Author Archives: Tresha Ward

Three leaders on schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s been almost a full year since the pandemic transformed our nation’s schools, and we find ourselves in yet another time of rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Schools have seen nearly every possible iteration of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning, but the leaders we work with have proven incredibly adaptable and graceful in the face of constant changes and stress.

Back in April 2020, we interviewed four leaders who piloted some of our tips and shared these video conversations. We recently followed up with two of those leaders and engaged a third to ask about their progress and lessons learned.

Watch our new three-part series with short videos from Jessica Nauiokas of Mott Haven Academy Charter School, Daniela Anello of D.C. Bilingual, and Jennifer Benavides of Fox Tech High School. What will they leave behind — and take away — from this incredibly challenging year?

Here are a few lessons from these inspiring women:

Ask how students feel before assuming they are ready to learn

Especially in schools that serve populations of predominantly low-income students and/or students of color, students may be under intense stress. They may have family members newly sick, out of work, or experiencing housing insecurity. Students may have more people under one roof than ever before, making it difficult to focus on learning. The adults in their lives are likely stretched thin and worried about events in the news.

All three leaders spoke of their intentional efforts to understand and address students’ emotional state and wellness regularly. For D.C. Bilingual, this meant checking in weekly on each family from March to June 2020, and doing so on a biweekly basis during this new school year. For Mott Haven, this has meant capturing students’ written and spoken feelings about dealing with the uncertainty in the world.

Fox Tech is piloting the Rhithm app to get a quick snapshot of how students are feeling and who has optimal capacity for learning. The tool allows the school to direct counselors or district social workers to those most struggling.

Some aspects of school or instruction may remain virtual even after the pandemic

For Nauiokas and her team, student-teacher conferences during COVID have seen higher rates of attendance and levels of parent engagement. Students can participate from home “at a time that’s convenient for the family,” she says, and the adult team can all join the line at the same time, helping students see the collective effort supporting their success. Mott Haven expects to keep these conferences virtual moving forward.

At DC Bilingual, Anello and her team are attentive to making sure students get a developmentally appropriate amount of screen time. She also believes that overall, student exposure to and mastery of technology will be beneficial in the long term. “It can help [students] navigate state tests that are on the computer,” offers Anello, in addition to giving them a chance to practice sharing their knowledge using slide decks and presentations, skills that will be useful throughout their schooling and careers.

Students need to be talking to one another

The loss of peer engagement and socialization is particularly tough for the youngest learners, so schools need to create ways for students to engage not just with teachers but with one another. These leaders have tried different virtual platforms for student-to-student engagement. Benavides’ teachers host break out rooms on Zoom or Google Classrooms, encourage students to leave comments on others’ work, and use the web application Pear Deck to allow students to engage back and forth.

Our video series is live here. If our team can support your school with curriculum, instruction, culture, or assessment planning, please contact us.

A Very Different Back-to-School Season — and What We Can Learn from It

This post was co-authored with Jenee Henry Wood of Transcend, a national nonprofit working with communities to build and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

As anyone in education knows, the first few weeks of school are absolutely critical. The relationships, routines, and community established in those early days serve as a foundation for the rest of the year. We also know that this year, most of America’s school communities had a dramatically different type of start. 

Over the summer, in response to the unprecedented challenges leaders and schools were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, the teams of Transcend and Bellwether began brainstorming opportunities to combine our respective organizations’ expertise and resources (see, for example, Bellwether’s COVID resource page and Transcend’s COVID resource Library). 

In this blog post, our two organizations share insights from our experiences working closely with schools on how three common back-to-school priorities (relationship-building, routine creation, and teacher supports) have looked for their school-based partners during the COVID-19 crisis, and consider how these real-time innovations might help us rethink the way we do things in school moving forward.

Here are more details on these three priorities, with concrete examples and lessons for the future:

Relationship building with students and families

Students need to feel known and seen before they can learn effectively. Because of this, relationship building has always been a priority for the first several weeks of school.

How it looks during COVID-19

  • One-on-one meet ups with students outside of the building or via Zoom
  • Facilitated e-intros between last year’s teacher and this year’s
  • “Looping” with the same students from one year to the next (i.e. teachers stick with the same students they had last year)
  • Every student receives regular, one-on-one touchpoints from an assigned staff member
  • Targeted outreach to students who miss class to troubleshoot barriers early on
  • Virtual, daily student advisories (adult-facilitated small groups for students)

Exemplar from the field

Statesman College Prep Academy for Boys in Washington, D.C, is ensuring no student falls through the cracks by using daily 1:1 check-ins with students and families to build relationships, support well-being, and foster engagement in virtual learning. 

Considerations for the future 

Is relationship-building in schools too confined by traditional structures like the academic calendar year, grade bands, and staff organizational charts? Moving forward, how might we move past these constraints to make sure every student feels supported by a trusted adult at school?

Routine setting with students and families

The first six weeks of school are essential for establishing schedules, routines, and procedures that help classrooms run efficiently and effectively throughout the year. 

How it looks during COVID-19

  • Increased student agency to determine routines around when, where, and how to learn
  • User-friendly, visual schedules to orient students and families to expectations
  • Pre-recorded videos of how to use online platforms, submit work, etc.
  • Regular office hours to troubleshoot/answer questions
  • Daily morning and end-of-day emails to students and families sharing all relevant links and assignments from the day’s lessons 
  • Differentiated expectations (i.e. multiple schedules, flexible timelines for work completion) based on family and student needs 

Exemplar from the field

Van Ness Elementary, a DC Public School and an exemplar in integrating social-emotional learning, has seen great success in translating many of its practices into a virtual setting. Van Ness’ Strong Start Rituals and their First Weeks of School Virtual Learning tools can readily be adopted by teachers.

Considerations for the future

To what extent are our traditional routines and expectations designed for compliance rather than the creation of a strong learning community? Moving forward, how might we reimagine routines and expectation-settings to be more student-centered, inclusive of families, and differentiated by need?  

Holistic staff supports

Teachers and staff (like employees everywhere) must feel supported as people and professionals in order to perform at the highest level and meet the diverse needs of young people. In the current context, even more attention must be paid to supporting adults who are dealing with added stress and trauma and are working under entirely new job expectations and conditions. 

How it looks during COVID-19 

  • Connections to peer counseling and advising for staff, as needed
  • Small-group adult mindfulness activities 
  • Professional development that is responsive to teachers’ real-time needs, and which often utilizes teachers with in-house expertise as leaders 
  • A bank of rotating “off time” to provide days off for rest and recovery 
  • Differentiated staff schedules and expectations to accommodate demands of personal life during a pandemic
  • Innovative staffing models that allow for increased efficiency and specialization

Exemplar from the field

Pop Consulting has partnered with Transcend to put out a Trauma & Recovery Series designed to support teachers holistically. 

Considerations for the future

Where are there opportunities to rethink teacher roles to increase flexibility, autonomy, and innovation? Moving forward, how might we structure supports that create space for sustainability and self care and allow teachers to be the best professionals they can be?

– – –

The innovations we have observed during this unusual back-to-school season are both inspiring and a call to action. As school leaders and teachers continue to navigate this ongoing crisis, it is imperative that the broader field find ways to create the time, space, and resources for these practitioners to capture lessons learned and consider what those lessons might mean for the future of school. 

During this pandemic, the Bellwether and Transcend teams have partnered to bring the best expertise of our two organizations to support leaders thinking about school differently. If you are interested in supporting further collaboration between our organizations, please email Tresha Ward (tresha.ward@bellwethereducation.org) and Jeff Wetzler (jeff@transcendeducation.org)

Black Superwoman Syndrome: What It Is and How Organizations Can Better Support Their Black Female Leaders

In my late 20’s, working as a school leader, I had two surgeries to remove benign tumors despite having an impeccable health record and no family history of tumors. Over my entire career in leadership, I have watched other Black women — leaders I’ve supported, peers, mentors, clients, and friends — struggle with serious physical and mental health challenges, including anxiety, hair loss, eating disorders, depression, and auto-immune diseases.

With the spotlight on issues faced by Black employees during this new racial reckoning, it’s important to elevate Black Superwoman Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Nursing, the phenomenon includes five major behaviors demonstrated by Black women leaders: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite significantly limited resources, and an obligation to help others. 

This Superwoman-like behavior can be both an asset and a necessary liability to ascend in predominantly white-led workplaces. The relentless drive to dispel negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” or “incompetent” has enabled many Black women to thrive in leadership in these spaces. However, once in these leadership roles, Black women often find themselves to be one of the few or only people of color at decision-making tables, which may continue to feed the syndrome. 

The pressure on Black women to juggle and be perfect at all things because of unequal expectations at the intersection of race and gender-based oppression takes a physical and emotional toll. Amani M. Allen (formerly Nuru-Jeter) of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health describes the toll as “the slow deterioration of our bodies.”

Many articles on this topic list tips Black women can follow to “put down their capes,” but this syndrome is not Black women’s sole responsibility to address. Leaders of organizations can identify the “Superwomen” hiding in plain sight and create the conditions that better support them.

Tresha Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, quote: "Organizational leaders need to reckon with the reality that they may have cultivated a culture where it’s uncomfortable for Black women to express emotions other than contentedness in the name of “professionalism.”

Here are ways I’ve seen this syndrome manifest itself: 

Obligation to manifest strength

There is an expectation to put on a “strong face” even when Black female leaders don’t want to or have the energy to do so. To do otherwise could cause others to question their capabilities. This looks like powering through the day without breaking a sweat; handling crisis after crisis and meeting after meeting; and solving every problem that walks through the door — alone — because that is the expectation many have of them.    Continue reading

Getting Strategic — and Practical — About Reopening Schools in the Fall

Planning to reopen schools in the fall is going to be complex, but it does not have to feel defeating. It should not mean spinning through a million different scenarios nor getting bogged down in abstract hypothesizing about the future of schooling. 

While many remain stuck intellectualizing about the 2020-2021 school year, leaders know they need to move forward now in order to support their staff, students, and families. Bellwether’s Academic Program Strategy team has worked closely with districts and schools since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, and we bring our practitioner lens to planning for reopening. We know that thousands of school leaders nationwide need practical support and clear processes to start planning — rather than thought pieces and ad hoc ideation. 

Drawing on our experiences as school founders, network leaders, and classroom educators and our work supporting clients, we have pulled together Essential Questions For 2020-2021 Reopenings: A Planning Workbook for Education Leaders

Our workbook simplifies the scenarios into three primary, high-level buckets: school occurring with every student learning in-person with social distancing guidelines in place, school occurring with every student learning at a distance, or a hybrid scenario with a subset of students learning at home and a subset of students learning in-person simultaneously. Continue reading

Reground, Prioritize, Plan, Connect: Bellwether’s Tool for Education Leaders During COVID-19

Update: We’ve now turned the tool from this blog post into a full customizable toolkit. Read more here.

Over the last two weeks, education leaders across the country have had to make a flood of challenging and unfamiliar decisions: Should we close our school doors, and for how long? How do we quickly and radically change our operations and instruction to support kids and families, possibly indefinitely?

Education leaders typically make hundreds of decisions a day under extreme pressure, but the past weeks’ events could leave even the best decision-makers feeling overwhelmed. The uncertainty of how the next several months will unfold only makes it harder for leaders. One leader we spoke to shared: “There is a knee-jerk reaction to do everything right now.” Direct-service providers and nonprofits are similarly facing knotty challenges. We empathize deeply with leaders on the ground.

If you’re a school or nonprofit leader, strategic planning might be the last thing on your mind during this current crisis. Certainly, it has been an unimaginable few weeks for us, as we think through the real needs of students and families. However, moments like these are when it is, in fact, most important to take a moment to breathe, reground yourself in your mission and values, and make a simple, yet flexible plan. 

To cut through the noise and focus limited time, energy, and resources, we recommend the following four-step approach:

Continue reading