As schools work to continue K-12 instruction while students are at home, it’s critical that school and school system leaders also continue their learning, that they have a safe space to share and learn from one another on a regular basis. To continue providing support to leaders across the country during this critical time, we have converted dozens of professional learning sessions we typically deliver in person to virtual. Along the way, we are continuing to learn at an accelerated pace and on a larger scale what does and does not work for remote learning and are continuously tweaking our practice. Different kinds of learning lend themselves to different formats and we are taking advantage of synchronous and asynchronous modalities.
In this piece we focus on a few moves we have found are essential for facilitating continuous professional learning for leaders in a virtual world.
We use our live virtual sessions to help leaders and their teams accomplish a few key things:
- Team building is so important, particularly in times like these when we can’t be together in person. Live sessions allow participants to react and process in real time as a group and offer a safe space for team members to share stories and communicate. To help spark conversation, for example, we have used quotes and poems about grief and resiliency to help participants reflect on their feelings and experiences right now.
- Practicing skills with the support of a facilitator and your team. We work on skills like coaching, communicating, sifting through information, and quick decision-making. We have given participants a chance to practice remote coaching, too.
- Collaboration, planning, and decision making. A live learning session and working in a collaborative document lends itself to brainstorming ideas and devising solutions as a team. We have been talking with teams about how they can plan for re-entry.
- Communicating and sharing your story, particularly your racial autobiography and why you do equity-focused work.
- Learning to facilitate learning for the rest of your team. We ask participants to reflect on what aspects of our sessions they can turnkey to use with their own staff.
- Sharing and grappling with problems of practice. We have used breakout rooms for small groups to use a consultancy protocol to share current challenges around supporting and transitioning to remote learning.
Collaborate closely with clients on session content, design and scheduling
We begin the process of planning a session by working closely with our clients to design and schedule session. As the details of schools’ remote learning and student and staff needs are continuously shifting, it is critical to have up to date information about district context to ensure professional learning sessions are relevant and immediately applicable. Our own work of supporting leaders in identifying and addressing inequities in schools now focuses on how Covid-19 has exacerbated academic and social-emotional disparities and created new challenges. We try to get final updates from the district the morning of our sessions whenever possible.
Scheduling learning sessions right now can also be a challenge. Since schools shifted to remote learning, Des Moines Public Schools has smartly dedicated two hours a week for professional learning for their assistant principals, whom we have been supporting all year, so that they have a ready-made forum to receive support.
Get session timing right
We have found it effective to hold extended time – at least four hours every other week — to connect and provide support. We usually find that 90- to 120-minute sessions are the “sweet spot” for virtual meetings, and some longer sessions have felt too long to participants. However, a recent session with Influence100 in MA lasted four hours, with hourly 5-minute “stretch breaks” (with Miles Davis playing on Spotify). Our facilitators attribute the success of the meeting to the group’s high level of commitment and trust – they had been working together as a group for several months — as well as the rigorous and interactive session. They also have a norm that participants in the ~30-person cohort can step away as needed.
Some of the best learning happens in small groups
As people are exhausted from being online all day, it makes sense to spend a lot of time in breakouts where people can talk more easily and naturally. We are now spending more time in small groups than we would in an in-person session and developing leaders’ skills to facilitate their own small group sessions. For example, in Wisconsin, we gave participants an opportunity to share challenges and successes in the transition to remote learning, as well as to talk about their hopes and fears related to remote learning.
This is something we typically do during an in-person session, and we have found it has gone well virtually as well. A circle can be used to develop relationships and build community or to respond to conflicts and problems. For example, we open each of our sessions with the Influence100 program in MA with a circle as a way to surface issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion that participants are experiencing in their day-to-day practice. The facilitator poses a powerful question to the group and creates a space for each person to share his or her perspective and reflection. The process creates a space for clearing and healing as we prepare to learn together.
Get creative with technology
We’re trying to take advantage of all that a virtual platform has to offer to maximize the learning experience. That includes using the chat, polling, and collaborative documents. Lately we’ve been trying to use the camera feature beyond just seeing participant faces. At the end of a recent session with leaders in Denver, we had participants write down and hold up to their cameras a word that captured how they were feeling — a powerful moment.
Keep up with rapid shifts in the virtual landscape
Proactively check to make sure clients have access to the platform you decide to use. For example, some districts have blocked Zoom because of security concerns. You can ask participants to check for Zoom access ahead of time using this link.
We are all learning together about the most effective ways to facilitate professional learning virtually. We would love to learn from you. Please share additional ideas and tips with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Leadership Facilitator
Verta joined the NYC Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.