Lessons Learned: Six Principals Speak Out on Remote Teaching, and Beyond

The joint meeting, via Zoom, with the Education Committees of Community Board's 1 and 2, led by Tricia Joyce and Jeannine Kiely, respectively. Six principals took questions at the meeting. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 15, 2020

After two months of remote teaching, what have principals learned, and what can school communities expect when classrooms—it’s hoped—reopen in the fall? On Tuesday, May 12, six principals and two Department of Education officials came together via Zoom to answer questions on the minds of many parents. The discussion took place during a joint online meeting of the Youth Committees of Community Boards 1 and 2. Principals from schools within CB1 included Terri Ruyter, P.S./I.S. 276, Maggie Siena, the Peck Slip School, and Shanna Douglas, Lower Manhattan Community Middle School. Principals Renny Fong, P.S. 130, Jacqui Getz, I.S. 297 (75 Morton St.) and Kelly Shannon, P.S. 41, represented schools in Community Board 2.

P.S. 89 2nd grader Daniella Sheindlin takes a remote gym class with her teacher James Herlihy. Video courtesy of Laurie Sheindlin

“One thing I’m learning,” Renny Fong said, “is that crisis creates opportunity and what a partnership this has become in bringing us all together. And parents, you’re now like our co-teachers, and the feedback we’re getting is so important. So let’s just keep this conversation going.”

Below, edited for length, are some of the questions and answers from the discussion. Comments from readers are welcome: Please send them to carlg@tribecatrib.com.

Parents are asking why there can’t be more live instruction and face-to-face time. 

GETZ: Our teachers turned and left their classrooms on a dime and they’re figuring it out as they go along. If this goes on into the future certainly there will be more opportunity to think about what does live instruction mean. But there are so many questions. If you give a lesson, how do kids access it later?

The point of live instruction is to connect. We are all doing a lot of small group instruction, live advisory, live office hours, pulling kids together and doing those smaller opportunities. Surprisingly, some children don’t come. And a lot of us just do a lot of phone calls. We need to do a better job advertising and communicating the live instruction we are doing.

SIENA: The struggle between synchronous [live] and asynchronous [non-live] teaching is a tough one. We’ve had a lot of connectivity issues. So that’s standing in the way of doing more effective small group instruction in particular, and large group instruction. Teachers are not accustomed to managing chats. That’s one thing that comes up with Google Meets. The chats can be a very useful tool but it’s hard to keep some of our kids from abusing it and doing some naughty stuff while the teacher is trying to teach. 

Our teachers are not convinced that [live instruction] is always the most effective way to deliver instruction. And we are looking at what we are getting back from kids when we are delivering a live math lesson and when we’re delivering a videotaped lesson that kids can watch anytime that they need to. One of my teachers is pretty clear that the math that she got back from the videotaped instruction is better. 

And we are all struggling with issues of equity. Students in temporary housing find it very difficult to get online instruction. If you have four kids in the program and there are four different devices, that’s really hard. And it doesn’t mean we’re not going to do live instruction, that we’re not going to do small groups, but it does mean that it may be a platform that is less helpful and accessible to many of our students who are really vulnerable. 

SHANNON Our live sessions work really well to build community. What we are struggling with is what are best practices around reading instruction. And what supports are available and how might we use that in a more structured way if we are to continue remote learning in the fall. 

How can we incorporate more one-to-one feedback from teachers to help keep kids motivated on digital learning?

SIENA One thing that parents need to know is that we have to work really hard in the classroom sometimes to get kids to be motivated. It’s not like when they’re at school they just open up their book and it’s like, “I’m doing it! I’m reading!” So if you’re having a particular issue with one of your children, that may be a conversation to have with your teacher because he or she may know something to help motivate your kid. Sharing work with other people and getting feedback is another way to motivate kids. But lack of motivation is not specific to remote learning. 

How will it be decided if a child can advance to the next grade?

RUYTER The teachers are collecting as much evidence as they can. It’s hard in kindergarten to see what a kid can do on their own. We’re trying, with some assessments, to tell the parents we want to see what your kid can do. On this one, don’t help. Because in kindergarten you want to help your kid be successful. We need to see what they can do without support so that we can understand what the job is for the fall. And that’s for every grade. 

The teachers are working very collaboratively to see what the outcomes of units usually would be in a regular school year and we’re compacting those and letting the less important ones go off to the side for the moment to make sure we have the essential ones in place. When the kids move to the next grade teachers will have a strong sense of what has been accomplished already, and what’s missing or needs reinforcement. The kids will by and large be as ready as they can be for the next grade.

What are some of your concerns for the fall?

RUYTER We could really use a chunk of time with teachers to process and plan. Like the two days in September are going to be insufficient. It’s going to be like the three days we had [preparing for remote learning] only it’s going to be less than that. And we don’t know the kids. And we don’t have classroom routines to draw upon. 

The hardest part of this is what seems like last-minute decisions coming out of the DOE. When the global epidemic was declared by WHO on Wednesday, if the Department of Education would have said then that we are getting ready to do this remote learning but we don’t have an exact timeline, we would have started sending stuff home with the kids right away. It would have been a much smoother transition. So as much advance information you [the DOE] can give us, even if you don’t want to say publicly—we will keep the secret—it will allow us to plan more effectively. That’s my public plea for some advance warning.  

SIENA We are going into one of our harder falls that maybe we have ever encountered. We are facing massive funding cuts. [Inaudible audio here concerning children who will be coming to school with skill deficits.]  We need people, we need personnel. If you want children with learning needs to get more support at home we need more people to provide that support. Also, I’m feeling worried about the return of the devices that we gave out. We loaned out most of our laptops and iPads. I don’t expect to see many of them in great shape 

DOUGLAS To join in on what Maggie said, when we gave technology out, given that our budgets are currently frozen and we don’t have the money we would’ve used to purchase those supplies, how will we have the tools and equipment necessary for our students? And I’m very concerned about how the cuts will impact students when we already struggle to fund a full-time guidance counselor. We’re hearing from families and teachers about the stress factors that are happening for them. How might that be addressed in the fall in light of the potential cuts that we face. How can we support the emotional well-being of our students and staff?

Does the DOE have guidelines about the daily interaction that’s expected between teacher and students? Is there a uniform standard or is it up to schools to develop their own?

KATIE MARO, Chief of Staff, DOE Chief Academic Officer We are looking at coming out with a policy for what [live] instruction for teachers working with their students should be.

Is there any talk of extending the school year and/or offering some kind of programs over the summer?

MARO Extending the school year is not something we are currently discussing. And our summer program will be for students who are identified as needing more support.