I am sure by now everyone is well aware of the pandemic sweeping the globe. Unless you live under a rock, you have heard the term “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19” more times in the last two weeks than you’d ever imagined. At the point this post is being written, most states have forcibly closed schools for 2-3 weeks; cities have limited public gatherings to 250, then 100, then 50, then 10, people or less; governments have closed restaurants, gyms, theaters and other public places; and have asked individuals to self-quarantine until this pandemic is under control. Regardless of your opinion on the way this crisis is being handled, the effects are unavoidable.
The Coronavirus pandemic struck my school district while we were on spring break. I know many still have their spring break in the coming weeks, but school closures were not something we had planned for when we left the building a week ago. This left many students and teachers unprepared for the weeks ahead, and administrators scrambling to find the answers we so desperately need.
As a digital learning specialist, this crisis feels like my call up to the big leagues. In these instances, my knowledge and skills will truly be tested as I work to support my school district. I am fortunate enough to be coaching in a district that is 1:1, but I understand that not everyone is so fortunate. I know that I will have students and teachers that struggle with access at home, so these times are not so much about implementing digital tools to solve classroom challenges. Rather, your job as an instructional coach becomes more of a support role. A more creative role. As an instructional coach, teachers will be looking to you for answers during this time. They will want to know what they have the capacity to do from home, what creative solutions they can implement, and how they will make all of this work. We are on the front lines of the chaos. Luckily, you can apply many of your in-person coaching experiences to an online platform, but here are some additional tips for coaching your teachers through a crisis, such as COVID-19.
Tip #1: Organize a Home Workspace
Many of us have our own classrooms, offices or designated workspaces on our campuses for coaching. These spaces allow us privacy, quiet, and the ability to focus on our work. To continue your effectiveness as an instructional coach, it is important that you create a designated workspace at home for those times you are able to conference with teachers. If you are fortunate enough to have a home office or guest bedroom, these spaces would be perfect for setting up your home base because you can physically close the door and separate yourself from your normal living environment. However, if you are like me, living in a one-bedroom apartment, I know that creating a separate workspace can be more challenging. In this case, it is important to designate one area as your workspace that you go to each time you need to complete a coaching task.
The most important elements for organizing a home workspace is to make sure you are in a private, comfortable space where you won’t be interrupted. Again, I know that in a one-bedroom apartment this may be more challenging, but you want to physically distance yourself from distractions and interruptions as much as possible. When coaching in person, meetings are usually held in the teacher’s classroom to allow for privacy and minimize distractions. In these meetings, both the teacher and coach are focused on one another and engaged in direct conversation. Have you ever been part of a webinar, or sat in a meeting where your email or social media took precedence over your attention? It is important that you eliminate these distractions from your home work space as much as possible.
Especially when you are working with teachers, the physical setting can have a significant impact on the success of the coaching conversation. Many of you will utilize email or video conferencing tools like Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts to connect and converse with your teachers. We know that effective coaching in person requires focused attention in any setting. This direct attention can be tough when coaching virtually because of the pervasiveness of multitasking. When in your home workspace, turn off your TV. Find a quiet place. Put your cellphone down. Close your social media. Gather any materials you would normally have on hand during a coaching meeting and try to emulate your in-person working environment as best you can. Some even suggest that you take a shower and get dressed as if you are going to work and be sure to take a break to get outside if possible.
Tip #2: Coach Only When Convenient
While it may seem strange for me to tell you NOT to be connected all the time, this is my way of giving you permission to be human. Many of you will be at home with your children. Many of the teachers you are working with will be at home with their children. Many of their students will be at home with siblings. While we would like to do our best to disrupt their learning schedule as much as possible, the reality is that in a time of crisis it’s okay to let some of that go. Many of us are scared, many of us don’t know what the future holds, and many of us want answers we can’t find. Expecting everyone to recreate their school life at home is unrealistic. Some schools don’t have the digital capacity or virtual presence to do so. Some teachers don’t have the know-how or the tools to do so. Some students don’t have their most basic needs met in times like this, which take strict precedence over schoolwork.
Remote coaching doesn’t need to adhere to the same strict schedule as the school day does. That’s one of the benefits of working remotely. It is important to adapt your coaching and work schedule to what works best for all parties involved. When I’m on campus, I have a very strict calendar with all the dates and times I’ve scheduled coaching meetings. This schedule works because teachers adhere to the same schedule every day. In this case, it may be more useful to develop an appointment calendar and let teachers notify you when they need you in accordance to their own availability. You can use Google Appointment Slots or an external tool like Youcanbook.me to develop a schedule that fits your needs. Block off any time you know would be inconvenient and make yourself available when you can.
Tip #3: Overemphasize Communication
There is a high likelihood that your teachers will experience some anxiety in this situation because many of the variables affecting the situation are unknown. A crisis situation such as this is very fluid and ever changing. Teachers are planners. Teachers like to have their lessons planned out, they like to know beforehand what will be happening and they like to have time to prepare. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible in a crisis situation. In times such as these, it is imperative that you overemphasize your communication with teachers. Send an email to your campuses to remind them that you are there to help. Send out periodic emails to check in, share tips or just remind teachers there are people available to support them.
As I was writing this post, I had a teacher text me and ask if I had any updates on the situation. At that time, I did not have any new information to offer her. She told me to keep her posted and then said she feels very isolated in this situation. She is a single mom, but an empty nester. She is confined to her home by herself. I told this teacher to reach out to me if she needs anything, but I wanted to share this anecdote with you because it reminded me how much we need to check on each other during this time. Many people will be home by themselves. Single parents may be trying to balance their parenting life with their work life. It is important that we check in with those in our circle.
If you have the ability to proceed with coaching meetings through a video conferencing platform, it is important to remember that a virtual coaching conversation is a special kind of interaction. Since your physical presence is not possible, you need to make up for it by being able to communicate well. In a typical conference call or online meeting, you can often just partly tune in and still get the gist. When you are coaching, the most important details are easy to miss if you are not giving the conversation your full attention. If we allow ourselves to get distracted, we’ll be less likely to notice things like a subtle change in someone’s facial expression or tone of voice. We may also fail to monitor our own emotional responses and instincts, which are vital sources of data to our audience. Even worse, others can sense when our attention wanders, leaving them reluctant to discuss truly important ideas.
When coaching remotely, it is important that you are transparent, concise, honest and understanding. You want to keep your recommendations simple, with clear-cut information. Because you will not necessarily be able to walk teachers through learning processes like you do in in-person meetings, it is important to keep things easy to understand.
Tip #4: Use This Time To Study
If you are anything like me, you have often said something along the lines of “I’ll read that when I have time” or “I’ll look into that when I get a minute.” All joking aside, we now have that time and those minutes. Use this time to study and continue developing your instructional coaching toolkit. Many companies and educational tech tools are offering free accounts to teachers affected by this crisis. (You can access a collection of all of these top free tools and resources in the guide here) If there is a particular tool you’d like to learn more about, now would be a good opportunity for you to develop an account and play around with all the features available to determine which tools should be added to your toolbox. You can also use this time to unplug with a good coaching book, scour Twitter or your other Professional Learning Network sources to gather content and ideas for future implementation, and accomplish some of those tasks that have been on your to-do list longer than you’d like to admit.
Tip #5: BE PATIENT
I intentionally put this tip in bold, because the greatest piece of advice I can give you for coaching through a crisis is to be patient. This is uncharted territory for all of us and that is okay, we will get through it.
Be patient with your teachers, they are scared and overwhelmed. As an instructional coach, your job right now is to be a support system for teachers. Help them navigate these new circumstances using your skills and expertise. Teachers will need constant affirmation throughout the next few weeks. Many teachers are caring for their own children while worrying and praying about their school children. Many will have full plates, full hearts and full emotional buckets. Now is the time when we need to remind each other that we are a team, we will get through this together, and we are doing the best we can.
Be patient with your equipment. As you transition to being a virtual coach, you will be asking things of your technology you previously did not anticipate. You are also asking teachers to navigate new mediums of communication they may not be familiar with or comfortable with. You may be working with outdated web browsers, students and staff may be scrambling to get their hands on devices, and your internet may not have the bandwidth to keep up. Technology is a tool and sometimes tools don’t function the way we would like them to. Teachers and students will have login issues, wifi issues and hardware issues. Be patient as you troubleshoot with teachers and accept that some things just may not work the way you had envisioned and that’s okay.
Tip #6: Take Care of Yourself
The last tip I have for all instructional coaches during a time of crisis is to take care of yourself. Yes, there will be teachers that need you, but you and your family need you more. If you are feeling unwell, take the day off or limit your availability so you can rest. If you are feeling anxious, unplug from your work and do something that makes you feel more calm or centered. If you are feeling isolated, reach out to your network. As an instructional coach, you cannot help others until you take care of yourself. Your teachers will understand if you need a break. We are all in this together and we will get through this together.
Megan Purcell is a Digital Learning Specialist and Certified Dynamic Learning Project coach in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD located in Carrollton, TX. She enjoys working with teachers to help them elevate their teaching through the use of impactful technology tools and strategies. Megan holds a masters degree in Educational Technology, which she earned overseas at the National University of Ireland in Galway, in addition to being a certified Microsoft Innovative Educator and Apple Teacher. She is a former high school English teacher who loves learning, technology, and helping make life easier for her teachers. She believes that every student should have access to current technology in order to develop 21st century skills necessary for participating in a global society.