For some reason, Phil Collins masterpiece “In the Air Tonight” has been really stuck in my playlist as the April Break Pre-Jam…I think it has to do with its smooth roll into the heart of the song, and it really has been that way for us in education. We have had a slowly increasing workload that has been building upon us in this new educational landscape. It has caused educators to really be placed into areas that they are not necessarily familiar with, which can be very exhausting when trying to learn new tools, platforms, and practices while simultaneously using them.

Educators Need this break more than ever.

In the last four weeks, educators and administrators have crammed in 3 months worth of work. The days have been long, and the tensions have run high, as we balance our place and practice in this “New Normal.” However, I have seen not only in my district but across the country, educators have entered into this new landscape with not only grace but with FLARE! Keeping the learning fun and engaging has been a top priority for staff, I mean, who doesn’t love a talking Snail!?

Or local police officers delivering Happy Birthday messages to our students at home?
Or preparing distance learning bags for families?
Or my PERSONAL favorite, a daily morning message to students from their Principal!

Now, as we enter into a MUCH needed April Break, I cannot stress enough for educators everywhere to DISCONNECT and RELAX. This has been an incredibly high-paced journey, and we need to recharge your batteries for the final countdown. Personally, I am going to be trying to disconnect myself and accomplish the following THREE things:

  1. Finnish my Dissertation to graduate from my Ed.D. Program in May.
  2. Watch every single underwater thriller movie. Ending with the new movie Underwater. We have a thing for stressful situations happening underwater lately in our movie binge habits…lol…this stay-home order has really developed our movie preferences.
  3. Play lots of Chess.

Do you need some ideas to take your stay-home vacation to the next level? Checkout this post on how to make it “feel” like you are on vacation from your home.

In the end, take the time to relax and reset yourself for the final stretch of the year in this distance learning environment!

The Home Office

Over the past two weeks, Liz has been not really thrilled with this “New Normal” of working from home. I think that she envisioned that we would be able to spend more time with one another because we would be literally in the same location, BUT that was not the case. Every morning for two weeks, I would sprawl-out my “stuff” across the kitchen table and hunker down for the day. To my surprise, it was like going to work, except ten times busier! I found that I had to schedule my breaks still as I could work straight through the morning and into the late evening. All the while, I would be sprawled across the kitchen table working furiously and attending so many Google Meetings that I can’t tell when I am in a meeting and not :)…like Inception-style… This is the same experience for educators holding virtual class for students, Principals, Superintendents, and other District Administrators. Now, let me be clear, I am totally blessed to have a job but also know that this environment is not the same as in-person education. My personal and professional focus for this remote learning experiment as been geared at first and foremost balancing our curriculum around the needs and unique circumstances that many of our families are under, while at the same time providing a “good” educational experience for students and families. At the same time, we also need to be mindful of how challenging it is to move to this virtual work environment for many of our educators. One thing we need to do is….

Lead by Example

After reviewing the literally hundreds of resources and ideas from so many talented educators across the country, I have developed my own LIST of the top FIVE things to do in order to make this remote work experience work in terms of balancing your professional and personally obligations, as the lines can be easily blurred!

1. Buy a Desk

So this one is probably the most important tip I can give you. If you do not have a desk….buy one! Really, working at the kitchen table does not work for many reasons. Not only will your back and rear be calling to quits before your day is over, but you need to establish a “dedicated space” for working. I have the added benefit of having an extra room that I can take over with a desk, but many families are utilizing ALL space within their homes. By buying something with the purpose of establishing a work environment, it helps you to psychologically associate that desk with work. Whatever you leave on that desk is like leaving things at work. When you leave the desk, you are no longer at work. This can be a super helpful reminder for not only your own psyche but also for your family members that see you at home every day and wonder why you are not able to talk to them. Special consideration is to spend more money on the chair than the desk…the chair makes a world of difference. Although the work from home photos are humorous, sustainable, they are not.

2. Set a Schedule

This is one that I have struggled with…We cannot work 12 hour days; it just is not doable. If you don’t set your hours and create a schedule, then it will overtake you. Set a schedule, just as you would in the school year, but at the same time, allow it to be flexible not only for your own needs but for the needs of your students and families. In the typical school year, I would answer emails into the night and be always available….as hard as it is….I am really trying to push back on that. Why? BECAUSE NO ONE NEEDS EMAILS PAST 6pm. I used to think I was being productive and staying on top of things by being readily available into the late hours of the evening. Still, realistically, I am a contributor to the cycle of people not being able to disconnect and just watch Stranger Things. Really, take my word, no one wants to hear from us at night, so set the example…I am role-modeling this myself effective today.

3. Keep things in Perspective

For the last two weeks, I have been consistently encouraging everyone to focus on supporting students and families emotionally and socially during this time of crisis. Of course, we have educational responsibilities, but if we let that lead the work that we do, then it will become all that matters. Let the social connections and needs of your students and families lead the work we are responsible for and trust me; it will all fall into place 🙂 Below is a wonderful Hierarchy of Needs for during the COVID-19 Distance Learning Era, sourced from George Couros who sourced it from Jay Dostal.

4. Seek Inspiration and be Inspirational

Okay, so Segwaying from my sourcing of George Couros material. All of us need someone to inspire us, and honestly, I have found that George Couros ignites my educational passion and inspires me to think differently. Not to mention he is a super genuine guy. With that being said, during this time, it can be very easy to lose our inspirational drive as educators, but I would challenge you to seek it out more than ever. Push against the system and use it to your advantage. If you are not typically a “Twitter” user, then start an account and be active. If you have always wanted to start a blog, then as I am trying to “Lead by Example” launch a blog and project your thoughts into the world. In the end, seeking inspiration will cause you to become more inspirational in your practice with others and ultimately impact your students and colleagues, and now is a better time than EVER to sprinkle some inspiration in the world.

5. Shut it Down!

This is my CLOSING tip. DO NOT WORK ON THE WEEKEND! Seriously, same rules apply as I mentioned regarding evenings and setting office hours. Maybe there was a time in the pre-COVID-19 Era when working nights and weekends was OK, but now, we need to disconnect if not for our own sake but the sake of those we work with and ultimately serve. 

The New Normal

It is sad to think that my new professional life is feeling familiar and routine now. Like many educators and educational leaders, the workload in this new environment can feel overwhelming, but at the same time, I remind myself that we are blessed to have a job. I also think about how this new normal is not an ideal situation for anyone involved, especially the students and families we serve. It seems like a distant memory only 2ish weeks ago when we were forced to close schools and ask our educators to move from in-person education to distance education…seriously…the video below portrays this experience for me very well! 🙂

However, even though this new normal really has its downsides, I have witnessed many educators creating innovative and special experiences for their students during this time of scoail distancing. I and many others have gone to social media as a place for professional collaboration and there have been so many incurable ideas and experiences that we have been able to either adapt of contribute to.

But even if we are not sharing ideas, social media is an amazing place to reflect on the memories we had this year.

I have repeated this time and time…..but I will repeat it….social connectedness, relationships, and engagement are the most critical things we can provide for students and families right now. We have an excellent system for continuing our learning during this time, but our focus should be on our connections with students and families. The curriculum is in place as the backbone, but we need to make it come alive with teacher innovation and excitement through those three critical things.

Practice what you Preach…

I am trying my best to communicate in all ways possible and support the great work of our teachers, I am trying my best to communicate in all ways possible and support the great work of our teachers, coaches, and administrators. I am also trying to role-model what I preach, so I have kept my vlogs very fluffy and fun while providing some updates that are not overwhelming. Communication is probably the most essential part of my job right now. Whether it is bi-weekly vlogs and blogs, the countless meetings, or simply having rapid email/messaging turnaround, it is all-important. So make sure that you are communicating in multiple ways, keeping it fun, and most importantly, being genuine. Does everyone read these blogs….hah no…how about watch my videos??…..nope…but I do it for consistency of communication and for it to be there for when someone wants to tune in.

So as you continue to adjust to this NEW normal in your own professional and personal life, take time for lots of reflection, be thoughtful in your communication and remember, sometimes, LESS is MORE and distance learning can still be made into a FUN experience for our students by just being yourself 🙂

Stay Engaging!

Remember, when you first welcomed students into your classroom at the very beginning of this year? It feels so long ago almost in a galaxy far, far away 🙂 No, but really, think about how you welcomed them to your classroom. You spent so much time trying to make them feel included and, most importantly, engaged citizens of the class. You may have felt like a performer for the first month trying to make even the most mundane math problem come to life or literally performing a read aloud as if you were auditioning for broadway..…you know who you are Elementary teachers 🙂

Distant Learning is NOT Possible if students FEEL Distant

Students need engagement MORE than ever, which is why I try to role-model this myself by producing silly intros to all my Vlogs. I have talked a lot in my Blog/Vlogs about the importance of humor and social connectedness. I cannot stress enough to educators how important it is to keep your students engaged, and one way to do that is through humor. I created a stay home Parkour introduction to my latest Vlog, and one teacher responded with their own student’s Parkour video!

Students want to feel connected to their education, but it may look different than how we traditionally see our roles. Be an entertainer, be a calming agent, be whatever you need to be in order to maintain that connection for a student to their educational experience. Of course, we still have a curriculum to follow, but it must work within the needs of our families as we are in uncharted territory. Sometimes learning might be just sharing you and your family making a cake 🙂

This may come as a total shock, but did you know that Shaquille O’Neil has his Ed.D.? His dissertation focused on humor in the workplace, specifically for leadership….seriously…never thought I would ever be referencing Shaq lol…..This idea of humor takes new meaning for us as educators entering into this new landscape. Educators are a super funny bunch and strive off daily humor with not only one another but with their students. So how does this happen virtually? Well, you have to be willing to take some risks and act a bit silly to really connect with your audience. States are entering into some really uncharted waters as we see them canceling school for the remainder of the school year (Vermont being one of them), and we have to think… I will make my students feel connected?

I have focused my last few blog/vlogs on Social Connectedness in this new COVID-19 Era because I truly feel that we MUST be innovative on how we are building community within our schools in the online world. How important are academics? Well, I personally feel not nearly as much as a student feeling socially connected to their peer and teacher. If a student can learn to read or even not lose their current skills, then that would be great. I guess what I am trying to say is we need to LOWER the bar.

Lower the Bar

We need to think about how families are handling this sudden switch to online learning. Many (MOST) districts were not designed to go online in a matter of days, so it is not like we are experts in this field, so it is important to understand that we will make mistakes, ask too much sometimes, but realize that at the end of the day, it is about a student feeling connected. What is the easier way to do this?

Make your students laugh!

Today marks the first day of mine and all the staff in our district’s work remotely directive. I will tell you what….working remotely is hard! As adults, we strive on our ability to be socially connected to others; in fact, it is hard-wired into our DNA. I never use Wikipedia, but THIS resource actually used the words I was looking for. As humans, we strive and seek our connection. Whether or not we are introverts or extroverts, it is hardwired for us to feel connected. As countless educators from across the country shut themselves away into their homes to attempt teaching “digitally,” we must recognize the importance of social connectedness.

Increasingly, social connection is understood as a core human need, and the desire to connect as a fundamental drive. Baumeister, Roy F.; Leary, Mark R. (1995)

Legit, my email has been out of control with emails from everyone, instant messaging is dinging every 10 seconds, phone is blowing-up, AND I have gotten very used to this sound….

Then it hit me this morning, as educators, we need to feel connected to one another. If I were to shut myself away, then I would be preventing someone from feeling connected. I am not saying that people just love to chat with Ben White, but I am HIGHLY accessible and always on. This instant gratification of knowing someone is always available is something we must remember but also be careful with. There are many positives to reaching out to someone and always knowing they will be there to answer, but for the person answering, it can begin to be overwhelming. With that being said, below are My 5 Tips to Social Connectedness in the COVID-19 Era.

1. Consider Video and Chat over Email

Now that we are all in the virtual environment, the need for instant connection is profoundly needed. Writing emails a few weeks ago may have been considered fairly quick; however, now an email is almost like sending a written letter in this new era of virtual learning. By using platforms such as Google Hangouts and Google Meet, are much more instant and satisfy that need for in-person communication. Think about how many emails someone might have and think about the impact that an instant response may have and how you may feel much more connected in knocking on someone’s digital door and getting an instant response.

2. Set Virtual Office Hours

As we go completely virtual, you may be feeling this is actually more work than before. This is true in the sense that you are ALWAYS CONNECTED. Although it is essential to be available for your families and students, you do need to balance the personal impacts in your own life due to COVID-19 while recognizing the impacts on the families you are serving. This is something I have not implemented this myself, but after going through my first official remote workday, I am highly considering it. Instead, set up “virtual office hours” Make meetings optional and be relaxed. No need to be frustrated when no one shows up: students are still happy to know that this option is available.

Students can work together in small groups to support each other online.

3. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

When we are in schools, our first and most powerful impacts are seen through our relationships with students and families. Now that we move to the virtual environment, the need for relationships is not decreasing but rather exponentiating! Please make sure to be prioritizing your communications with families and, most importantly, make it personal. Show them that you are human as well and connect with your stakeholders not just through academic instruction but through humor and fun 🙂 Below is a great local resource that highlights this:

5. Disconnect

Taking this one from George Couros as it really speaks to the reality of teaching online and why we need to disconnect.

Although I started with suggestions on the importance of “connection” with people, I think it is vital to “disconnect” from too much information.  I am looking to expert websites for information, but I am trying to stay off of social media because COVID-19 is everywhere right now. Watching sports has also been a release for me, and now games are basically canceled.  TikTok was also a getaway with funny videos, and now it has been overtaken by COVID-19 toilet paper jokes. Websites are all talking about this, podcasts, news (obviously), and it seems you can’t get away from the constant conversation. Personally, this is not good for me. By “disconnecting,” I am focusing on time with my family, watching movies, playing video games, playing guitar, working out, etc. I am a big believer in the idea of what you feed your mind is what you become.  Be thoughtful of spending too much time digging into endless amounts of information….

To read the FULL AMAZING BLOG post from George Couros see below:

In Closing…

Take a moment to think about how other are being impacted by current events and focus your approach on maintaining connections and the academic instruction will come easy once you understand the new learning needs of your students and families.

Consistent Transparency

We have entered into an unprecedented time for us in not only education but the world as we know it. As schools begin to grapple with the ever-changing demands placed upon them, the world as a whole has to adapt. As school districts begin to move into the virtual environment, many educators and leaders may start to feel unequipped for this new landscape, but guess what? That is totally OK! Educator’s default setting is adaptability, well as long as they have, it toggled on 🙂 Educators are some of the most resilient and adaptable workers we have in our country. I have seen, just in the past few days, educators throw away all they know to board a ship that ventures into unknown territory, and guess what? They did it without even asking WHY!

The ReBirth of Innovation…

Many educators….and I mean…MANY really strive in this new educational landscape because they strive for innovation and finding novel ways to engage their students and families. I mean, we have literally had to actually control and filter a bit of the innovation only for consistency’s sake, but that just speaks to how amazing educators can be. They don’t ask for help, or guidance in turning their worlds upside down, they simply adapt in order to meet the needs of their students best. As we enter into the online world of education, educators will now begin to be even more transparent in their practice and their lives…just wait and see.

Consistent transparency is the model that I am adopting in this new educational landscape. I feel that now more than ever, we must show our stakeholders that we are also human. As students and families will be mostly within their homes, so will educators and leaders. Therefore, it only makes sense to be showing them that we are all in this together. This is why I vlog every day because we need to maintain those human connections despite the distance. This is also why I make a fool of myself sometimes because we need just to make someone laugh. Humor is an IMPORTANT part of distance learning or even just managing our connections from a far……like seriously….there are articles about it.

I have no doubt we will begin to see many funny moments from educators across the nation as they find fun ways to communicate with their stakeholders, and I will continue to do my part in trying to bring a smile to someone from afar.

As I type this introduction, I think about HOW many people are communicating regarding our nation’s current state of emergency. As of Friday, March 13th, both the President of the United States and our Governor of Vermont, issued a state of emergency. This comes at a time when schools not only across the nation but in Vermont have been preparing tirelessly for the unknown. With an impending decision for every school system across the country to evaluate whether to close or not, the importance of communication has never been greater. As school districts are furiously looking towards distance learning as a way to combat the continuation of education despite not physically being able to go to school, the social media channels are flooded with information….in a good way….here’s why.

Social Media is a Distance Learning Tool…

Again, this is one of the many reasons that I vlog. I value producing information for all audiences that can help them to feel more profoundly connected to any situation that is happening, whether it is a national emergency or merely reporting on the week. Give it a try, make a video, talk about what is going on, and send it out there. You will be surprised at how effective and genuine this communication can be with your stakeholders and help to assure them that you are in this together.

Joe Sanfelippo pots a daily 1-minute walk to work where he quickly reports out in a real genuine way to his stakeholders. This type of communication really models how we should think about the consumption of information in times of crisis.

Changing my Vlog….Temporarily..

So based on all of what is going on, I am changing my VLog in order to keep up with all of the changing information and keep people connected. I can’t promise that my vlog will be super informative and may sometimes be me going through my day, but it will be real, in the moment communication designed to keep you engaged in what is happening.