Before the pandemic, the school I work for, located about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., had rituals and traditions that defined our school culture and aimed to bring a holistic approach to learning, like having students work in small groups and encouraging office hours with teachers.
As in many schools, though, these rich teaching practices had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, as COVID-19 health protocols forced us to keep our distance and switch to a more rigid, relentless schedule. Our in-person classes changed to 45 minutes in length, down from 60 minutes previously, with every class happening every day instead of the comfortable and measured five classes and office hours each day with sections rotating from mid-morning to afternoon.
That still left barely enough time for cleaning, getting connected and delivering a quick lesson. In short, the pandemic school requirements dealt a significant blow to our approach to education, as we sacrificed extended time spent with in-person group projects and a slower pace for a greater commitment to health and safety.
On the upside, we were able to keep teaching kids in person, which was unusual for the Washington metro area during most of this school year. The teachers at my private school, where I serve as director of studies, are incredibly adaptive and grounded in differentiated instruction and assessment, and so they adapted and made the constraints work as well as they could.
By January, though, many faculty remarked that they were so drained that it felt like the end of the school year. Student engagement was falling off as well. Typically, the school year has its own momentum, almost like the tides. Teachers often are open to systemic changes at the beginning or end of the school year, but not as much in the middle. This year, though, there was a need for iteration and evolution mid-year.
Enter a small group of faculty and staff who brushed off an old design-thinking approach that we had used as a team in the past. I sent out an invitation to the entire faculty and staff to ask for those interested in having their voices heard to support this effort.
Our team started with a central tenet of designing complex human systems: a focus on the user experience. Teachers talked to students and their colleagues, and I provided some administrative parameters.
At the first meeting, most reflected on how great it was to see each other on a virtual call where you could talk to each other. The grueling schedule had left little time for faculty to just check in with each other.
We quickly realized we needed to work on two plans—one for the rest of this year and another to make a plan for next academic year—so we split into two design teams to focus on the short- and long-range planning. The short-range team took feedback and lessons from the current school year and talked about how to safely bring back elements like office hours and rotating classes throughout the week.
Within 10 days, we had three iterations ready for consideration. After spring break, we launched a new version of the schedule, which brought back the rotation of classes, moved from seven classes a day to five, and included a study period once per week for each class.
In the end, we were able to reignite student engagement, and most of our virtual students switched to in-person because of the schedule change we started at the end of March. Our students connected face-to-face and are building relationships with their teachers due to the additions of mid-day study periods. And we have heard of many positive engagements from parents and students, with news of excited exhilarations from students upon reading the email announcing the change.
Walking through the school now, you see students in classes engaged in projects and deep discussion. In math, students have manipulatives and group projects. You might catch a glimpse of a teacher sitting down—still six feet apart—explaining physics to a freshman in study hall. The most noticeable impact is the energy in the building and the smiles on everyone’s faces (which you can detect even through masks).
We did learn some lessons from this unusual mid-year reboot:
- Opening the door to change can lead to an avalanche of suggestions: For the week leading up to the new schedule taking effect, in every administrator meeting and every faculty meeting, someone had a new suggestion to add to the process. But all along we had planned to phase in our changes. The first week, for instance, we only tested our new model for managing whether students would learn in the classroom or be in a study hall somewhere else in the building, joining via Google Meet. We weren’t adding breaks outside (something we never did pre-pandemic), or office hours (yet), or unsupervised time.
- What sounds good in theory can be messy in practice: As we put our changes in place, other things in our county and state were also changing. CDC guidance changed, and so did parent perceptions, putting more pressure on us to communicate about various aspects of what was changing. As we worked on the schedule, we realized a greater importance in knowing where students would be in relation to other students, so that if a positive case happened we could identify who had been exposed. This prompted both more education for parents and students on what the CDC guidance really says and on how our health department interprets the guidance—as well as pressure to create seating charts, an idea we had previously avoided.
- Realize there is a limit to how much change can be tolerated at once: Even with teachers open to change, the capacity to keep making adjustments may be finite. When the process gets messy this late in the year, it may be hard to do as much iteration and adjustments as you would in normal times. One of the most adaptable members of the design team said the other day, “Maybe we have no more changes this year.”
I still think back to our first design team meeting and the moment of creating a shared vision for the future and joy the faculty shared in that moment around intentional work to make our school better. It was a flicker of brightness in a dark year.