented a Try-Measure-Learn approach to establish an organization system.
- He created a shared Google Doc to-do list with planning and grading deadlines to follow each week.
On Fridays, we reflected on what worked and what obstacles he continued to face. The shared document served as an accountability framework that helped guide our conversations. In noting some missed deadlines, Phil realized that he was trying to do too many things at once, shifting between each task in a short planning period and not finishing any of them.
We identified blocks of time each week that could be dedicated to one thing: grading or planning or daily email responses. This helped Phil focus his efforts more efficiently and still be confident that by the end of the week, all tasks could be completed. As a result, Phil’s stress was reduced, and students became more engaged as they received more frequent feedback on their growth. The communication cycle he established with students helped support them as well when remote learning was instituted later that school year.
Example #2: Using Data to Support Teacher PD
An experienced middle school leader, Rachel* started in a new role at an elementary school when the pandemic began. When we began working together in October 2020, Rachel was creating centralized digital resources to support all teachers. However, teachers were not accessing the resources, emails went unanswered, and surveys inviting feedback were left blank. She wasn’t sure how to pivot if she had no communication from teachers. In Rachel’s case, she needed to collect data differently.
- She scheduled time to attend each grade level meeting and learned that anxiety around the pandemic was overwhelming teachers.
- She reached out to teachers to gather feedback that helped her identify more personalized approaches for teacher support.
Rachel discovered that face-to-face conversations through conferencing or classroom walk-throughs were more effective in communicating her goals and responding to teacher needs.
Through her reflection, Rachel noted: “I identified areas where I will provide more targeted support through grade-level Team Leads” and she adjusted her leadership communication style to be more responsive to elementary teachers. By listening and connecting individually, she is building trust among her new staff and honoring their needs to build better relationships.
Example #3: Using Data to Manage Leadership Roles
“Our role changed on a dime.” This is how Allison* described her responsibilities during our first coaching session in September 2020. Her normal workload as a literacy specialist and the sole support for the dual language and immersion programs was compounded by new duties brought on by the pandemic. Her central office team had to design and create all the remote ELA units in Canvas for the district. She was working day and night and weekends to keep her head above water. In our coaching conversation, we drilled into the main source of this problem. Allison had two separate supervisors for her two primary roles, and each person was unaware of the extent of her workload in the other area.
- To collect data on her workload, Allison did a time audit for a week, noting what tasks she was completing for each project.
- She shared that data with each of her supervisors to collaborate on a more manageable balance of distributed leadership.
Although she was nervous at first, when she sat down with each person to consider the workload, they were surprised to learn the extent of her overall work and grateful to have a clearer picture. Everyone agreed that it was unmanageable.
As a result, they were able to redistribute some work projects, adjust priorities, and engage in more proactive planning to ensure that Allison would maintain a more reasonable balance. This process also allowed Allison to advocate for herself which, in turn, reduced Allison’s stress level and gave her more time to recharge. With more balance, Allison can bring her best self to all her work responsibilities.
Leadership Lessons for Now and the Future
The pandemic has expanded our experience of what it is like to teach and lead. John Dewey has said that we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn by reflecting on experience. There are many ways to get into the habit of reflection. Whether you are a teacher, student, or instructional leader, the school year has required tremendous amounts of flexibility and adaptation. Stepping back from the work to collect and reflect on data helps connect leadership decisions to the reality of teachers and students, building trust and responsive relationships that are the foundation of learning for all!
* Names have been changed
Kennedy is the founder of KMS Intercultural Education based in Buffalo, NY. An experienced educator and researcher, she has taught French from kindergarten to college and served as an administrator and instructional coach. She has a passion for integrated curriculum, anti-racist education, and helping students —and teachers—develop into engaged global citizens.