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Ending Well

Written by Justin Cook on May 13th, 2020

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
(Psalm 13: 1-2)

“This uncertain future, this madness of time, does not suit my penchant for predicting and regulating all the variables in the world that make me anxious. I believe that the way to contain my anxiety—that has led to my exhaustion, that has led to my irritability, that is wrapped in my grief for all that COVID-19 has robbed me of in the last eight weeks and intends to for who knows how much longer—is to reestablish my capacity to predict my future. To once again be master of my universe. To be like I was before coronavirus.”
Curt Thompson, “It’s Only a Matter of Time”, May 5, 2020

 

Do Curt’s words resonate with you? They certainly do with me. My assumption is that your role as leader has meant you’ve become a lightning rod for much of the anxiety Curt is describing. Both your staff and your school families are looking to you to make the future predictable, and therefore manageable. What are we going to do with graduation? Will we be allowed back in our buildings this year? What will school look like next September?

Edvance is committed to working closely with you to be more prepared for this uncertain future; (see below for more on that). But for now, let’s focus on staying in the present. In his blog, Curt urges us to seek the path of the poet in Psalm 13:  

But here is where our psalmist comes to our aid. For indeed, he knows what it means to not know the future. “How long?” he asks, he repeats, he pleads. This is a guy who is looking into the fog. … But two-thirds of the way through his complaint, he pauses, stops even, regains his composure, and turns. And, of significance, he does not turn to the sudden discovery of a solution to his problems outside of himself (his enemy) or inside himself (his tormenting thoughts and feelings). He does not turn to a predictable future that he can guarantee. Rather, he turns to “…your unfailing love.”

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
(Psalm 13:5-6)

Curt urges us to channel God’s unfailing love for us into becoming “wellsprings of unfailing love” for others. With this hope in mind, let’s turn our attention to ending (and leading) well this spring, for both our students and our staffs, in spite of an unpredictable future.

Ending well with Students and Families

Although the provincial government and Ministry of Education are still leaving the possibility open, it is looking more likely that we will not return to our school buildings with students this June. Regardless of whether we finish from home or spend one or two weeks in schools with flexible attendance and rigorous distancing expectations, we can plan with clarity and lead with courage to end well with our students and families.

End of term date

In consultation with your communities, when should you make decisions about your “last day of classes?” You know your school community best. This decision will not be the same for every school. You may choose to wait and see if publicly funded schools reopen for June and follow suit—your parents may expect that from you if public schools do indeed open. You may decide to continue learning from home through June, and not return to your school building until September. Both decisions have logistical implications and must be considered carefully.

Ending learning well

In the meantime, you can help your staff prepare well for their end of year. Echoing the priority of relationships and assessment-as-learning in our Assessment and (Emergency) Home-based Learning resource, support your teachers to finish the year in dialogue, celebration, and reflection with their students.

Edutopia offers a set of reflection questions based on looking backward, inward, outward, and forward. If it doesn’t feel like an add-on, urge staff to root this end of year reflection in a portfolio of student work. With age-appropriateness, this structure for reflection can help students process what has happened relationally—inward and outward—but also narratively—by looking backward and forward in time. Taking the time to reflect can help organize what is implicit or even disorienting and emotionally confusing into experience that is explicit: understood, manageable, and even celebratory. In the same way a closing circle finishes the day in a calm and organized manner, year end reflection can close the entire year with a sense of calm and significance. This can apply to both the knowledge and skills learned (learning targets/goals), but also the character formation that resulted from the learning (character targets/goals). In addition to asking some of the questions in the resource from Edutopia, we might provide students with sentence stems like the following to help prompt the reflection:

  • Backward Looking: “Something I was proud of this spring is _______.”
  • Inward-Looking: “I realize that for me to work at my best I need _________.”
  • Outward Looking: “Even though I was physically separated from my friends and classmates, I was still able to stay connected with them by _____________.”
  • Upward-Looking: “A moment God seemed close to me was when __________.”
  • Forward-Looking: “In the future, I’d like to focus on _________ in my learning.”

For younger students, these reflection prompts can be provided to parents for them to facilitate with their children and then submitted to teachers.

Final reports

In addition to helping the student organize their experiences for learning, the reflections described above can also help teachers complete anecdotal final reports. A few schools have provided examples on Slack of how they plan to complete final assessments and reports in a way that honours our complex reality this spring. Do you need support in creating templates for your own school? Reach out to me (justin.cook@edvance.ca) and I can get you in touch with one or more of these schools. Again, as with the end of the learning, use the final reports to focus on celebration of what the students were able to accomplish even in hard times. A final report after a complex spring is not the time to offer correction or challenge to students (or by extension their parents!). Work hard to find things to celebrate. Resist the urge to vent frustrations or regret, even if they might be completely legitimate!

Communal Song Invitation

In the next few weeks, elementary schools will be invited to participate in an Edvance Affiliate schools communal praise project called Sing Together. We’re excited to be partnering with Julie Tetreault, a music teacher at John Knox Christian School in Wyoming, Ontario, on this project which will bring together hundreds of student voices in praise of our holy and trustworthy God! Students will be invited to record themselves singing “Build My Life” by Pat Barrett, Matt Redman, Brett Younker, Karl Andrew Martin, and Kirby Kaple. Stay tuned for an email outlining all the details.

Graduation

By now you’ve likely connected with your graduating class and postponed your typical graduation ceremonies, and this comes with a sense of lament. Acknowledge that loss, but you might also redirect your graduation committees to create a means by which each graduate can still be acknowledged and celebrated. What words can be said publicly about them, so that you can still offer the graduates and their families the school’s blessing on them as they move on in their lives and studies? How can you share these words with your graduates in meaningful (and safe) ways over distance? Numerous schools have creative ideas about this. Have you considered moving to the time-honoured tradition of holding a commencement in the fall? Again, connect with me or with your colleagues on Slack and in your cohort meetings to explore concrete ideas and structures.

Ending Well with your Staff: Looking Backward

This spring’s pivot to (emergency) home-based learning consists of three phases:

  • Phase One - Create and Implement the Plan
  • Phase Two - Adapt and Stabilize the Plan (and the entire school)
  • Phase Three - Maintaining, Sustaining, and even Flourishing in the Plan

As you move toward the conclusion of this year, take time to acknowledge how much of an emotional rollercoaster it has been with your staff. Just as experiences may be implicit and disorienting for students, so to your staff needs time to organize their experience into meaning. The end of the school year should feel like finally being able to step off the roller coaster. It should also give a time for reflection.

Take focused time in a June staff meeting to reflect and share together on what happened this year. You might consider including some or all of the following:

  • Celebrate the resilience and growth mindset that was so crucially on display in your staff this spring. Is there a way to indicate your appreciation tangibly? I have heard of one school that sent each staff a coffee and donut delivery for a virtual coffee break. Perhaps, if feasible, you could even offer your staff a special year-end dinner supporting a local restaurant through a gift certificate or pre-arranged voucher that allows them to order in.
  • Schedule time in the meeting to complete a set of reflection questions for more dialogue. This could be formalized through a survey tool so that you can keep and collate the responses. Consider some of the questions from the Edutopia reflection tool. This set of questions from a blog by Lynn Swaner, Dan Beerens, and Erik Ellefsen might also be helpful:
    • What new mindsets and skillsare we developing as a school community (like flexibility, adaptiveness, and resilience), and how will we ensure we use—and not lose!—these mindsets and skills in the future.
    • What did we learn about student learning itself, and how we better understand and meet the diverse and unique needs of students?
    • What lessons about building and nurturing communitydid we learn from this experience? And if we can do those things while we’re physically isolated, what’s stopping us from doing them all the time?
    • What unique value proposition(s)of Christian education manifested during this time of challenge, and how can we articulate that to current and prospective families?
    • How did we develop new efficiencies in school managementduring this time of crisis, and how can we maintain and even improve upon these efficiencies in the future?

As you look backward, inward, and outward, don’t forget to celebrate all of the good work that happened before March also!

  • Celebrate what is gained or learned from the reflection. Highlight key trends or features to what the staff share, again acknowledging that all of our experiences may have been different, but that you worked hard as a team to lead your students and families through one of the greatest disruptions to modern education in history. Share with the staff that the learning gained from the experience this past year will also shape the way you move into an uncertain future—by doing it as a team together, with God’s unfailing love sustaining you.

Ending Well with your Staff: Looking Forward

If this year ended with a roller coaster ride through three phases, we might consider framing next September as another ride through phase four:

  • Phase Four: What’s next? Living into our new normal of fluctuation with resilience and relationship to maximize learning and an adaptive posture.

Building on some of the positives you choose to highlight from the backward looking staff reflections, lead your staff with the confidence that they are now prepared to handle the complexity and ambiguity of what might be coming in September.

First, there are several health protocols that we might have to do in September, for example:

  • Cleaning and hygiene protocols: handwashing, surface cleaning, etc.
  • Limiting class attendance, staggering schedules (day 1/day 2, morning/afternoon, odd grades/even grades) to reduce people per square footage
  • Flexible attendance policies based on family needs and potential quarantines
  • Elimination/reduction of “non-essentials:” extra-curriculars, full school gatherings, etc.

This past year, we experienced the pendulum swing from fully in-person learning to fully (emergency) home-based learning. Building on that experience and with some time to prepare, schools may have to be ready for the following three possibilities:

Fully in Person Learning

Blended learning

Fully remote learning

  • School is open
  • Attendance is consistent and expected daily
  • Students access learning in a combination of in-school attendance and online platforms
  • In-school attendance is flexible or scheduled to reduce number of people in the building
  • Students access learning only from home.
  • Building is closed to students and perhaps staff.

 

It seems likely that any of these three realities are not only a possibility for next September, but also a swinging pendulum that forces us to perhaps pivot from one to another, depending on the required protocols and restrictions dictated by public health. In this regard, preparing well for blended or hybrid learning structures that can easily swing to either extreme is wise. The incredible response of schools to complexity to this past year already indicates that not only we can survive but we can thrive no matter how the health priorities force us to respond. And there is much to embrace in the possibilities of blended learning. ACSI has recently published a helpful blog on the topic. In it, the author leans on the book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. Perhaps it’s a helpful read for this summer.

In spite of the health protocols we may have to implement, there are a number of things that we can also embrace and prioritize in preparation for September. We want to continue to honour the beauty and uniqueness of each child (and educator!) as whole persons—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—helping them to see themselves as God’s handiwork—His beautiful work—and capable of doing beautiful work for a shared future in a complex world. So, in addition to what we might have to do, we also know that we want to be the following:

  • Highly personal (not standardized) with frequent dialogue and surveys of family/student needs and experiences.
  • Highly communal (not individualized) with synchronous and in-person time prioritizing social-emotional and collaborative learning.
  • Highly networked (not isolated) as a system of schools and educators. (Slack will carry on!)
  • Highly narrative and purpose-driven (not disjointed and self-serving) through reflection and learning that is contextualized.

With blended learning and potential distancing restrictions even in our buildings, next September will require us to get creative about flexible scheduling and attendance in a way that is manageable for teachers. Other creative opportunities may also help us make decisions that are mission-driven and not just reactionary, such as the following:

  • While being indoors forces us into rigidity for distancing, the being out of doors does not. How might we prioritize outdoor education and spaces, especially for our youngest learners who need space for flexibility and movement? Where can we learn more about how to do that well?
  • Assuming we may need to remain flexible on our subjects, how might we keep focusing on core skill development in literacy and numeracy with a more project-based approach to other subjects—doing more with less—in which students track their learning through portfolios of meaningful work? This might allow teachers to keep putting high level plans in place for literacy and numeracy that students can accomplish at both home and school, with longer term projects that also have the flexibility of work time in both locations. Edvance is committed and ready to support a learning vision for three dimensions: character formation, mastery of knowledge and skills, and beautiful work. Perhaps these three dimensions can help to simplify and streamline what the learning objectives are, and how we assess learning in complex circumstances.
  • Personalization and flexible attendance will require us to continue to emphasize formative assessment—assessment for and as learning—and de-emphasize assessment of learning. Perhaps this is also a blessing! How can we continue to embrace the primacy of relationship and reflection over measuring and judging?

Erik Ellefsen from the Centre for the Advancement of Christian Education has interviewed a number of people on his podcast Digical Education with one simple question: “What’s Next?” You might find those podcasts helpful.

Lastly, the heightened pressures of distancing and cleanliness put additional stress on those with specific needs. We must ensure that our decisions prioritize equity and don’t force a return to outdated educational approaches of high control and rigid structures that forces children to go to school in a culture of fear and makes the participation of those with complex needs next to impossible.

Let’s be proactive and thoughtful in our planning for next year by starting to dream about what might be possible in spite of complexity and ambiguity. Edvance will continue to engage with school leaders and educators, to explore possibilities and help you prepare for September. In the meantime, let’s take every opportunity this June to end well, trusting in God’s unfailing love for us and yearning to be outposts of goodness and beauty for others to experience that love through us.  

 

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