-by Mary Franco, Ed.D.

Last spring educators were tasked with the monumental challenge of engineering entirely new practices and essentially abandoning years of educational preparation, experience, and instinct. Re-evaluating curriculum, developing pedagogy around new systems, and analyzing best practices to accommodate a dramatic change in interface is a process that, under the best of circumstances, would rightfully take years. Instead, educators were tasked with doing this overnight. Not only were they braving this new world with limited resources and training, but they were asked to do this within the frame of a highly volatile, unpredictable, and sensitive climate, as people faced an uncertain, new reality. This tornado of abrupt change paired with an unrecognizable world thrust all of us into survival mode. 

How one school build values-centered systems to support students in digital learning spaces.
Building systems to support your learners in digital spaces.

For educators, that meant that they had to strip their practices down to the absolute bare minimum.  Educators, like a struggling swimmer, found themselves in the middle of an unrecognizable and vast lake, sinking beneath the surface. In order to keep their heads above water, they needed to let go of the extra weight.  In our world, that essentially meant that many practices, programs, strategies were cast to sink below the waters, and what remained was a skeletal version of teaching. The essentials. 

Among other initiatives and practices, our work and progress towards building a successful PBIS program was definitely one of the causalities of that survival phase.  In all honesty, while were so feverishly treading water, PBIS was hardly even acknowledged. That’s the thing about survival mode- it’s being so suddenly thrust into a crisis, that 99% of what you know, do, and value is cast to the wind so that you can call on your most basic instincts and strength to get to the other side of that crisis.  Education had a weak pulse in the spring, but with hope, commitment, and a shared understanding that the little bit of energy we had needed to go towards getting us through, we let many things go so we could keep it alive.  That was hard, but it was necessary. 

But then, summer threw us all a life vest. That allowed us to breath for the first time. Though we remained in the center of what we now know as a sprawling lake, for the first time, our legs were still beneath the surface.  Our team took that time to finally acknowledge the things lost to the deep waters.  It also meant, for the first time, we had to face the impact of those losses. For our team this also became the phase where we had to make some difficult decisions and weigh those losses against a new reality. We now understood that this crisis had a greater lifespan than we believed in the beginning. We knew that what we faced in the spring was not a fleeting storm. It was, and still is, a steady and relentless one. But with this gift of momentary pause and reflection, we had the opportunity to dive below the surface and recover what we let go and bring it back up to the sun. 

It is true, however, that many of our traditional practices needed to remain deep below the water. It is simply a different landscape now, and we have to adapt. An absolute necessary part of the process we underwent was the deliberate inventory and selection of what needed to drown for the sake of building new practices, and what we absolutely needed to preserve and adapt.  I’m certain for many educators, PBIS practices and systems have been deemed unmanageable or unrealistic in the rebuilding process. While I do not doubt the loss feels real, it’s also a loss that many educators categorize as inevitable. I can also fully appreciate and understand all the valid reasons why this feels justifiable.  PBIS, by nature, is such an intimate system, which at its foundational level embraces the power of human connection and acknowledgement. We all know that remote learning is such an unnatural avenue for relationship-building.  Our opportunity to connect, which was so easily achieved when we interfaced in the flesh with our students, in our sacred classroom space, has been deduced to tiny squares on a computer screen.  How can one honestly transfer this innately human practice of connection to this sterile world?

But for our team, that argument actually became the exact reason why we felt the urgency to resurrect PBIS and adapt it to remote learning.  Human connection, acknowledgement, routine, and predictability was most definitely lost in the crisis and PBIS is a tremendous opportunity to bring these critical elements to a platform that so desperately lacks that human element. In fact, I would go as far as saying not only did we commit to the work to transition this remotely, but we prioritized it.  It felt like more than academics, more than rigor, students needed this system so that they could feel connection, lean on some level of predictability, and learn deliberately across all virtual settings how to be a student in this foreign setting. It also suddenly felt imperative that we get back to our basic values- the ones we so carefully selected knowing that at the core of our work is our effort to build better humans, who recognize the tangible and meaningful ways they can contribute and support a learning community- and maybe, just maybe, transition that to understanding as they interface with a wider world.

Most importantly, we wanted to transfer the system that ensured our students feel acknowledged and celebrated for their tremendous ability to adapt.  Let’s not forget that as we were swimming for our lives- our students were, too. Let’s also not forget that as many of us were learning to be teachers in remote settings for the first time, our students were learning how to be students in a remote setting.  PBIS provides the exact foundation needed to help students learn, in a highly predictable format, how to be a student in an online classroom and celebrates their efforts for doing so. Now more than ever, our students needed that reinforcement.

So, we went back our values. As a team we resolved that it still matters that our kids are respectful, responsible, and compassionate. We defined how that looks in a virtual setting by developing a remote learning matrix. Then we taught them. Our whole team, deliberately and systematically taught our kids not only that these values transcend, but that they frame our classroom culture even when our classroom has us interacting in tiny boxes.  We rolled out remote learning lessons and had students debate and reflect on how those values look in their new world.  And best of all, we revised and rolled out an acknowledgement system.  We have made it an absolute priority to ensure that our online learning experience is rich with acknowledgement and that we are reinforcing, at every turn, the incredible efforts of our learners to also adapt and to demonstrate the values that we are collectively committed to embracing. 

We even carved out and dedicated incredibly precious professional development time for this. That was not an easy task, because as we scramble to help our teachers build strength in their capacity, PD is suddenly consumed with Google Classroom 101, how to engage online learners, how to assess in remote learning, etc. But we deliberately dedicated professional development to our PBIS adaptation because it was that important. Furthermore, our messaging was that this system matters, it can and will thrive remotely, and that our collective commitment to it will give students a richer, more meaningful experience. 

The bottom line is, PBIS doesn’t need to disappear into the murky waters.  In fact, not only can it transition, I argue that because of the benefit of offering a predictable and acknowledgement-rich environment, we can almost not afford to let it sink.  I have come to realize that we have an ethical obligation to preserve any effort that calls upon our core values, because our core values anchor and shape the human experience.  We need that. We need a more human experience, maybe now more than ever.

So, now we are off and swimming.  Stronger this time around, and with the added benefit of a system that makes these rough waters less intimidating, a little more familiar, and if nothing else, gives us hope that our values have not been swallowed by the waters. They are, if nothing else, what gives us buoyancy in or efforts to meet these unchartered waters with the tenacity we so need to re-imagine our future. 

Dr. Franco is the Assistant Principal at Orange Grove Middle School, a school adapting its PBIS implementation at all three tiers of implementation to digital learning spaces.

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