School personnel and administrators experienced unusually large amounts of stress in 2020, due to the many unfamiliar challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, including problems caused by the emergency conversion to online learning. These pressures were added to an already stressful environment of managing innovation and change in a landscape of heavy workloads and increasing obligations to all educational stakeholders. Using effective coping strategies can result in growth during trauma. MacIntyre et al. (2020)identified positive coping strategies that educators used to successfully cope with these high stress levels, including engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. By creating a collaborative learning group to develop stronger pedagogical practices using differentiated instruction, we found a way to cope with a difficult time by creating a shared purpose and vision for increasing differentiated instruction in our school.
Our school district’s education plan specified that all schools would implement a plan during the 2021-2022 school year to teach staff members how to differentiate instruction in order to meet the diverse needs of all students. We decided to focus our collaborative learning group around this goal, specifically to use an inquiry-based approach to develop strategies that will lead to stronger pedagogical practices using differentiated instruction. Our group was made up of middle leaders in our school, including curriculum leaders from the four academic departments of English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science; and one of our Learning Assistance Teachers, who are responsible for facilitating and coordinating support systems for students with diverse needs. We also included two members of our administration team in our group, one vice-principal and our principal.
At our first meeting, we discussed how our school’s culture had changed due to the pandemic. Teachers were more open to sharing how they feel, and they were more concerned about their students’ mental health. These changes provided a unique opportunity to ask questions about changing some of our long-held beliefs and practices. Teachers were rethinking assessment practices and levels of support for students. They were more willing to work with the learning support team due to the huge demands on their time and their need to find time to destress. We had shifted to a more collaborative culture due to the increase in technology that we experienced during emergency learning, which created more opportunities for us to collaborate and share materials. Our team decided to use this opportunity to learn together with the goal of impacting instruction post-pandemic.
What We Learned
Productively focus on the future: As our team continued to learn together, we realized that one of the greatest benefits we were experiencing was a sense of hope as we planned together for our school’s future. It was a relief and a joy to discuss a topic that was not focused on the pandemic and how it had impacted teaching and learning at our school. At the same time, deepening our knowledge of differentiated instruction was a topic that could be applied to online learning and Covid-safe classroom teaching.
The need for trust and a clear vision: At times we struggled due to our uncertainty about the future. Was it worth our time to learn about differentiation in the middle of a global pandemic? What were we going to do with our new knowledge? The leader of our group failed to communicate in writing about the purposes and goal of our study, so one of the middle leaders expressed frustration with the lack of clarity. After the leader apologized and we refocused our energy, our path became clearer. A deeper trust was established. Our principal’s participation as a team member, but not the leader of the team, fostered a sense of being valued in the other team members and deepened mutual trust. Team members felt they had involvement and also influence over school decisions that impacted many departments in our school (Leithwood et al., 2020; Robinson et al., 2008; Tschannen-Moran & Gareis, 2015). We wrote a set of recommendations to the superintendent, stating the most important knowledge we had gained from our project.
The power of leading from the middle: By focusing our energies on training the middle leaders in our school, we saw a ripple effect in the staff. Several staff members, not included in our learning group, became interested in differentiation and began to deepen their own understandings. Some asked to be involved in the rollout plan for next year, and others developed pilot projects to experiment with differentiation, most notably in the Math department. Change and a new vision were created by promoting leadership from the middle, encouraging staff to consider new ideas for their teaching, and structuring collaborative work. There was an additional dynamic generated when middle leaders learned together (Day et al., 2016; Harris et al., 2007; Spillane et al., 2004).
The need for flexibility: As the pandemic worsened in our city, the need to focus on immediate concerns overtook our foray into future-focused learning. We used one of our team meetings to discuss how we would approach final exams during the pandemic. This necessary conversation was not related to the goals of our learning team, but we had to adapt due to time constraints and the need to make a timely decision. We also had to cancel some meetings due to the increased workload of moving from in-person to online delivery. Allowing flexibility in meeting times and dates allowed our team to deal with immediate concerns while still moving our project forward.
The power of collaboration: Butler et al. (2004) discussed the need to develop a common understanding of common goals and best practices, while respecting teachers’ autonomy and professionalism. Teachers need to pursue individual professional development goals while simultaneously co-constructing knowledge and gaining insight into effective teaching practices. The design of our professional learning team, with its emphasis on inquiry and flexibility, strengthened our shared understanding of differentiated instruction and allowed each team member to develop their own most important key learning.
The importance of questioning and inquiry: Beginning with a basis of inquiry led to individual team members undertaking their own journeys into understanding differentiated instruction, while simultaneously leading to a shared group understanding. Each team member examined their own context and history of teaching to share best practices with the rest of the team. We discussed examples of differentiation in many different contexts and subject areas within our school, and identified areas for growth.
Our collaborative learning team has shifted to individual projects within each department. Some departments are waiting until 2021-2022,
with the hope that pandemic learning will be over, and teachers will have more time to devote to implementing differentiated instruction. We are waiting for a response to our key learning from our superintendent, and we are very interested in participating in next year’s implementation of differentiated instruction in our district. Through our inquiry guided professional learning, we are now ready for the challenges that will await us as our district moves to full implementation next year.
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Suzanna Merry, B.Ed., is a Learning Assistance Teacher at Hunting Hills High School, a 9-12 school in Red Deer Public School District. She is currently pursuing a Master of Education degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Lethbridge.