Prioritize Human Connection, Plus 5 Other Ways Principals Can Support Teachers Right Now

Mark Hess, a 28-year veteran of Walled Lake Consolidated School District in Michigan, has seen a lot over the years, but nothing quite as disruptive as the pandemic. As a school leader, Hess has learned much as he has supported his teachers through the challenges and triumphs of the constantly changing school year. 

Recently, Hess put together a presentation {for ISTE} of what he has learned about supporting teachers during hybrid learning. His presentation includes tips on professional development, technology and innovation, creative problem solving, and social-emotional learning. Here are the highlights of Hess’ presentation. 

Focus on social-emotional learning

Principal Mark Hess with his dog Champ

For many children, the virtual learning environment has created a social-emotional deficit. “What has been sorely missing during hybrid learning,” says Hess, “is the lack of human connection that our most vulnerable kids need. Adult attention, modeling, and mentoring provide kids with a sense of love and belonging which boosts confidence and motivation.” It is essential for teachers and school leaders to invest in connecting with students in a meaningful way, devoting a portion of every day to check in with individual students (Hess’s students love emotional support dog Champ), listen to their questions and concerns, tap into social-emotional curriculum, and provide ways for students to connect with their classmates. 

Conduct professional learning with a laser-sharp focus

We all have so much on our plate. Now more than ever, professional development time needs to be effective and efficient. Teachers need support as they navigate the reality of teaching in the classroom, virtually, and a mix of both. Mark Hess offers a number of helpful tips. First, he says, “Focus on the WHY. Most PD sessions focus too much focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Teachers want to know that the time they are investing in professional learning has a clear and meaningful purpose.”

Graphic showing "what" "why" "how"

Next, share best practices. “We’re all learning from each other during this pandemic,” says Hess. Give staff members time to share what’s working for them. Let them mentor one another with tech tips, organization hacks, ways to connect with kids, and more. In addition, differentiate your PD. “We don’t expect kids to all learn the same way,” says Hess, “so why would we expect adults to all learn the same way?”

Screenshot of digital learning lesson

Finally, include support staff. “Before the pandemic,” says Hess, “our teachers had a good working knowledge of the required technology. But the pandemic has shown us that we need to cast a wider net and cross-train our support staff. After all, they are the ones on the front line dealing with families trying to help their children learn at home.”

Foster a tech-forward mindset

Professional development menu of options

You can’t talk about hybrid learning without acknowledging the importance of technology. “We’ve got to get away from the attitude that good technology is just an option, an add-on, or a nice thing to have,” says Hess. “It is, in fact, an integral part of day to day instruction. We need to expand the passion and vigor we’re putting into instruction to apply to technology as well.”

The pandemic has been a wake-up call for leadership to take a close look at how they are budgeting and allocating resources to provide adequate tech support to their staff and students. “Cutting edge instruction requires cutting edge technology,” says Hess. “We can’t achieve 21st-century instruction with 20th-century technology.”

Invest in the best in-class technologies

Children in a classroom on computers. They are wearing masks.

“For years, I felt like I was banging my head against a wall,” says Hess. As the district’s Technology Director, he witnessed each school patching together its own rag-tag collection of technology. Then in 2014, the voters in his district approved a bond to upgrade technology. “We were finally able to implement a consistent vision that included every school and were able to outfit every learning space (not just classrooms) with adequate infrastructure and the tools they needed.” Among the best investments, in his opinion: powerful projection for visual and interactive delivery of content and high-quality document cameras for every teaching space from Epson Education Solutions

Children in a classroom on yoga mats. They are wearing masks.

“Getting everyone on the same page created an even playing field for all of our schools,” says Hess. “Our curriculum team began to integrate technology into instruction for every grade and every subject, and now technology is embedded right into units, scope and sequence, and instruction.” When the switch to virtual learning came in Hess’s district, their schools and staff were well prepared to make the transition.

Find creative ways to solve problems

The pandemic has highlighted many students and families who are in need of wrap-around services and community support. But with buildings closed down, it’s been challenging to come up with ways to help. Key for Hess and his school community is a culture of looking out for one another. “It’s essential to build a family atmosphere,” he says. Staff and parents have come up with creative solutions for families in need, such as facilitating clothing, shoe, and school supply drives. They have set up a community food pantry and a Little Free Library. And to help raise funds (and have a little fun together!), they held a virtual Bingo night. 

As we all learned the past year, none of this is easy. Hybrid learning is not for the faint of heart, but with good leadership and a supportive community, our teachers and our students will not only survive this time but come out the other side stronger than ever. As Hess so aptly puts it, “The only way we are going to get through this is all hands on deck.” 

Thanks to our friends at Epson for sponsoring this post. Check out their education solutions to see how you can simplify your hybrid learning tech needs.