Thursday, December 16, 2021

12 Days AFTER Christmas

By Vicki Bechard 

We all know the song, 12 Days of Christmas and have probably sung it many times.  I’m pretty sure I’d love 5 golden rings, but I have no need for a partridge in a pear tree!  I remember teaching PE in my first job and the band director would send his sections to various parts of the school during first hour (my plan time) to practice prior to their competitions.  The drum section always came to the gym.  So while I see the need for drummers in a band (and I did play in the band in high school), that experience reminds me 12 drummers can be far too many!

I also remember a great tradition that we had at my last school where we did the 12 Days of Christmas Feast and brought food to share in the Teacher’s Lounge for 12 days prior to the Winter Break.  Oh my, it really should have been the 12 pounds gained before Christmas! J

But I digress….  What I’d really like to talk about are the 12 Days AFTER Christmas (winter break) and what that might look like.  We all know by the squirrely kids, shortened days, and looming finals that this semester is almost over.  All we want to do is relax a little and look forward to what Santa and the New Year brings us!  We might not want to focus on resolutions because we know they rarely are fulfilled.  So let’s talk about things we’d like to have happen, wishes, if you will. 

There is optimism in focusing on wants or wishes, and hope is instilled when we look forward.  While I won’t submit this list as song lyrics, I think we might be able to agree that many of these are on our wish list every day.  These wishes might be considered aspirations, the honest truth, or reminders that each of you does make a difference every day.  In any event, I present to you:


1:      Meaningful Collaboration upon your return

2:      Students back in the classroom eager to learn

3:      Masks worn willingly to keep Covid at bay

4:      Kindness and respect on display every day

5:      Leaders who guide during good and tough times

6:      Teachers who challenge and nurture young minds

7:      Snow falling steadily during the night

8:      A “No school” call before the first light

9:      Seeing the spark in a student’s eye

10:    Colleagues to share a laugh or good cry

11:    All assignments turned in when they are due

12:    A pat on the back for all that you do


I think it is important to think about what we want life to look like and along with that, forward thinking.  We get so caught up in how tired or frustrated we are that we forget we are in the greatest profession on earth where we can touch lives and shape the world every single day. What is it that will make your job easier?  More rewarding?  More meaningful?

It is ironic, and somewhat symbolic, that as the semester ends it coincides with the shortest days of the year – where darkness swallows up each day.  With the many challenges and changes educators have faced the last 2 years, it may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  But I am confident that after a couple of weeks away, you’ll be looking at the New Year with new eyes as the daylight grows longer and the darkness begins to recede.  As you reflect forward into 2022, what does that look like?

What are your wishes?  Your needs?  Is accreditation in your view?  Do you or your staff understand the process of change and how that understanding can contribute to the success (or not) of goal implementation?  Are you (or your staff) continuous learners?  What challenges await you?  How do you tackle all that is on your plate? 

Let us know how we can help you turn those wishes into actions.   Our role at Learning Forward Kansas is to support your school or you as an educator with professional learning so that you can experience excellent teaching, learning, and leading every day.  Isn’t excellence something you would love to have for your building, your classroom, and your students?  Let’s make it happen in the New Year! 

 Happy Holidays from your colleagues at Learning Forward Kansas!

Friday, September 17, 2021

Seeking Covid Relief in Collaboration and Collective Efficacy


 By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Special Projects

How are the children?”  My friend, a long time educator, uses that question to gauge the temperature of the culture of a school, the impact of decisions that are made, and the direction a school is headed. Right now every school is consumed by Covid protocols, differences of opinions, and extra work created by gaps in staff coverage due to the inability to hire a full staff or the quarantines that occur weekly (or even daily).  Learning is going on, school improvement through accreditation is continuing, but our focus seems to be interrupted frequently by the next crisis.  We may be wondering if we will ever find any Covid Relief.  As we think about how best to support our educator friends across the state, we still want to ask the question, “How are the children? But it’s important to follow that question closely with “How are the educators, (including the leaders)?”

My youngest grandson became a middle schooler this year.  When I pick him up from school every day, I always ask him how his day went (How are the children?).  After the predictable response of “Fine” then most days, he begins to talk…a lot (he is related to me of course)!  I find out all kinds of interesting things in those 7 minutes it takes for us to get to my house.  In the beginning it was all about his locker and how efficient he was/wasn’t that day.  Back in August, we planned how he would remember when and where his classes were.  He had some good solutions.  Now, I hear him raise concerns and offer opinions about how quarantines of teachers and students affect his classes.  He’s back to required mask wearing (which he has never opposed), and he noted just today that once first hour is over, he hardly remembers he has one on. He has asked what to do when he sees someone breaking the rules or how he can be more involved.  He had elementary figured out pretty well, so in many ways he’s just trying to figure out middle school and all it entails.

Isn’t that what our educators and administrators are feeling too?  They had school figured out pretty well. Then Covid hit and everything changed.  Not only are they making decisions that are fluid and criticized from all sides, they are also trying to figure out the new normal (that is ever changing).  Educators and leaders could really use some Covid Relief.  So are we checking on our colleagues and friends?  Are we asking, “How are the teachers and the principals and the superintendents?”  When I ask my principal friend how things are going, her initial reply is either “Fine” (where have I heard that before?) or “Busy” as she dashes to keep score on the JV volleyball court because someone couldn’t cover – all before she heads off to a BOE meeting.  Our question of “How are the educators and leaders” might be rhetorical, because we know how they are – they are exhausted.  And the smaller the school system, the worse it may be. How can we help?

Mr. Rogers used to ingrain in the kids watching his show that they want to identify: “Who are the helpers?”  When my 6th grade grandson works on homework, I try to help him with organizational skills, how to study, and test taking strategies. I’ve also noticed he is part of a group text where his friends ask questions about homework or talk about how to do the math problem they don’t understand.  The members share resources or possibilities.  They know how to look things up to get help.  They are succeeding together.  He has found helpers outside the school day to help him succeed in school.  What he is experiencing is collaboration and a student version of collective efficacy.  So when we ask, “How are the educators,” maybe we should be asking, “Who is helping our educators, our principals, even our superintendents?”  Who are they working with to brainstorm ideas or find solutions for their situations?”  Who is helping them grow, learn, and implement effective methods?”

How does all of this tie into our concern about today’s educators maneuvering through a pandemic that seems to never end?  Just as my grandson focused at the beginning of his middle school journey on his locker and getting to class on time, teachers and administrators are also, out of necessity, narrowly focused on logistics during these challenging times.  With fewer staff members, more paperwork (i.e. contact tracing) and less time to concentrate on school improvement, they are overwhelmed as they try to keep all the balls in the air. Collaboration and Collective Efficacy may not be on their radar at the moment but it just might be their salvation.

If we look at Collective Efficacy we know it begins as a group of people who come together for a common goal. When one has efficacy they have the skills and confidence as an individual to do what needs to be done to be successful.  When we band together we have collective efficacy in which the group believes they can succeed to achieve the goal.  In a time where we are inundated with non-academic protocols and regulations that distract us from the business of learning, we find many tend to retreat and work in isolation, but there is power (and relief) in numbers.  Collaborative work makes us all more effective when we utilize our knowledge and skills to help each other. Time you say!  I don’t have time!  To find the time, it requires us to stop and reflect on the path we are taking.  The journey is better in teams.  Even the National Park Service doesn’t want you to hike alone!

To all our Educator and Administrator Friends and Colleagues:  Learning Forward Kansas is here to cheer you on, support you, and provide resources to improve your situation.  Check out our website.  In the Inspired to Learn series, there’s a video on Collective Efficacy.  There are Tips and Tools, and other resource guides that can aid in planning professional learning sessions with your staff.  The protocols all promote collaboration and digging deeper.  The only thing we don’t specifically have is a silver bullet called Covid Relief.  But if you adapt some of these strategies, you just might find yourself feeling a little better about your situation going forward. 

Remember to ask “How are the children?” and really listen.  More to the point, directly ask the children how they are.  They will tell you!  Ask how the teachers are; the principals, coaches, and the superintendent.  Their voices need to be heard; their efforts appreciated, and made more efficient and effective.  Find the helpers.  “Hike” in groups.  This journey is hard enough.  Make it better by collaborating with colleagues who are ready and willing to find solutions and achieve the goal(s). This is collective efficacy. Then you will have found some powerful Covid Relief.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Celebrating Teachers: Challenges, Endings and New Beginnings


May 2, 2021

by Vicki Bechard, Secretary LFKS

The first week of May is traditionally dedicated to showing our appreciation for all teachers.  I think we could have two such celebrations – or may be more!  What if we started each school year off celebrating teachers?  Maybe show some love at the end of the first semester to give them an extra burst to keep it up into the second semester? 

Teachers work hard every day, every month, every year.  They care for the students (their kids) with all they have.  Teachers actually call their students “my kids,” even after they have retired (I can attest to that and some of “my kids” are ready for AARP!)  Every teacher works tirelessly regardless of the size of the system in which they work, but the smaller the school the more likely they are to juggle multiple roles to ensure that the school is successful.  By May, regardless of the year or the school, teachers are tired, but still engaged in the work of student learning.  While teachers look forward to summer break, this is hardly a part time job. 

Summers are spent reviving the spirit, learning new content or strategies, and planning for the next school year.  Last year at this time, teachers were navigating new teaching strategies while making the sudden shift to online learning.  The end of school brings plenty of distractions and activities in a “normal” year, much less one blown up by a pandemic like we’ve not experienced in three generations. So last summer felt very different as we wondered what the fall would bring.  Fast forward to 2021. 

This May, we are ending what may have been the most challenging year of anyone’s teaching career.  Some schools were able to be in front of their students all year, some brought kids back some of the time, and others didn’t bring them back to the physical classroom until the spring semester.  Regardless of the situation, the protocols to keep everyone safe cast a large shadow over what was the ‘20-21 school year, and the subsequent teaching and learning.   But much good has come from this adversity and challenge.  Let’s hope that the adults are learning right along with the kids as we reflect on how we (in schools and the rest of society) will move forward, shaping our new normal.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) became a real focus after talking about its importance for years.  Finding ways to strengthen relationships between the staff, students, and parents was a necessary priority to minimize the isolation people felt and ensure learning would take place.  We are all familiar with the old adage, “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  This was a year that really underscored this message! 

Appreciation and gratitude became something we all could embrace.  Parents found new appreciation for teachers as they tried to juggle their own work/home lives with that of their student’s learning, often as all of the family was online for work or school.  Teachers and students realized how important the day to day in-person learning was to achieving understanding.  Even sleepy middle school and high school students were ready get up in the morning to go back to school to learn, see their friends and participate in some (albeit restricted) activities and sports. Some semblance of normal seemed like a really great aspiration!

We saw empathy and understanding improve as we addressed each stakeholder group’s challenges, i.e. connectivity issues; shared devices; navigating zoom and other online platforms without prior experience; stay-at-home fatigue; and health concerns.  Schools made many changes in their protocols, bus routes, how they fed students, how they passed in the hallways, and how classes were set up – all to keep our students and teachers safe.  We all adapted and these lessons shouldn’t be lost as the pandemic restrictions begin to lift.

What will our new normal look like?  Can we continue to appreciate each other?  Can we maintain some of the protocols we had in place so there is less illness of any kind in our buildings?  Can we continue to make concerted efforts to strengthen relationships and make all stakeholders feel valued in the educational lives of every school?   Can we carry enduring technology tools and instructional strategies we learned during the pandemic back to our brick and mortar classrooms? (Read more here) Can we STOP focusing on student “learning losses” and START focusing on how we will move forward to target individual student learning needs (gaps, if you will) and not just assume everyone fell behind?  Can we use our data to make teaching and learning more effective as we develop a culture of learning that works for everyone?  Most importantly, can we not go back to the old normal, but create a new one?

Michael Fullan, in his latest paper, “The Right Drivers for Whole System Success,” notes Covid 19 has been (and may continue to be, I might add)

“…a disruption so fundamental that it loosens and discombobulates the system in a way that creates openings for transforming the status quo. 

How can we transform our system given the opening we have been handed?  Our state’s Accreditation Process (KESA) asks us to re-imagine our school in new and better ways.  Lessons from our Covid year might be very useful in this type of future planning. 

Many have written articles (Edutopia, Education Week, Forbes, etc.) that align with Fullan’s advice:

Above all, we recommend avoiding a ‘loss of learning’ mindset that would take us back to traditional learning – to a system that we know was not working for the vast majority of students.

The lessons of SEL are still the foundation for making school (and ultimately learning) meaningful for students.  These are as simple as greeting students at the door each time they enter your school or classroom, or as complex at identifying what losses the student or his/her family experienced over the last year.  If we fall into the trap of starting school in the fall with a battery of assessments to “test them to see where they are” we will not make students excited about learning, and could easily contribute to the mindset and/or inequity that (even the best of intentions) can create by pigeonholing or labeling students in ways that might set them up to fail.  Edutopia has an interesting article that explores this topic more closely. (Read here.)

In this month of endings, let us focus on new beginnings.  Let’s appreciate the teachers (and other administrators and staff) that have gone above and beyond this year to keep our kiddos safe, engage in the important work of relationship building, and provide excellent teaching and learning.  They will continue to do this in our post-pandemic world, and deserve our daily appreciation and support.  They love our kids and care for them as if they were their own.  In my book, they are heroes just as the other many caregivers that have embraced us throughout this last year.  (Coincidentally it is also around this time of year we celebrate nurses too.)  School is a work in progress, just as our students are.  We are continually learning, tweaking, and revising what is best for kids.  There is a rainbow at the end of our Covid storm, setting us up for new beginnings, and inspiring hope for better tomorrows.

Today and every day, let us celebrate all that we are, and all that we aspire to be by saluting the backbone of the educational system, our TEACHERS!