In this week’s episode of the podcast, Steve is joined by principal and coach, Dr. Mark Wilson, to look at where we are today as the school year is underway and how current observations can influence the work of instructional coaches and administrators.
Contact Dr. Wilson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:26 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:49 Dr. Mark Wilson shares observations on where we are. I’m excited today to be joined in this podcast by Dr. Mark Wilson. I first met Mark when he was the principal at the Morgan County high school in Madison, Georgia. And while there, he was named as the national principal of the year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Today, Mark provides training and coaching for school administrators and principals and he has a great website at principal-matters.com. And Mark, I’m excited to have you with us here today, so welcome.
Mark : 01:42 Thanks so much, Steve. It’s always good to be with you and to learn with you.I just appreciate your work through the years. You’ve been an inspiration to me and a bit of a role model so I’m honored and humbled to join you on your podcast.
Steve: 01:52 Well, thank you. So Mark recently had a newsletter piece that talked about three observations of where we are today as this school year is beginning. And I had it in my mind for a while that I wanted to invite Mark to join me on a podcast. And when I read this this newsletter piece, I dropped him a note as soon as I finished reading it and said I would love to do a podcast around these. So Mark, I’d like to – I’ll just kind of take us into this one of your observations at a time and if you gave us a little thoughts on on describing it. And then I’m really interested on this podcast, for your thoughts and recommendations about how your observations should be influencing what what instructional coaches and administrators are doing in their work today.
Mark : 02:57 Absolutely.
Steve: 02:59 The first one that you shared was teachers are overwhelmed, tired, and exhausted. So what have you been observing?
Mark : 03:08 So Steve, usually this is the time of year that we begin to take an appraisal of where we are anyway, when we’re not doing a global pandemic and it’s – the new of the school year has passed. We’re able to really make that assessment at all levels, right? With students, with our instructional coaches, with our schools. When we started this school year, I’m not sure where we thought we were going to be in October, Steve, because I live in Georgia and we start school very early every year. And we’re finishing in nine weeks, as you and I talked today. This is the last week of those nine weeks for a lot of our schools in the Southeast. So usually, we have a pretty good idea of where we would be at this point, but back in August when we started, we weren’t sure that we would be open. As a matter of fact, like, I think if you wanted to get on a betting circle at some schools, they were picking dates of how long they thought we would be in school.
Mark : 04:11 And to be very honest, I think given what happened to us back in March, there was a lot of guessing that we may not be able to keep school going. Well, you know what? We’ve been able to keep school going, but we’ve done so on the backs of our teachers in great part. Our teachers have adapted to face to face learning, to virtual learning. People have been asking me, so what’s it like in schools now? And I remind them, hey, you know how homecoming is different in every town you ever go to? Well, that’s what school is like now. There’s so many different varieties, Steve, of what people are doing from place to place in that whole variety of mix of face to face virtual. We’ve got some school systems, completely virtual. We have some that are all face to face.
Mark : 05:06 And I think the third and most difficult are the places where well-intended people are trying to operate both systems with the same set of personnel. I’ll give you an example. I’ve got a high school I work with and we have 180 school systems in Georgia. In 120 of them are 5,000 students or fewer. So you don’t have a whole lot of schools. So it’s a one high school County. And in that school, the people who teach science, that’s the people who teach science. And so if you offer virtual and face to face, well, it’s the same cast of characters. What happened was we, I think, globally under undervalued how much effort and energy and time it takes to be a virtual teacher. And so I think what I’ve seen in this high school is a good example of it. The same teacher, whichever students wanted to come to school face to face, they’re teaching them face to face. But they’re also attempting to teach those students who they and their families decided to take the virtual option while they’re monitoring their progress and working with them in that virtual setting.
Mark : 06:23 I have teachers who report, like, they’re teaching six out of seven class periods, live, face to face and getting 150 emails a day. It’s not reasonable and it’s certainly isn’t sustainable. And that’s one example of what many of our teachers, not just in Georgia, but in all the places that are having that system, it’s a challenge.
Steve: 06:54 Would you add to that, that the places where they have all the kids back at school they’re still teaching differently?
Mark : 07:06 Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, you’re, you’re exactly right. And because when they have all the students back at school, they still don’t have all of the students back at school. And the truth is, we all kind of became preppers to a degree after our experience back in March because every teacher everywhere is being reminded by administration, we need to be setting aside our plans in case we have to shut down. And what has seemed to be – I don’t – I think it played out this way more so than by design, but it looks like we’re really pretty firm on having school. But as long as we keep kids in their own germ pods, we can quarantine a particular class and that’s happening. I was on two coaching calls this morning before joining you and one of them, the principal asked, “who’s the worst person to get COVID in your school?”
Mark : 08:07 And I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “it’s the school nurse.” And that’s who went down for her yesterday.
Steve: 08:14 Oh, wow.
Mark : 08:14 Yeah. And so, she spent about eight hours, the principal and the counselor, watching video, contact tracing, trying to figure out who had been with the nurse. And those kids, they’re on quarantine now for 14 days. But we’re crossing our fingers. I mean, of course, first and foremost, those children don’t get sick because we don’t want children to be sick, but should they, they represent, they’ve sent 20 kids home. So this is 10 or 12 classrooms that had the potential for that. Now, the school isn’t going to close, they’re going to keep going. And I think that’s what we’re seeing is, for the most part, I think our plan is we’re going to keep having school and we’re going to make it work. But the make it work part is completely dependent upon the good naturedness, the missionary hearts of our teachers who continue to – you know, Steve. You you’ve been doing this for, for longer than I have and our teachers were already exhausted before we got here. But now, teaching virtually is just so much more. And I think that really nice school system leaders, I think because they never have taught virtually that they really didn’t understand what they were asking their teachers to do.
Steve: 09:48 My wife has also added just the wearing the mask all day long and what that takes as energy from a teacher just physically, in and of itself added another whole twist. And then it’s like this whole set of other things the teacher has to be thinking about besides the delivery of lesson.
Mark : 10:16 Right.
Steve: 10:18 How close can I have the kids get and, oh, wait, I can’t do that activity because I can’t pass the materials from this group to that group.
Mark : 10:27 Absolutely. And it’s that mental exhaustion, Steve, that I think, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of work for the last few years about the stress of leadership in schools. And I have a program called Live Well, Lead Well, which is just exactly what it says to be is, we need good living habits because we need to live well, if we want to lead well. Our teachers are really experiencing so much of that chronic stress that I’ve been noting in administrators for some time, our teachers have had it before too. But what you just described with your wife is that whole notion of there is no respite, it’s just stressful the whole time. And it wears on people. And my greatest concern for us educationally, there are a lot of things to be concerned about quite honestly, but my greatest concern is, our teachers have always been the bedrock of our success or lack of, and if you exhaust them, if you wear them out, what are you going to have? And I think for instructional coaches, for administrators, it is so critical for them to find genuine and meaningful ways to support our teachers during this time.
Steve: 11:54 So I’ll just reinforce that and move us onto your next point. But my my wife as a school counselor, the teachers are part of her tasks now. I think that always was there. I mean, she gets a note in the morning, you know, from a teacher that says, you know, I’m not sure I can handle this first thing this morning. And you know, she’s stepping in and doing something with the kids to let the teacher kind of regroup and move ahead.
Mark : 12:28 And Steve, that to me, if we’re going to offer practical applications for administrators and instructional coaches, what your wife did, the gift of time is probably the greatest thing that I think we can offer. That and listening. Without trying to solve this, this isn’t something we’re just gonna come up with a fix with. Their exhaustion is real. And without a tremendous amount of resources that we just don’t really have available, it’s not going to be remedied easily, but I think people can withstand just another day if they have listening administrators, counselors, instructional coaches, and the biggest thing I’ve been telling principals, Steve, is offer your time to your teachers. And you can’t give all of it every day, but make a spreadsheet, rotate it, think of all the assets that you have available but it may be a lot.
Mark : 13:32 I think it is. If you can tell a teacher, “hey, 30 minutes sometime tomorrow, I’m going to come and think about what I can do for you.” Maybe it’s just come in where you can leave for 30 minutes. But I think – I’m a big fan of the woot woot wagon, I’m a big fan of grilling for teachers. I’m a big fan of those things, but I think that we have to really consider where they are now and the antidote for exhaustion is rest and respite. And so if you’re an administrator and you want to do something good, offer your time with no strings attached.
Steve: 14:14 Let me move us on to the second item that you mentioned, Mark. You’re doing great things, but everything’s not okay. What’s your reflection there?
Mark : 14:24 So, I do want to be positive and remind the leaders that I reach out to you really are doing great things. You’re providing – we’ve made it further into the school year than many people believed. We’ve met a lot of needs for a lot of kids. We’ve done a good thing for our communities by starting school. But I’m very concerned that a lot of people at school system level, they’re ready to start evaluations. They’re ready to talk about assessments. And I just want to remind everybody that everything is just not okay. To go back to business as usual now, really goes back to that first point, Steve. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I don’t know, even if you’re the kindness of administrators and you have great relationships with your teachers, I don’t know how happy they’re going to be when you mentioned to them, well, now it’s time for us to launch into our evaluation program.
Mark : 15:31 I’m going to observe you. And even if it’s completely benevolent and kind and uplifting, just the whole notion of I’m going to observe you. For a teacher who is giving up so much already, giving up time, giving up, sleep, giving up all the things. I don’t know how much they’ll enjoy being trifled with her right now. And that’s kind of what I mean by everything is not okay is, I really caution school leaders for over stretching where they believe we are right now, because we should be proud that we are able to do what we’re doing, but there’s so much that isn’t okay. We have, and we’ll get to this in the third point – we have kids that are missing out on a lot of instruction, things aren’t just okay. Our kids are under tremendous anxiety. Many of them have undergone a great deal of trauma or at least secondary trauma.
Mark : 16:38 It’s not just okay. And and I would really caution people from their desire for us to go back to normal. That may actually keep us from getting there if we rush ahead, act like – we still are in an emergency situation. And I feel like we should behave that way at our schools. I know that some people will disagree and say that the best thing for us to do is to make everything as normal as possible. I just caution that notion and just encourage leaders, listen to your people and do what your people need to support your people as they give so much to the kids and to the community.
Steve: 17:25 When I read your comments there, I mean, I thought if time is tight and stress is present teacher evaluation probably moves pretty far down on the list of things that you would need to be putting out there, which is really no different than teachers need to be looking at students. And what sense does this make based on how it is that the student needs to be working with this?
Mark : 17:54 I agree.
Steve: 17:55 You know, I just heard a session with international school heads today and they were having the conversation that it really isn’t anything we’re going back to. It’s a real serious decision making of what’s the most important thing to do and what do we want to gain from here? And again, I think it’s very similar for teachers. I think it’s similar in defining the parent/teacher school relationships and roles. There’s a lot of newness.
Mark : 18:35 Absolutely. And Steve, I hear a lot of people, particularly here in the Southeast, they talk about in January, we will…in January…Look, viruses don’t have calendar. January is probably the same thing as October.
Steve: 18:54 [laughter]
Mark : 18:54 I want us to move forward too, but the reality, and I think that’s where administrators can best find themselves is we’re not going to be all like we were on March the 12th and January, February. I certainly, I follow and read virologists and epidemiologist and they give no indication that we’re going to have a school year in 21, 22 that will be like the one we began in 2019 and our adaptation to that,iIt’s kind of a simple proposition isn’t really Steve? We can’t make this go faster just because we want it to go faster. And if we can really do what we say we believe in that is to take care of our people and to support them, then that that’s the path forward and well beyond the whole notion of just because it’s January that it’s better. I know a lot of school systems and they’re excited that students are going to come back from virtual learning in October and they’re really excited because they’re going to get almost all of the kids back in January. Those circumstances are still going to provide an unusual experience for teachers and it will be different, but we still are going to have parents who are gonna want to have their kids at home for a number of reasons. Many of them after having done this are gonna prefer virtual learning.
Steve: 20:34 I just listened as I was describing that head of school conference while I was walking today, I was listening in on it. And one of the schools had their they surveyed their parents and it came in at exactly 50/50. 50% wanted them to open the school and 50% didn’t want them to open the school. So now create, you know, create something that’s going to that’s going to work. And make all the decisions you want, there’s this thing that mother nature is going to tell us what the real rules are that we’re going to play by.
Mark : 21:17 I think that’s so true, Steve is that there’s mother nature at work. But I’ve also been mentioning to the administrators I work with that after the pandemic, we’ll still have the parents. And what they’re going to most remember is how they were treated during this time. And I hope that while yeah, we would – I think most of us would like for most of our students to be back in school, but those who prefer differently, we are at risk as a school system if we discourage that or don’t acknowledge it. When we went into it, Steve, somebody asked me what kind of percentage of kids should I expect to go virtual? And I said, look, all I got for you on this – because we haven’t done this before, is normal distribution. So 16 to 20% maybe? And it kind of played out like that. Now, I think we may be facing that same piece, even when it’s a matter of choice now that we’ve offered this is, it may be somewhere around there.
Steve: 22:28 There’s a group of students who did better virtual. And so whatever it is we create going back, it can’t take away from the students who ended up doing better. So we’re gonna have to work our way through that. But I don’t think that makes us a whole lot different. I keep sharing the example, Joe, who’s the sound person making the tape here with me, we haven’t been in the office since March and we’re accomplishing 99% of the work our company does. There’s no way we would ever be able to tell our employees they need to be back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week. It would just be totally unexplainable. So I don’t know what it’s going to look like when that can happen, but if it’s not something that used to be.
Mark : 23:18 And I’m sure that you and I could just enjoy our really long chat on regardless of pandemic or virtual, how school days last too
long in the US already. There are a lot of pieces that are all coming together, right?
Steve: 23:34 Yeah. That’s why I’m saying there’s not going back to a normal, it’s just discovering the things that we’re learning, that we were forced to learn and now what are we going to do with them. So let me take into our last one here that you shared. You said students are all over the place, literally and figuratively.
Mark : 23:53 They are. I work across our state of Georgia, Steve, with leaders at every corner and in all in between and ths part of their experience is very similar. They may be doing school differently from one place to another, but this particular piece, we have kids that they’ve opted for virtual, but they’ve opted for virtual and they’re not answering the phone. That’s a problem. And I think one of the challenges for us is how do you, how do you inspire? How do you motivate kids that you can’t get to? Many of the things that we typically would do are off the board because of our COVID precautions.
Mark : 24:49 But also, many of the things that I would think that we would begin to work on, we’ve stretched our teachers so thin teaching multiple delivery systems that we can’t ask them, “oh, and by the way, in your spare time, go help us find these kids. You’ve got a good relationship with them, help us with this.” Because see, this is one of the things that’s happening in so many places. Our teachers are teaching face to face, they’re teaching students who signed up for virtual, and then when a quarantine happens, they have another set of kids that really represents a third group. Inside of all that, administrators, school level administrators, they are all telling everybody that they did not know what contact tracing was a year ago, but they are now bonafide experts because they really spend so much time talking to parents, talking to their local departments of public health, addressing those pieces. That’s kind of where it leaves us, Steve, is we we’ve run out of people.
Mark : 25:47 And you know, that that’s nothing new either. That we we’ve always been doing more with less for, it seems like ever. But we we’ve hit the point here where we’ve literally – we don’t have any other cards to play. And we have kids that, they probably need us the most. And when I think of the equity piece of the pandemic and where that’s left us is, is that certainly kids who have the fewest resources are the ones that are the hardest for us to reach in every community that I speak with. And those students that need both, the academic support, but also the emotional support that school brings to them, we’re not able to get to them. And so they are all over the place literally, but academically figuratively, they’re all over the place because here’s the truth.
Mark : 26:50 And you said it a minute ago, Steve, we’ve had some kids that have thrived under this. And I think we’d be remiss to ignore that because I think particularly middle school, middle school’s hard. There were people who say I’d love to be 17 again. I’m not one of them, but I’ve never heard anybody say, gosh, if only I could be a seventh grader again. Like, no one has ever said that. Middle school’s hard and I love middle school and I loved working at middle school, but a lot of our kids, a lot of the things that have created so much anxiety and stress for them, they’ve been mitigated by the fact that they are able to do what they’re doing now and have school at home. And I’ll tell you, one of the pieces that makes this even more enticing, I think, is that most school systems that I know, the kids who are doing virtual schooling, they still are permitted to be a part of afterschool events with sports and with music and with arts. And that gives the best of both worlds to a lot of kids. And again, they’re not the only ones, but what comes to mind those middle school kids, Steve.
Steve: 28:05 I’ll give you one that that blew me away. Several weeks into the pandemic, we did a call with all of our staff as that how the folks who had kids were handling it. And I was blown away when one of our staff said that he and his wife were loving the decrease in stress. And that was like the last thing I thought I would hear. And he said, you know, he said, “we get up in the morning and and the fact that we don’t have to rush the kids through breakfast in order to catch the bus or drop them off at school, or us get to work, there’s just like this, you know, this peaceful thing around the house.” And that was with mom and dad, both working online while they had two elementary kids at home.
Steve: 28:59 And it struck me, I thought, oh my goodness. You know, it could be a set of parents coming back out of this who are thinking, yeah, I really don’t know that my child needs to be in school six, seven hours a day, five days a week. You know, maybe there’s a different a different design here. And that was not that I wanted to homeschool, but I want to be part of the school, but do this thing differently. So I’m really pondering if our moving ahead – I mean, I really liked the fact that you use zeroed us in on here’s what we’re observing and here’s where we are. Moving ahead, I think really means rethinking, how do we learn, how do we teach and how do we lead? Those three things all being explored together.
Mark : 29:50 That’s such a good lens for people to consider Steve, because I and again, I love the good school people that we have everywhere, and I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but so many of them are racing as quickly as they can to try to put it all like it was on March the 12th. And that to me, is a big part of where I see where we are is, that’s not where we are. We were in a place where we have students who are going to have – they have increasingly widen gaps of learning. We knew that. But we also have, as you, as you described, I think about those kids we have in rural areas, Steve, that for them to do a 7:50 schools start to 3:00, it means they’re waking up before 6 in the morning, every morning for the bus ride.
Mark : 30:47 And I think that schools should be viewed as the entirety of that time, right? Is like, it’s not just an eight hour day for the kids for a lot of our kids. And again, particularly our rural kids and many of them are rural kids with limited resources, school is a 12 hour event for them. And that’s even before we add in the other pieces of the great things that we offer them for afterschool activities. But I’ve heard a lot of people who are just like the friends you were talking about, like, you know, why would they want to go back to fighting with their kid at 6 in the morning to get up when? And it’s so interesting to me that this great opportunity, I hope that people can really open their minds and really think about how do we serve people.
Mark : 31:42 And if we can get beyond the idea of controlling things and controlling people, I think we can get in a better place to serving them, because why is any middle schooler in America or 9th grader being asked to log on at 8 o’clock? Well, they’re way too smart for that, Steve. They’re going to log on and go back to sleep. And I don’t know who we’re fooling, but like, but wouldn’t it be more genuine and better like their body clocks are already at 10 and now we, there’s no reason not to do it that way, except we are always – I am certain that the power of we’ve always done it that way is about 10 powers greater than gravity.
Steve: 32:26 We’ve always looked at and explored knowing that we we have kids with really wide differences in what it is they need and how school had to adjust and modify to that to get anywhere near a picture of equity. And I think now for me, it expands out to say it’s the same way with families. So while there’s that family that we describe who being able to be home and be with the kids like that was an extra bonus, we got people on the other end who can’t do their job if the school didn’t provide a spot where the kids could be safe and protected and fed and all the other things that had to happen. So for me, it’s a time of learning. I’ve shared in many places for folks now, I’m at the spot where I could be stepping aside here towards a retirement, but I think the next three to five years are just unbelievable as to what it is we can learn, but we’ve got to stay focused on making that learning happen. And I know that, I know that you’re playing a role in that in the, in, in the work that you’re doing. And I really appreciated you joining me here to to carry that message forward.
Mark : 33:31 It’s my pleasure, Steve. Always good to see ya.
Steve [Outro]: 33:46 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.