George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Tips for Principals Shifting Their Schools to Distance Learning

As teachers grapple with teaching remotely while schools are closed, principals can support their staff, students, and school communities in critical ways.

March 25, 2020
Woman working at home on her laptop and other devices
Hayley Blackledge / Alamy Stock Photo

With schools closed for weeks—and in some states and districts, until the end of the school year—to slow the spread of the coronavirus, principals are leading their school communities into the uncharted territory of K–12 distance learning, writes Denisa R. Superville for Education Week.

Many schools are working fast to attempt to offer students high-quality, equitable distance learning within a very short time. School leaders must not only support teachers figuring out how to translate classroom curricula into engaging virtual lessons, but also ensure that all students—including those who are tough to reach even on a regular school day and those who don’t have access to a reliable internet connection—continue learning and connecting with their teachers and peers. At the same time, they must see to it that students who depend on schools for food and other critical supports continue to receive these services.

Here are four ways principals say they plan to lead their school communities and support teachers.

Be a ‘Calm and Motivating Presence’

Kelly Corbett, principal of Otsego Elementary School in Otsego, Minnesota, told Superville that principals and instructional leaders must remain level-headed: “We need to be prepared. We don’t need to panic. We have the resources in front of us. We have great educators. We just need to plan…. There will be bumps in the road; there will be glitches. Things happen.”

Day-to-day, Corbett is busy “working on making sure that teachers are developing high-quality lessons, answering questions about content and teaching, and helping troubleshoot along the way when teachers start using a digital platform they’ve really only used for short periods—mainly snow days.” But beyond these everyday responsibilities, she said, “being that calming and motivating presence is essential.”

Be a Source of Information

In addition to handling questions from teachers related to taking lessons online and troubleshooting tech issues, it’s important that school leaders also take on the role of chief information officer for the school community.

Kerensa Wing, principal at Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, tries to keep in touch daily with students and their families so that she’s regularly communicating—in a calm and measured way—her expectations for students’ learning. “We want to continue the learning. We want to keep it positive, be patient with folks,” Wing told Superville. “We want them to be patient with the students’ learning curve. This is the first time they will be online for more than two days in a row.”

Encourage Teachers to Create a Sense of Normalcy for Students

Corbett, the principal at Otsego Elementary, is guiding her teachers to recreate practices for their students that are similar to their previous ones, by doing things like greeting students each morning with a video message and building in mindfulness breaks. The goal is not to replicate the whole school day at home but to provide students with a sense that they are still connected to the school community.

To help students continue to benefit from some of the school’s support structures, Corbett has asked teachers to brainstorm how to bring those structures into students’ homes—giving kids access to a virtual “calming corner” like they have in classrooms, a cozy spot where kids can retreat for a few minutes to manage their emotions.

Corbett has asked her school counselors and social workers to come up with self-regulating exercises kids can do at home. “It could be everything from counting your breaths, different ways to regulate your breathing, physical activities. We’ll have to figure out the best way to keep those experiences going when the students aren’t here,” says Corbett.

Make Sure Teachers Feel Supported

When Paul Kelly, principal at Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, hosted an online staff meeting, his teachers peppered him with questions about how they could possibly meet all the different needs of their students. Kelly’s message to them, after expressing his confidence that they would do their best for students, was that teachers needed to first take care of their own emotional health. “You are only going to be able to help the kids if you are in the right emotional space. Take care of the stresses in your home, with your family, and we will work together to make the e-learning work for kids,” he told his staff.

As a principal, he told Superville, his responsibilities are evolving given the realities of life during a pandemic. “I think my role shifts completely into this symbolic keeper of hope,” Kelly said. “My role in this family is to make sure that we know that we are trying to get them whatever they need, having staff members feeling like we care about them as humans and as families, and all of the details of their professional lives will get resolved.”

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