In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Jonathan Mueller, curriculum coordinator and instructional coach at the Western Academy Beijing to discuss instructional coaching during school closures.
Get in touch with Johnathan on Twitter: @jfjmueller
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Steve: 00:00 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: 00:27 Instructional coaching when schools are closed. I’m pleased to be joined today by Jonathan Mueller, a curriculum coordinator and coach at the Western Academy of Beijing in China. I met and worked with Jonathan virtually during the past year, exploring coaching and professional growth plans with his leadership team and had an opportunity to do a virtual presentation to the entire school staff. I’ve been excited about the forward looking focus and commitment to learning that I found in those communications with Western Academy of Beijing. I have been looking for some guidance as I work with coaches dealing with school closures and I turned to Jonathan knowing that he was among the early practitioners to have to deal with school closings. He shared some valuable thoughts with me on Twitter and I knew that I wanted to have him share those thoughts with listeners to this podcast and he agreed to do so. So welcome Jonathan.
Jonathan : 01:30 Thanks Steve. Nice to be here.
Steve: 01:33 Could you give folks just a quick little introduction to the Western Academy of Beijing and your role on the staff there?
Jonathan : 01:42 Sure. Western Academy of Beijing is a international school from early years to grade 12, based in Beijing, China. My role within the school is the international baccalaureate or IB, PYP, primary years program, curriculum coordinator. So essentially what my role is, I’m responsible for the coordination of the primary years program, the learning and the teaching within it. And I work with a lot of grade level teams and single subject teams and departments looking at how we can align best practice and move teaching and learning forward. Part of my role is also a coach, so that’s where a lot of my team, like working with teams in different departments comes in.
Steve: 02:24 So Jonathan, I’m wondering what were your teacher’s experience in working online or in distance formats prior to the closing of your school?
Jonathan : 02:39 So at WAB we have a very veteran staff and an amazing group of teachers and a lot of us have been abroad for a long time, you know, so you know, you think like, H1N1, SARS, like some of these things have happened over the past 20 years. As well as living in Beijing, like, you know, there has been days where we have had some bad pollution. So every once in a while we might get school canceled for that. Like, there’s a three day period that was only once. There’s also like big government things going on in China, like the APEC conference. And then, so we closed for a three day period for that. So we have had some, I want to say practice or experience with it, but something over six, seven, eight weeks, I don’t think many people on staff have. At least as a teacher, perhaps as a learner.
Steve: 03:22 I’m wondering what the early on problems were as you went to looking at the closure and kind of how you ended up responding to those?
Jonathan : 03:33 So initially when we knew that school closure was coming, we had about two or three days to kind of really get ready for it and ramp it up and be like, okay, well, you know, we need something in place. So one of the challenges that we faced was what were individual family situations. I think that was the biggest one. And then try to figure out, okay, we know that we have, you know, classes of kids to teach, but we really need to get a better understanding of where our families are located, what resources they have access to. You know, are they in an environment where they’re going to be able to stay a little bit and actually do some online learning. You know, for the first three weeks of it, you know, families including myself, were kind of going to different places trying to figure out what the next move was. So that was more important to us that they get somewhere where they can feel a little bit more comfortable and then tackle learning secondary.
Steve: 04:28 So as I’ve been reading about schools, I’m kind of seeing two different directions. Some of them moving towards what they would say, providing students with learning experiences and others in a direction of looking to stay with the commitment to the curriculum that they would be delivering if kids were at school. Did you struggle through that or where did you come out with that?
Jonathan : 04:57 I think that it’s something that we continue to bring up in conversation, you know. I mean, our written, taught and assessed curriculum is, you know, something that we always want to follow when we can. The issue is that this is something that we’ve never experienced before. So I think the first thing was, is when, when we were working with teams was, okay, let’s look at the current curriculum that we have. What are you in right now that you were doing in regards to face to face learning? And is that still accessible from a online learning format? So, for example, our, you know, we had a grade four team who was, they were in a particular unit and then their next unit was how media influences the decision we make as consumers. And it was like, you know, this is a perfect time to make a curricular switch.
Jonathan : 05:45 You know, the time of the year doesn’t really matter when you teach something like this when you’re building conceptual understanding and it was a perfect fit. So we’ve kind of looked at what was already within our written and taught a curriculum to see what kind of adaptations could make and what might be accessible to students and families. Once there was realization that, you know, it might not be as accessible as we thought it might be, then it was like, okay, what adjustments could we make? What did the kids need as opposed to what we want them to have?
Steve: 06:12 Gotcha. You made a comment on Twitter that caught my attention, so I wanted to ask you to respond to it. You made a statement that your your E.Q., emotional intelligence right now was was more important than your curriculum expertise.
Jonathan : 06:32 I just think because, you know, we’re in the human business and everybody in the community is doing the absolute best that they can. So, you know, I think giving teachers the freedom to be flexible with curriculum and how they approach teaching and learning under specific guidelines and procedures that we have, it’s really important to make that emotional connection and constantly be checking in with families and with teams as well and really think about, you know, how we work together right now is really more important than the amount of content we think our students might need to get through what we need to teach. So I think just keeping that in mind that, you know, this is an emotional time for us all. So acknowledging those emotions and taking the time to talk about it is okay. And that’s something that has really kept our community together and been very, very critical for us to do online learning so successfully over the past six weeks.
Steve: 07:28 You commented on the importance of teams and that connected with what I’ve been following on Twitter and LinkedIn. When I’ve looked at people talking about how their leadership team has pulled together, how their teaching teams have pulled together. Want to talk a little bit about what you find there?
Jonathan : 07:50 Yeah. So one of the things that always amazes me, and it’s one of the reasons why I love the profession that we’re in so much is that teachers and administrators in communities will rally around kids. You know, being in kind of like the teaching realm and then also getting the opportunity to be involved in like the, you know, the kind of the administrator side as well, you know, I think that what we have really shown is connected to something that you posted today that I saw on LinkedIn about, you know, strong leadership teams, you know, so we want to be able that we’re enabling teachers to work with us and their peers and focusing on improvement. You know, so when we’ve been working with our parent community and getting feedback from them, one of the things that we constantly ask is, is what we’re doing this week working better than what was happening last week?
Jonathan : 08:38 And if the answer is yeah, things are more clear, things are starting to roll, then it’s like, okay, we’re on the right track. And then also getting teachers and teaching teams involved in the decisions about curriculum and assessment and instruction has been huge because, you know, they’re really in this full on every day with 20, 30 single subject teachers. It’s a couple of hundred kids that they need to report on. So hearing their voice and being receptive has been very, very important as a leadership team as well. And then continuing to engage families and communities have been absolutely huge. So I’m giving all of that teamwork in sync has been amazing to watch and amazing to be a part of.
Steve: 09:17 I hadn’t thought about that prior to your mentioning it now of getting feedback from the parents to help you assess your strategies. How are you going about doing that?
Jonathan : 09:32 So we get, as we get a lot of feedback from our teaching teams as well as we work with the parent link or like the parent teacher association, we call it the parent link. And then as well as, we try to get feedback from as many students as we can too. What’s the experience as a student, what’s the experience as a parent, you know, so we get as much understanding of what’s it like on the other side of the coin as well. The great thing about a lot of our teaching teams is that they have kids that are students as well, so they can come in to planning with that lens on as well. So connecting with teams on a weekly basis as well as the parent community on Fridays. So we can put things in place for the next week. Any improvements that we need to make or adjustments.
Steve: 10:15 Staying with with parents for a moment, I’m wondering if there are a couple of recommendations that you think schools should be making to parents to prep them for what they’re dealing with.
Jonathan : 10:30 So some things that I like to do with – me and my wife like to do with our kids, even though they’re small is, you know, take a moment and think about today. Take it one step at a time, develop a routine, acknowledge something every day that has been a struggle and a challenge and then let it go. And then talk about something that worked really, really well. Also, whenever you can check in with somebody from the community, not just for your sake but for their sake, ask them, hey, how you’re doing, right? And kind of be, you know, kind of be a support system for each other. Understand that the school is here to support you and your family. And we’re here to listen. And then let’s just remember that this is a complete partnership and we’re in this together and that if we align our resources and we work together as best we can, we’re going to come out of this stronger than when we started.
Steve: 11:19 It’s really carrying the social, emotional focus that a lot of schools were working on into the online delivery platform.
Jonathan : 11:29 Absolutely. Yeah. The social emotional piece has been so important for us and it’s something that we put in place across the elementary school of having specific amounts of time throughout the day. So having like a morning meeting and then, like a mindfulness period in the middle of the day and then kind of like a reflective and closing period at the end of the day. Middle school and high school, they do, they have mentoring as well. So having those in place throughout this, you know, last six, seven weeks has really shown the importance of establishing those connections early.
Steve: 12:01 How would you describe your coaching role as you’ve slid into this new delivery model?
Jonathan : 12:10 It’s more asking teams like, what do you need? What can I help with? So I’ve always been a big believer that, you know, in a position of leadership, like, one of the first things you should be doing is serve. So I think serving others is a big thing that I believe is important in leadership. So it’s really connecting with teams and thinking about, okay, you know, what are the curriculum pieces we have in place for this week? How is the team feeling? What adjustments might we need to make? How can we communicate with parents? So at this point I wear a lot of hats. So it’s not even necessarily about like specific growth and development plans that I might’ve been working with in partnership with teachers before. But it’s more of what do our students need to know now? Need us to know now?
Steve: 12:55 I read an interesting comment from a teacher online who described that while she’s a veteran teacher with 20 years experience behind her, she has the feelings that she had when she was a first year teacher. And I thought that’s an interesting thought for people in coaching roles to have. We can all picture what it’s like working with that with that first year teacher. And now I have an entire staff that’s having some of those emotions and thoughts that they had long ago as a first year teacher.
Jonathan : 13:31 Yeah, absolutely. You know, in working with teams as well, it’s, you know, I think it’s just acknowledging that like, this is new territory for all of us, right? And again, it’s all about how we work together. And it’s been such a privilege to work with such a dedicated group of educators and even see educators around the world coming together. So I think acknowledging that this is hard and that all of us, you know, we don’t have the answers, but together we’re going to figure it out and continuing to build the road together.
Steve: 13:58 Jonathan, I captured a statement and we’ve kind of talked around this throughout but I captured it from your Twitter feed that seemed to me to kind of summarize things. So I want to read it back to you now and make any comment to it that you’d like to make. You said, “how we work together is much more important than the curriculum content we might think our students need to get through. Learning might look different than what we’re used to it looking like, but learning IS happening.” With capitalization there of “is.” Any piece of that you’d like to respond to further?
Jonathan : 14:38 I think, again, it just comes back to being in the human business and that, you know, we’re about improving learning and helping kids move forward to be the best person that they can be. And it takes a community. So you know, so now is not the time to think about like, when is my kid going to get this math test? It’s let’s think about all the other different things and ways that your child can be learning right now. Like even with my own child, just trying to help him work through those self management strategies is massive, you know? So there’s a lot of different paths learning can take because we’re all different and we all learn and we all learn differently. So there’s no doubt in my mind that learning is happening based on the content and the learning experiences that we’re providing our students, but also through the approaches to learning as well.
Steve: 15:25 Yeah. In the past few years, there’s been many schools looking at what are all those additional skills that our students should be developing beyond the ones that were written into our curriculum. And I’m kind of sensing that we may be engaged in a tremendous opportunity here for students, parents and teachers to in effect gain a whole new learning experience.
Jonathan : 15:52 Yeah, absolutely. If we think about, you know, whatever experience the child is going through right now and based on the school that they’re at and what they’re being provided, we’re still gonna need, you know, critical thinking, skills, creativity. There still needs to be transfer, communication skills, social skills, self management organization, reflection, research skills, understanding, you know, how do I absorb media literacy? How do I act appropriately in an online presence? Like, there’s a lot of different parts of learning that are taking place right now. It’s also we have the opportunity to try new things because this is kind of unknown territory. And at least from my experience and that experience from WAB was that parents had been so supportive and are on board and working together that we have the opportunity to try out new things with parents’ support. And that’s not an opportunity that comes all the time. So if there’s one thing I can say to schools is take advantage of – in this moment of crisis, there is an opportunity to try a lot of new things with parents and community support and what an amazing time and opportunity we have as educators.
Steve: 17:01 That’s a very powerful thought that I hadn’t considered. Parents in effect, can’t hang on to an old picture of what school should be. So it in effect does create a whole new opportunity.
Jonathan : 17:14 Yeah, I mean we think of school as, you know, when we think about giving kids more voice choice and ownership or agency in their learning and wanting to pass more responsibility for their learning to them, you know, sometimes parents can get a little worried because it’s not the way that they remember school. It’s not the way that I remember school. The interesting thing now is that this isn’t the way any of us remember school.
Steve: 17:36 [laughter] Yeah. Almost a level playing field for teachers, students and parents at the same time.
Jonathan : 17:42 Absolutely. It’s a way to look at it, like, we’re – what an amazing time to be learner-centered because right now we’re all learners in this.
Steve: 17:49 Yep. Well, Jonathan, many of the listeners to this podcast are going to hear this while they’re in their second week of dealing with school closure and being six, seven weeks ahead of us, I’m wondering if there’s just one, closing word of advice you’d like to give those folks who are at the the earliest stage of dealing with what has come to many of them as a sudden surprise.
Jonathan : 18:19 I think the big things are, you know, reevaluate your curriculum, what is actually accessible to kids and collect all the data you can about what resources kids have available, where they are. Things like that. Do they have access to technology? I think another big thing is just make sure that you’re connecting with each other as much as possible. And that community connection during this time is absolutely critical and it’s one of the things that has kept our community at WAB afloat and strong is through these connections. And that’s more important than anything. We’re eventually gonna come back from this and we’re gonna have time to assess, you know, we’re going to have time to get back to the written or taught curriculum, but the relationships piece is what’s going to keep us together and keep us moving forward right now.
Steve: 19:05 Well, thanks Jonathan. I I really appreciate it.
Jonathan : 19:08 Thanks Steve. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Steve: 19:11 Take care.
Jonathan : 19:12 Thanks, you too.
Steve: 19:14 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 blogsatbarkleypd.com.