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Teaching outside the comfort zone, caring beyond the curriculum
By Elwin LeRoux, Regional Executive Director, Halifax Regional Centre for Education

I wonder if people who lived during the Renaissance were aware of the history they were living? Did they see the rebirth of ideas and processes? The changes to society? The innovation of their present, now our past?

Will people wonder that of us? What stories will be the bookends holding the challenges and embraced opportunities for all to review? When we reflect, what will we be proud of during this time? 

When students, families and staff in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) left school to start their March break on March 13, 2020 no one knew it would also be the last day of in-person teaching and learning for the rest of the school year. Like people around the world, Nova Scotians began to isolate to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

That sparked a quick and dramatic transformation in the way we live, play, work and shop. It also forced us to find new ways to lead, to teach and to learn – and fast.

Professional collaboration: Working together apart

The key factor driving the discovery of opportunities was the professional collaboration among leaders and staff in Nova Scotia’s public education system. This system consists of seven regional centres (RCEs) and one provincial Acadian school board (conseil scolaire Acadien provincial, or CSAP) under the umbrella of the provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD).

Being together while apart, especially in those early days, required people to enter the messy unknown—but there was great comfort in knowing that no one was navigating alone. Regular virtual collaboration continues to ensure consistent, coherent decision-making and messaging.

Working in partnership, RCEs/CSAP, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, the Public School Administrators’ Association of Nova Scotia and EECD designed a Learning Continuity Plan to support primary through Grade 12 learning. 
Nova Scotia At-Home Student Learning Packages

A dedicated learning website provides guidance for educators and resources to families. In addition to online resources, At-Home Student Learning Packages (available in English and French) for primary through Grade 9 students are delivered bi-weekly to subscribers of store flyers through Saltwire.

This low-tech, innovative idea has allowed HRCE (and all regions) to reach students without high-speed internet connection and those with limited access to technology. Student learning packages are also available online and in an accessible format. Five editions have been produced so far with monthly publication continuing in the summer.

High school students in need of technology could borrow a device from the school. For students in Grades 10 and 11, learning was focused on the courses in which they were enrolled. For Grade 12 students, learning was focused on coursework required for high school graduation.

Our intention was never to replicate school but rather to provide students with some meaningful learning opportunities during this pandemic.

Teaching beyond the comfort zone: Scaling up quickly

Scaling up learning at home for 50,000 students in a matter of weeks was a call to action for our teachers, our administrators and our system. This included supporting teachers to work differently. It’s inspiring to see how many teachers jumped in with two feet and became regulars at our office hours…to transition into a world that was the complete opposite from what they had been doing in their physical classrooms.  The adjustment was difficult for many, but teachers have been incredibly flexible and it’s become even more apparent that teachers will do whatever it takes to help their students even if it means moving out of their comfort zone. -	The TILT Team

Before COVID-19 HRCE’s Technology Integration Lead Team (TILT) coached teachers to incorporate technology into their practices primarily through in-class sessions alongside teachers and students. These sessions were voluntary and based on teacher interest. COVID-19 closures forced educators to pivot quickly as technology became necessary.

TILT inboxes were flooded with questions from teachers: how to get started, how to engage students online, and how to host a virtual classroom. The three-member team began offering virtual, real-time support during regular ‘office’ hours. They offered three hour-long Google Meet sessions each day and one evening a week during which teachers could drop in to ask questions and talk through their technological challenges. TILT coached teachers on how to use online tools to engage students equitably.

Over time, TILT also transitioned to hosting focused professional development sessions on topics requested by teachers. TILT has also launched an eLearning site to facilitate technology integration and supplement their real-time support. In addition, the team created instructional videos and tutorials to deepen teachers’ understanding of the tools available for at-home learning.

Growth during crisis: Moving from instruments to impact

There has been tremendous growth among the educators who have sought support. The questions teachers are asking now have become more complex and pedagogical-based rather than focused on tech troubleshooting. Educators have moved their focus from the instruments to the impacts.

That focus on impact has much to do with the supports, tools and resources created by HRCE’s math, literacy, French and student services departments. Our dedicated Teaching and Learning at Home webpage was continuously updated based on what teachers were requesting.

From strategies for remote teaching to strategies for engaging reluctant leaders remotely and equitably, the Teaching and Learning at Home site offered teachers the supports they needed when they needed it.
COVID-19 has provided a tremendous opportunity to rethink the way we do our work. We plan to continue with virtual office hours and will continue to offer specific topics responsive to needs identified by teachers.

Caring beyond the curriculum: Staying connected when we are apart

What really matters to families in a pandemic? If my inbox is any indication, it’s knowing that their child’s teacher cares. I’ve received countless emails from parents and guardians over the past two months. None of these messages praised the tools. No one said, “Thanks for teaching my daughter calculus.” They thanked teachers for understanding their family circumstances and appreciated the thoughtful efforts to show their children that they cared.

They thanked our teachers for the wellness check-ins during those first weeks when calls were made and emails sent to check on students.

They thanked school administrators for leading through difficult change.

They thanked our Parent Navigators and our SchoolsPlus staff who offered guidance and direction to community programs.
They thanked us for communication. We may not have had all the answers, but connections were maintained and reassuring messages were delivered consistently throughout uncertainty.
Education is an incredibly personal, human experience. The most important lesson that I hope we have confirmed for families is that we do indeed care.

Summing up: Lessons learned

So, when we reflect, what will we be proud of during this time? 

We will be proud of the fact that when facing unpredictable challenges, we collaborated our way forward! 

We felt unsure and experienced great difficulty—but found new ways to lead, to teach and to learn.

We lived with uncertainty and built coherence.

We lived in isolation and created togetherness.

In crisis, we seized opportunity…all while living the realities of a pandemic.

Where will kids be after this? We should see them as more resilient, more independent and more aware of their own strengths as learners. We will see different students when our doors open again – yes, even better problem solvers, eager to see what we’ve got ready for them next!

Where will educators be? Ever-caring, ever-challenged and more experienced with the evolving role of a teacher during unprecedented times.

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Editor’s Note: Elwin LeRoux is a director on The Learning Partnership’s Board of Directors. We are grateful for his service to our organization and to the students, educators and families of the Halifax Regional Centre of Education.