TEXAS ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS PROFESSIONAL JOURNAL
Cyber attacks are on the rise during COVID-19. Hereâ€™s what you can do about it.
Plus - Introducing the Texas Teachers of the Year and finalists! pg.34
A Virtual Viral Pandemic
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Volume 35 No. 3 FEATURE ARTICLES & COLUMNS A VIRTUAL VIRAL PANDEMIC 12 By Dacia Rivers
MEET TASA’S INSPIRING LEADERS
HIGHER EDUCATION 21 Study abroad experiences: challenging aspiring leaders’ perceptions of diversity Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz TSPRA VOICE
What’s this podcasting stuff, anyway?
Erin McCann GET TO KNOW TASA’S MEMBER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVES
A pandemic that shifted the world of education
Michelle Sandoval Villegas TCEA TECH TAKE
Using tech to empower remote learners (and their parents)
Diana Benner INTRODUCING TEXAS TEACHERS OF THE YEAR AND FINALISTS
Brian T. Woods, President, Northside ISD Doug Williams, President-Elect, Sunnyvale ISD
Charles Dupre, Vice President, Fort Bend ISD Greg Smith, Past President, Clear Creek ISD
TASA Professional Learning Calendar
Gonzalo Salazar, Region 1, Los Fresnos CISD
Executive Director’s View
Max A. Thompson, Region 2, Banquete ISD
Jo Ann Bludau, Region 3, Hallettsville ISD Martha Salazar-Zamora, Region 4, Tomball ISD Todd E. Lintzen, Region 5, Bridge City ISD Christie Whitbeck, Region 6, Bryan ISD Stan Surratt, Region 7, Lindale ISD Judd Marshall, Region 8, Mount Pleasant ISD Michael Kuhrt, Region 9, Wichita Falls ISD Kevin Worthy, Region 10, Royse City ISD
INSIGHT EDITORIAL STAFF
David Belding, Region 11, Aubrey ISD Kevin Brown
Assistant Executive Director, Services and Systems Administration
Ann M. Halstead
Director, Communications and Media Relations
Jodi Duron, Region 13, Elgin ISD David Young, Region 14, Abilene ISD Joe Young, Region 15, Brownwood ISD Donna Hale, Region 16, Miami ISD
Design/Production Marco A. De La Cueva
George Kazanas, Region 12, Midway ISD
INSIGHT is published quarterly by the Texas Association of School Administrators, 406 East 11th Street, Austin, Texas, 78701-2617. Subscription is included in TASA membership dues. © 2020 by TASA. All rights reserved.TASA members may reprint articles in limited quantities for in-house educational use. Articles in INSIGHT are expressions of the author or interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of TASA. Advertisements do not necessarily carry the endorsement of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Keith Bryant, Region 17, Lubbock-Cooper ISD Ariel Elliott, Region 18, Greenwood ISD Jeannie Meza-Chavez, Region 19, San Elizario ISD Michelle Carroll Smith, Region 20, Lytle ISD
Gary Bates, Fort Sam Houston ISD Priscilla Canales, Weslaco ISD LaTonya Goffney, Aldine ISD Walter Jackson, La Porte ISD
Jodi Duron, Elgin ISD
EDITORIAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Charles Dupre, Fort Bend ISD, Chair Carl Dethloff, San Angelo ISD Jodi Duron, Elgin ISD Stacey Edmonson, Sam Houston State University Michael Kuhrt, Wichita Falls ISD Jeremy Thompson, Era ISD
TASA Professional Learning Calendar For details on our professional development events, please visit us at www.tasanet.org or call the TASA office at 512.477.6361 or 800.725.TASA (8272)
November 2, 4, & 6
CMSi Curriculum Writing Workshop
First-time Superintendents Academy Session 3 of 4 gust``
10 & 12
CMSi Curriculum Management Planning Workshop
Texas Assessment Conference
Future-Ready Superintendents Leadership Network (FRSLN) Event #1
Budget Cohort for Texas District Leaders
N2 Learning Principalsâ€™ Institute Session 3
N2 Learning Executive Leadership Institute Session 2
N2 Learning Assistant Principal Leadership Academy Session 3
Budget Cohort for Texas District Leaders
TASA Midwinter Conference
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Dream Big. DreamBox. See success stories at dreambox.com/dreambig
LEADING WITH GRATITUDE
want to begin this article by thanking the staff at TASA and TASB for a wonderful, if virtual, TASA|TASB conference. I was so impressed by the sessions and the engagement I saw from attendees. This is proof positive that nothing can stop our efforts to learn and help each other be better. One of the sessions I really appreciated was author and researcher Shawn Achor. Achor studies the impact of positive psychology. His session really helped me to check my own attitudes.
Brian T. Woods
PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE Sometimes we have to force ourselves to pick up our head and look around for the good.
Like you, perhaps, sometimes I feel like I am slogging through the rest of 2020 and just wishing for it to be over. I have to admit that the pandemic can be discouraging at times. This is the reason we need to lean on each other. Every time I feel like very little is going well, I call a respected colleague and ask them to tell me something that is going great in their district. Of course they can list many things, and this forces me to refocus on similar things that are also going well in my district. It goes back to that old notion of gratitude. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to pick up our head and look around for the good. I find that when I do, I always feel better and also think more clearly about my next steps. Let’s continue to lean on each other as we navigate the rest of 2020. To that end, I decided to share a short list of things I am personally grateful for, and would encourage you to write your own short (or long) list: •
My family and their health.
My job. While taxing, I have never done more important work.
My school district community and its generally supportive and understanding nature.
My colleagues both in Northside ISD and across the state.
My shelter dog, Elroy.
I could build a much longer list, but you get the idea. Just the few seconds it took to create this list helped my outlook for the coming day and week. Feel free to share with each other what you are grateful for. Looking at Achor’s research, it turns out that if you make a list of just three things that you are grateful for that are new in the last 24 hours, your levels of optimism and happiness increase dramatically. The same is true for those who journal two minutes per day about a positive experience. Achor’s research indicates that our brains, when positive, perform significantly better than when we are negative, neutral or stressed. He says, “Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises and your energy levels rise.” The research indicates that when you are positive, dopamine pours into your system. When that happens, not only do you feel happy, but it turns on the learning centers in the brain. You actually become better able to adapt to your environment. So, why talk about happiness and gratitude during a pandemic? Because it not only improves our mental and physical health, but it helps us adapt to change. Goodness knows, we are all adapting to change.
President’s Message continues on page 10
A New Standard for Disinfection
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UV-C is a chemical-free disinfection solution. Arc is safe to use around food, plants, furniture and electronics and humans can immediately re-enter a treated room.
COMBAT DECISION FATIGUE ONE ITEM AT A TIME
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR’S VIEW With a new wave of cybercrimes being committed against schools, it’s more important than ever to be as vigilant as possible to protect sensitive student information, financial resources and student safety.
s the reality of the pandemic continues to take a toll on our daily lives, we are faced with many new challenges. Superintendents and school leaders have “decision fatigue” as they are constantly rethinking every process in their schools. Things that were at one time routine are now controversial. How will we sell football tickets safely? Who gets to buy the limited number of them available? Will our board meeting be held in-person? What should our bus routes look like? How do we build a new master schedule every six weeks? Should we hire a company to disinfect the schools? How do we handle lunch schedules? What should pickup and drop-off look like? What’s the process for on-campus deliveries? How will we hold parent conferences? Who can install plexiglass in the office? Connectivity issues, anyone? Some of the decisions that have to be considered involve cybersecurity, since so much of our work is now being done online. In this edition of INSIGHT, we will discuss the new realities facing the very real problem of cybersecurity. With a new wave of cybercrimes being committed against schools, it’s more important than ever to be as vigilant as possible to protect sensitive student information, financial resources and student safety. There have been concerns about hackers “Zoom bombing” remote classes or “kidnapping” important data and demanding a financial ransom for its safe return. One organization of cybercriminals is so well established, it even has a “help desk” staffed by a friendly person who will ensure safe payment of your ransom. This is indeed a big concern. With so much activity occurring online to conduct our “new normal” school routines, there is more opportunity for concerns about cybersecurity. Yet, we know even the most secure sites can become hacking victims. Think of the Pentagon, retail stores, major banks and even political parties. How can schools protect themselves and their students while still making sure teachers have access to the information and technology they need to effectively teach our children? All of these uncertainties lead to even more decision fatigue. One way to alleviate this fatigue is to check off decisions one at a time. My hope is that this issue provides some insights for you and possibly greater clarity, so that you can check this one item off your very long list. Be well, my friends!
Kevin Brown TASA Executive Director
President’ Message continued from page 7
Here’s another practical and powerful idea I am “borrowing” from Shawn. He says that if you start each day by spending two minutes writing an email or text message of gratitude to a colleague, family member or friend, your social connection score moves to a level on par with the top percentage of people in the world. This is important as social connection not only provides feelings of happiness, but actually is as predictive of how long we will live as having a chronic disease. Writing to one person per day in your network of support has this tremendous impact. I am going to commit to doing this. Starting today, I will write to someone important to me, and I hope that you will do the same. Together, we can improve our collective happiness,
health and productivity. Share this idea with your family and friends. Share this idea with the students and the families with which you interact. Together, we can improve our level of success and happiness in the present and not wait on some future that may be over the horizon.
Brian T. Woods TASA President Superintendent, Northside ISD
The stories that shape education are the stories that inspire us the most! The triumphs of students are personal to us. They mean more, because they illustrate how learning and shared experience can change lives. At Huckabee, we are committed to celebrating
MORE of what matters, because
witnessing the success of all students drives us to do what we love.
A virtual viral pandemic by Dacia Rivers
When COVID-19 first made waves in the U.S., schools across the country were forced to move to remote instruction, taking classrooms to a virtual, online space. Most communities were eager to lend a hand, reaching out to help schools accommodate this sudden change. Local businesses allowed students to sit in their parking lots and log onto their wifi. Tech companies offered their services to school districts free of charge. People came together, at least virtually, with at least one notable exception. Hackers. “The bad guys aren’t taking pity on schools, even knowing full well that they’re struggling,” says Martin Yarborough of Martin Yarborough and Associates, a Dallas-based consulting firm. “It’s the same type of cybersecurity problems we saw prior to the COVID-19 issue, it’s just escalated.” Martin Yarborough
Yarborough estimates that cyberattacks of school districts and businesses that offer services to schools have increased about 150% since COVID-19 began. He paints a grim picture for the future, but it comes from a wellinformed background, having spent 35 years working in education, serving as a technology professional in Fort Worth, Abilene, Granbury, Stephenville and Glen Rose ISDs before starting his firm. Mostly, Yarborough hopes his prognosis serves as a wake-up call — a warning that school districts need to prepare for a cyberattack, because it’s no longer an “if” situation, but a “when.”
The anatomy of an attack First, a little good news: Zoom bombings are mostly a thing of the past. In March, when school districts turned to Zoom and similar online conferencing services, the providers simply weren’t prepared for the sudden jump in usage. Security loopholes were everywhere, and hackers rushed to exploit them, breaking into virtual classes to sew mayhem just for their own amusement.
districts who were not able to access the systems for weeks afterward. Yarborough worked with a county office of education that fell victim to ransomware last year, affecting 15 school districts who were supported by the office and lost access to multiple software services for three weeks during the clean-up and restoration. Even then, data was never recovered.
The providers of these online meeting and conferencing systems were quick to close the loopholes and increase security, and because Zoom bombing isn’t financially lucrative, hackers didn’t find it worth the effort to keep trying. Yarborough suggests that the most competent hackers never really bothered with breaking into online meetings, anyway. They have their eyes on a far bigger prize.
In March, Sheldon ISD suffered a ransomware attack that left the district’s email service and security cameras unusable while compromising crucial private data, including employees’ personal bank account information. Rather than spend months rebuilding its servers, the district had no choice but to pay the hackers more than $200,000 to regain access to its systems.
Ransomware attacks are the biggest threat to school districts, cybersecurity-wise. These occur when a group gains access to an online system and infects it with malware, shutting it down and rendering the entire system useless. The hackers then reach out, asking for a ransom to remove their malicious code so things can get back to their normal working order, at least in theory. In late September, Plano’s Tyler Technologies suffered a ransomware attack that affected not just them, but the hundreds of businesses that use their services, including many Texas school
In the vast majority of ransomware cases, at least 65 to 75%, according to Yarborough, hackers use phishing to gain access to these networks. Phishing is an email scam, where a hacker sends someone a message that looks legitimate but contains a link that once clicked infects the user’s system with malware. In a school district where every teacher has a tablet or a computer and they’re all connected to the same network, it only takes one person clicking a phishing link one time to allow that hacker access to every device on the system. It doesn’t matter how big your district’s IT team is, how many defenses they’ve put into place or how much money you’ve invested into security,
Yarborough says. In this way, everyone is equally vulnerable. “The hackers pry on human behavior,” he says. “School district technology teams have done a good job in putting together all the technology they can, but they can’t keep people from clicking. I think more teachers probably communicate via email than they do by phone now.”
a long and arduous process, where each piece of equipment in a district must be cleaned and sanitized. In large school districts, this can take weeks, even months, and at enormous cost, especially when the target is someone who wasn’t expecting the attack and who had not prepared for it.
Prevention through preparation
To make matters worse, Yarborough says in some 40% of ransomware cases, hackers don’t even remove the malware once they’ve been paid. This is why the FBI and DOD tell people not to pay the ransoms. But it can be tempting when the only other way to remove the malicious code is to spend weeks restoring data, some of which is still lost forever.
Treating a cyberattack as an inevitability might sound like giving up, but it’s actually the first step toward preventing the fallout.
Following a ransomware attack, protocol says your first move should be to inform the FBI. Their job is to find the culprits. However, finding and prosecuting hackers is no easy task. By design, many U.S. ransomware attacks originate in countries with which we have no extradition treaty. While the FBI does its best to locate the bad guys, they aren’t able to help you get your system back up and running. That’s
Yarborough details three things school districts can do to prepare for a cyberattack and minimize the damage one can cause. First, he stresses the importance of creating a security incident response plan. Just like schools hold fire drills or prepare for other worst-case scenarios, they need to be ready for cyberattacks. This includes making a process of what steps to take and whom to contact in the event of an attack. It can
“There is no immunization against a ransomware infection. It’s going to happen, and you just have to deal with it when it occurs,” Yarborough says. “I hate being the bearer of bad news, but you have to be prepared.”
be embarrassing to admit that you’ve fallen victim to a phishing attack, but it’s a necessary first step on the road to recovery. Reaching out to experts in the field before an attack can help you have a contact to call when the worst does happen. Secondly, Yarborough stresses that you must back up your data. Having all of your private and necessary data in a safe place can aid and speed recovery following a cyberattack. Many school districts back up their data to cloud services, but Yarborough says the safest way to back up data is to have a physical copy on-site. This can be in addition to a cloud backup, a last line of defense in case your cloud provider falls victim to an attack itself. Large data companies are just as vulnerable as anyone else to ransomware, from huge insurance companies and banks to government systems and tech companies themselves. The third step is the most proactive, but perhaps one of the most time consuming: training staff. Last year, Texas required that all school staff members go through training to prevent
phishing attacks, but Yarborough says a one-time training barely scratches the surface. “Sitting down for a one-hour webinar just isn’t enough. It has to be ongoing, and it has to include real examples of what to look for.”
“Don’t let your guard down,” Yarborough says. “I know school districts are in a major world of hurt with this pandemic. Yet if we shift all of our resources to providing educational services and we forget about technological security needs, you’re opening yourself up for even more of a problem.” n
Ongoing training is crucial in this area because hackers are always evolving and changing their methods. School staff must be kept updated so they can learn to recognize phishing attempts as the hackers modify and improve them. To present the best line of defense, Yarborough suggests school districts hold four phishing simulations per year and a training class at least once per quarter. He says school administrators sometimes balk at this suggestion, saying their teachers are too busy teaching kids to go into training themselves. His response is that if a school’s systems go down due to one successful phishing attempt, all teaching will grind to a halt. Never has that been truer than now, with so many teachers using online systems to reach their students. Overall, being aware of the realities, the possibilities and the likelihood of a cyberattack can only put you ahead of the game. Hackers are working overtime, sending out thousands of phishing emails to see who takes the bait. Thanks to COVID19, school administrators have their hands full now more than ever. But letting cybersecurity fall to the wayside can only make things harder in the long run.
Now more than ever, Texas public school staff members are looking to leaders to inspire them in their day-to-day work as we all cope with an ever-changing educational landscape. TASA’s “Inspiring Leaders” tagline is not just a reminder of TASA’s commitment to leadership development — it describes our members themselves. In this and future issues of INSIGHT, you’ll meet some of those Inspiring Leaders, and it’s our hope that they will guide you and invigorate you in the work that you do. To nominate a leader for inclusion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
King Davis Dr. King Davis was chosen to lead Sheldon ISD in January of 2016, bringing with him 27 years of experience in education as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent. Since then, Davis has helped usher the district through devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and now faces leading Sheldon through the COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, Davis has kept a strong focus on success and is driven by the progress he’s seen in the district. “I could not be more proud of this district and how far we have come,” Davis says. “Over the past five years, we have raised the expectations for our student achievement through enhanced programs in the classroom. Our teachers have spent extensive time in training to prepare them for differentiated instruction that offers our students personalized learning experiences. I’m proud of the progress we have made to address the diverse needs of our students.” Tina Herrington, who like Davis formerly served as superintendent in Wharton ISD, says that Davis is a strong, dedicated leader who consistently works to forward student success. “Dr. Davis is dedicated to putting systems together and growing administrators to grow successful students,” Herrington says. “He is focused on overcoming all barriers to put programs and initiatives in place. He is a true inspiring leader for other educators.” Davis describes his personal philosophy as that of a certain major automobile manufacturer: “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” While he concedes that perfection is an elusive goal, it’s one that he still strives for daily. In his role as an educational leader, Davis feels that failure simply isn’t an option. Too much rides on his success. He cites a quote from Aristotle, which states: “The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.” “When I initially heard this quote some years ago, I thought it was a bit extreme,” Davis says. “Upon further reflection, I’ve concluded that it wasn’t extreme at all, but states a powerful truth. A proper education is so critical to one’s life, that without it, one may very well experience a form of death. The death of dreams, goals, aspirations, prosperity and hope becomes a reality for many of our citizens who lack the opportunities that come along with a proper education. Public education is the only hope that many of our school-aged citizens have; therefore, we must pursue perfection daily.” 16
Deann Lee Four years ago, Deann Lee was named superintendent of Millsap ISD. With more than 30 years of education experience, Lee has worked to foster many new programs in the district, including a teacher mentoring program, instructional technology and a strategic planning initiative. Above all, what makes her most proud of Millsap is the district’s reputation for being a community that values relationships and aims for ethical behavior and personal responsibility “Our culture is defined by our mission, vision and values,” Lee says. “These aren’t words on a wall. They drive our goals, determine our hires, and lead our decisions.” Gunter ISD Superintendent Jill Siler says that watching the way Lee leads has had a positive impact on her, and she’s quick to sing her peer’s praises. “Deann Lee’s school district may be small, but her impact on leaders across our state is huge,” Siler says. “She is an encourager and a constant source of hope and optimism during challenging seasons.” Lee’s encouragement helps nurture a family atmosphere in the district, and she credits her strong sense of purpose for keeping her on track in challenging times. “The philosophy that keeps me going is that I am called to serve at this moment in time for a specific purpose,” Lee says. “When I am challenged or stressed, I remember that my decision will affect my students’ futures. This is a remarkable (and scary) privilege that fuels my passion to give every ounce of energy I have daily.” That passion extends to participating in networking and mentorship opportunities, as Lee has seen first-hand the difference strong peer relationships can have in her own work and beyond. “As leaders, it’s our responsibility to build systems that will continue to propel our districts far beyond our tenure,” she says. “It’s also our honor to perpetuate a culture of service by growing others through the knowledge we have gained from the experiences of our journey. The benefit of these relationships is that we collectively become stronger for the welfare of our world, and we have the joy of sharing life with kindred spirits.”
Patricia Lewis For the past eight years, Patricia Lewis has served in the administration in Grand Prairie ISD, where she currently holds the role of associate superintendent. A teacher for 18 years before moving into administration, Lewis has known she wanted to be an educator since she was in the fourth grade. For her, teaching is all about leadership — leading others, but also empowering a new generation of leaders. “As educators, we can directly impact the future of our world, for the better,” she says. “I decided long ago not to allow myself to give up, not to become discouraged. Instead, I have developed a laser focus on what I can do today to directly impact the future of this world. Are there challenges? Yes. Am I ever discouraged? Certainly. But, the truth of our role as educators, we must never lose sight of our truth.” Cornelia McCowan, executive director of college readiness in Grand Prairie ISD, says that Lewis is an evolutionary leader who truly loves people. “Mrs. Lewis has a serve-first mindset, and her focus is always on empowering and uplifting her team,” McCowan says. “She serves with humility and kindness and is always looking to enhance the development of her team. She is intentional and knows how to unlock potential, creativity and a sense of purpose in those around her.” A self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Lewis feels that mentorship and relationship building are key in successful leadership. She cites her abilities to build positive relationships as a foundation for her success, both personally and professionally. “I would not be the associate superintendent of schools were it not for all the people who have mentored me along the way,” she says. “We must encourage meaningful relationships with other educators, plan for it, prepare for it and equip each other with methods to mentor in meaningful ways.”
Danny Massey Brazosport ISD Superintendent Danny Massey has worked in the district for 29 years, serving the last five in the leadership role. No stranger to accolades, Massey was named Region 4’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year and was also named Man of the Year by the Brazosport Area Chamber in 2019, yet it’s the success he’s seen in the district that makes him most proud. “We have dramatically improved our student performance from a TEA accountability rating of a 74 to an 88. All three of our high schools have also earned an A rating in college-, career- and military-readiness. This is especially important as our mission is to graduate each student to be ‘future-ready,’” Massey says. “This shows that we are living our mission, and it’s not just a catchy phrase. We have also recently passed two bond referendums, and are transforming our facilities and campuses.” During COVID-19, Massey has sent staff weekly inspiring emails, full of much-needed words of encouragement. Last spring, he created videos recognizing seniors for their involvement in the district’s athletics and fine arts programs. He even donned a tuxedo and traveled to the homes of winners of the BISD Foundation’s annual Grants for Great Ideas to present award checks in person. Ron Redden, assistant superintendent of compliance and data quality in Brazosport, says Massey is an inspiring leader due to the way he brings out the best in those around him. “For the last five years, he has been the inspirational leader of a remarkable turnaround of the district,” Redden says. To Massey, leadership is all about helping others. And he believes that the best leaders are those who dedicate themselves to growing new leaders. “We all can attribute our leadership experiences to opportunities others provided for us,” he says. “It’s important we pay it back and invest in others.” Brian Cole, Brazosport’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, says Massey is known throughout the district and beyond for his transparency, visibility and positivity. “Danny Massey continues to inspire me by maintaining a relentless focus on celebrating the great things that are going on in our district and in public education,” Cole says. Through all of the hard work, the mentorship and the challenges, Massey stays focused by reminding himself of the many things that make him thankful, and those he feels drawn to serve. “I believe that every day is a gift and it should be lived with the gratitude it deserves,” he says. “We must stay focused on what we believe benefits our students, which is building quality relationships, literacy, and college or career readiness.”
Robert Sormani Hutto ISD welcomed Dr. Robert Sormani to the associate superintendent of instruction and innovation position in 2017. A veteran educator with more than 20 years of experience, Sormani says he is exceptionally proud of the district, but never more so than in recent challenging times. “I am most proud of the sense of unity in Hippo Nation. It has never been tested more than now during the pandemic and these turbulent political times,” Sormani says. “Our staff and community remain focused on what is best for our students by maintaining open and honest lines of communication allowing us to discuss tough topics and move forward.” Dr. Lindsie Almquist, who serves as director of human capital in Hutto, says Sormani leads with a “students-first” focus that includes data-driven decisions, feedback loops and open communication. “Dr. Sormani has allowed for innovation through providing resources, but allowing for autonomy, grace, innovation and leveraging of leadership to exist in order for positive change to occur,” Almquist says. “He doesn’t allow people to be held back when they are meant to fly. He provides a structure, and then encourages unique differences to flourish within the parameters of success.” In times of challenge, Sormani says he keeps his focus on what matters most — student outcomes. He measures each day by how his actions have opened doors and provided opportunities for students in Hutto. “No matter what criticisms or challenges I face, if I know I have positively impacted students’ lives, or sometimes a single child’s life, I can let it all go when I leave for home and do it all again the next day.” Sormani says mentorship has been crucial in his career, especially in the early days of his work in schools, as he developed his educational philosophy and leadership values. Now, those continuing relationships help keep him grounded and connected to his work. “As you become more experienced, good mentors and colleagues keep you honest,” he says. “They ask you if you are staying true to your own mantras. And just as importantly, they become lifelong friends that can help you laugh through the tough times and celebrate during the good times.”
HIGHER EDUCATION Study abroad experiences: challenging aspiring leaders’ perceptions of diversity By Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Tyler
In an era where racial tensions dominate discourse across the U.S., developing educational leaders’ capacities to challenge perceptions of diversity and equity are vital.
ne of the responsibilities of educational leaders is to develop teachers’ capacities to meet the needs of every child in their classroom. Hence, principal preparation programs must develop aspiring leaders with the capacity to lead increasingly diverse schools. The demographics of Texas schools illustrate there is not just a perception of disparity between teachers’ and students’ cultural experiences; it is a reality. While the majority of Texas teachers are white (58.6%) middle-class English speakers, Texas teachers serve an extremely diverse group of students. In Texas public schools, 75% of students are children of color; while only 23% are white. The disparities between teachers’ and students’ experiences are broadened by the impact of socioeconomic statuses of these two groups. The discrepancies between teachers’ and students’ life experiences, as well as racial and cultural backgrounds, have resulted in schools that struggle to meet the needs of students of color (Lee, 2002). Research suggests that many U.S. schools provide students with “culturally incongruent educational experiences” (Janerette & Fifield as cited in Marx & Moss, 2011, p. 36). As faculty members at the School of Education at The University of Texas at Tyler seek to bridge the cultural gap between students, teachers and aspiring leaders, they also aim to develop their students’ global awareness and social responsibility. For more than a decade, aspiring educational leaders have had the opportunity to travel to remote villages in southern Belize to explore social and educational issues, including the challenges faced by rural school leaders in this English-speaking Central American country. This article is a cursory review of this opportunity and the benefits it creates for understanding the diverse needs in Texas classrooms.
The study abroad program The 10-day Belize short-term study abroad program is multidimensional; Texas educational leadership students have the opportunity to spend time with Belizean community leaders and teachers to gain a better understanding of the people of Belize, as well as the challenges faced by rural educators. The students visit communities and cultural sites in southern Belize, which allows them to explore multiple perspectives and cultures of the region. Belize is rich in diversity, which provides an exceptional context for Texas students to visit schools where nearly 100% of students are English learners and come from homes where Mopan, Ketchi, Garifuna or Creole is the primary, and in many cases, the only language spoken. Belize’s population is not only linguistically diverse but also culturally; Belizeans identify as Mestizo, Creole, Maya, Garifuna or Mennonite, among others. Moreover, when in Belize, Texas students witness the schooling of students from homes in remote rainforest villages where the parents are dedicated to subsistence farming and have nominal income. The Belize study abroad program provides a wide range of unique experiences and ample opportunities for Texas’ aspiring leaders to engage in conversations about educational issues such as poverty, diversity, equity and language acquisition. The experiences and resulting discourse have shown to positively alter aspiring leaders’ views and drive to serve diverse students in their communities.
The professors who lead the Belize study abroad aim to shape aspiring principals’ attitudes and build their confidence when working with children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The opportunities allow Texas educators to explore their biases and beliefs in a context where they can safely grapple with contentious educational issues. Previous research studies have shown that short-term study abroad programs can effectively alter the participants’ assumptions and views about the world (Lewis & Niesenbaum, 2005). The program leaders surveyed and interviewed former participants — aspiring administrators — to ascertain the impact the Belize study abroad program has had on the participants’ self-efficacy, perspectives about education, and their understanding and beliefs about culturally and linguistically diverse students.
The impact of study abroad experiences The aspiring principals indicated that the experiences in Belize not only impacted their perceptions while abroad but continued to influence their perspectives of education upon their return to their communities. The participants’ responses represent critical dispositions future educational leaders must possess including an authentic respect for diversity, a deep-rooted aspiration to serve their communities, and a renewed determination to maximize resources, among others dispositions. Given the demographics of Texas and the current U.S. political landscape, this piece focuses on the impact the study abroad experiences had on aspiring leaders’ appreciation for diversity.
Authentic respect for diversity School leaders must model an authentic appreciation and respect for the diverse backgrounds of those they lead and serve. By spending time in rural villages of southern Belize, the aspiring principals witnessed firsthand the life children from rural communities in Central and South America endure. While Texas educators might not have a high number of children from Belize in their schools, the reality of life in these rural villages mirrors the experiences many of the migrant and immigrant children in our schools have faced prior to coming to the U.S. After the study abroad experiences, the Texas aspiring principals expressed a newly acquired appreciation and deeper respect for children and families from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. The participating aspiring principals
explained that the opportunities to visit the Belizean schools and villages helped them become more compassionate and respectful of differences, and their newly found appreciation for diversity and these children’s reality decreased their anxiety when working with children from different ethnic groups. One of the Texas educators explained that she was utterly surprised that Belize students had never seen hand sanitizer. Soon after that event, a Belizean student offered her a fruit she had never seen; she was apprehensive to try the foreign fruit. As we reflected on the events of the day, she realized these two ordinary events helped her experience what migrant and immigrant students in the United States experience on a regular basis in our school. She stated, “When working with students from different cultures, I have a new respect and understanding and less fear of the unknown.” Another participant said: “I believe my empathy for our Spanish-speaking students has grown. Many of them may have come from remote areas such as Belize. Expecting them to be knowledgeable in the American way was unrealistic. I’m more patient with these students.” After the trip, another experienced Texas teacher wrote: “I did not feel like I had a good grasp on students from different cultures even after many years in the classroom, thus causing professional inadequacy. The Belize study abroad gave me a hands-on opportunity to work with students from a very diverse culture. When returning to the states I was able to put into practice some of the pedagogical skills and knowledge I gained while in Belize.” With more than a million English learners, more than three million economically disadvantaged, and close to four million students of color in Texas schools, having school leaders with a strong sense of moral responsibility to develop their teachers’ capacity to respect, appreciate and purposefully embrace diversity is critical to the success of all students. A Texas aspiring education leader explained: “The Belize experience has given me the opportunity to understand where they are coming from, how their education system works and how it varies from ours. Because of the Belize experience, I feel I am more forgiving and patient with the students that are trying to learn the language while trying to adapt to American (U.S.) schools.”
There is no substitute for firsthand experiences to raise awareness and develop appreciation for diversity. However, awareness and respect are only the first step in our development of more compassionate leaders. School leaders must also possess an unrelenting drive to develop more inclusive and compassionate school communities.
Principal preparation Educational leaders have the responsibility to develop their capacities and teachers’ aptitudes to serve all children regardless of their ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic background. Opportunities such as the Belize Study Abroad Program expand educators’ worldviews and challenge their perceptions of diversity and equity. Generally, principal preparation learning opportunities are designed to develop aspiring principals’ leadership knowledge and skills; whereas study abroad experiences aim to challenge educators’ perceptions, expanding their minds and developing their capacities to consider their students’ past experiences that would otherwise not be within their purviews. If principal preparation programs or school districts are inclined to explore short-term study abroad experiences as opportunities for professional learning, it is imperative that they avoid “canned” tours. For aspiring principals to develop an authentic respect for diversity, they need to interact directly and deeply with the culture. Relationships
with local educators are critical to development of the authentic educational experiences abroad. The evidence gathered after multiple Belize trips suggests that the study abroad experiences have a positive impact on the educators’ disposition and significantly change the educators’ views about the importance of connecting meaningfully with students. In an era where racial tensions dominate discourse across the U.S., developing educational leaders’ capacities to challenge perceptions of diversity and equity are vital. n
Dr. Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz is an associate professor and the assistant director of the School of Education at the University of Texas at Tyler. She has 20 years of experience in K-12 schools, including 10 years as principal. For information about UT Tyler’s Belize study abroad program, please contact Dr. Oliveras at email@example.com.
References Lee, J. P. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress towards equity? Educational Researcher, 31(1), 3-12.
Lewis, T. & Niesenbaum, R. A. (2005). The benefits of shortterm study abroad. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9(3), 251-264. Marx, H., & Moss, D. M. (2011). Please mind the culture gap: Intercultural development during a teacher education
TSPRA VOICE What’s this podcasting stuff, anyway? By Erin McCann
Used effectively in conjunction with other established strategies, podcasts can be very effective for school districts.
s educators, we love a good buzzword. You’ve probably heard the term “podcast” thrown around. The world stood still in 2014 when Sarah Koenig, former producer for “This American Life,” launched “Serial,” an investigative journalism podcast questioning the possible wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed in Baltimore, Maryland. Overnight, thousands of people began exploring the realm of podcasting. The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic and the aftershocks and implications of distance learning in districts across Texas are still being felt today, and public schools are reassessing the best ways to teach and reach our constituents. Having innovative methods of reaching our audiences and connecting our citizens with our messages has never been more important. Podcasting, better described as audio content on-demand, has been around for years. Podcasts were actually invented in 2004 by two former MTV VJ’s who wanted to find a way to download internet-based radio broadcasts to their early edition iPods. Since that time, podcasts have grown tremendously in both content and production quality. It’s an enormous virtual space, and relatively inexpensive to produce. Truly, if you dream it, you can do it. The education sphere has really started connecting with the idea of podcasting in the last five years. In that time, audio content has grown exponentially, and it is rational to consider whether or not this is a logical vehicle for your district, and for your community. Heads up — podcasts don’t work for everyone.
Why do you want to start a podcast? When someone starts to question if they should start a podcast, there are a few questions they should ask themselves. “Why do you want to? Do you think it’s cool? Has your superintendent noticed his or her peers podcasting, and think that they are missing an opportunity? Does it align to a strategic goal or priority?” None of those reasons are wrong, but it’s important to begin with the end in mind and know exactly why you are starting down this path. Podcasts can be done at a very high production value, spending tons of time and money in sound engineering, or they can be produced very simply from just an app on your phone. Knowing the ultimate goal of your podcast can help you in the research stage to evaluate how much money, if any, you should invest in this venture.
Resources Many School PR practitioners are obsessed with making decisions strategically. If you don’t set and measure goals, you’ll never know if the countless hours you spend on your podcast will give you a yield that makes the effort worthwhile, or if you have just been shouting into the abyss, praying someone is listening. A great place to start is by knowing your school community and the constituents that you serve. Honestly, not everyone needs a podcast. Maybe your community is more rural and works locally. In that particular case, a podcast might not be worth your energy. With audio on-demand, it’s quite common for podcasts to be playing in the car on a commute in lieu of music. Some people listen at the gym, on a walk, or while doing housework and other chores. Knowing your community, their habits, their feelings on the school district, and how they spend their time will prime you to make decisions about putting energy into another vehicle for communication.
Planning This might be one of, if not the, most important steps in strategic public relations. Preparing for a new communication strategy can be intimidating, but it’s vital for success. Start with your end goal. How will you know if your podcast is a success? How many people are you trying to reach? At what frequency? Why does it matter? According to podcastinghost.org, a research site with podcast statistics, the average podcast listener downloads at least seven shows per week. They are absorbing this content constantly, and 93% of subscribed listeners download and listen to each episode of their favorite shows. In podcasting, as in all communication, consistency is key. It takes time and strategy to build an audience, and listeners can be fickle. If you do anything to drive them away, you’ll never get them back. A key strategy in dropping audio content is to promise your audience when they can expect to receive an episode and always deliver on that promise. If you tell your listeners that they can expect a new episode every other Tuesday, and they subscribe, but then you don’t upload content, you may very well lose that listener for good. You always have the capability to drop additional content into your feed later, just don’t deliver less than promised.
Erin McCann hosts an online podcast.
The planning stage is also where you create your initial investment. Audio equipment can be extremely costly, and there are some fantastic tools out there. Determine your budget in relation to your measurement of success. If you’re measuring success at 50 downloads per episode, you probably don’t want to spend $2,000 on expensive equipment, abandon the project after a month or two, and let your new microphones and mixer gather dust in a corner somewhere. In contrast, if you live in a commuter-heavy community with 60,000 students and are expecting 500 downloads per episode, you probably don’t want to use the voice recorder feature on your phone and upload the audio unproduced. You can certainly strike a balance. The trend in video and audio right now is less heavily produced material, and rawer, more authentic audio and video. A video quickly produced on Facebook can go viral just as easily as a more professionally crafted video that takes weeks to produce. The nice part about this is that it allows podcasters to clean up interviews and sound bytes, rather than spend endless hours producing and audio engineering a 20-30-minute episode. Research shows us that the sweet spot for a podcast episode is 20-30 minutes, approximately the time it takes for an average commute. This is intentional. If you have a captive audience on a drive in to work, but can’t wrap up your messaging, it’s unlikely that they’re going to switch you back on at the end of the day after eight or so hours have passed, and still be connected to your information. If your episodes consistently run too long, your listeners will begin to deprioritize your podcast, and eventually, will likely unsubscribe.
It’s highly suggested that you measure, both formally and informally, your podcast episodes. On average, how many downloads are you seeing in a 30-day period? What content is your audience really connecting with? (Hint: Storytelling-based podcasts, rather than pure information, are very on-trend right now). Do you have the capacity to receive feedback from your community? Most podcast hosting sites give you downloads and metrics. This is great for measuring engagement and content. It’s also a good idea that you incorporate podcast-related questions in any annual surveys or other focus groups you may use to measure your communications successes.
Erin McCann records an interview for a podcast.
Implementation For many this is the hardest part. Once you press publish, congratulations, you are officially a podcaster. Now you can sit back and let your work speak for itself. There are a lot of tools available to amateur podcasters for free, or very inexpensively. One thing you absolutely need is a hosting site. Some districts are starting to host their podcasts on their own websites, and this works well. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of third-party sites that will produce an RSS feed for you and distribute your podcast to all the places that we commonly hear people get their audio content from (such as iTunes or Google Play). I’ve hosted on several different sites. My current projects are all hosted through anchor.fm, a totally free site that also has an app for your phone. This is a great place to experiment in podcasting for very little investment, while you decide if this is, or is not, a strategy that you want to continue putting energy toward.
Informal measurement is also incredibly helpful. Do you find your audiences mentioning your podcast in conversation? Is it the topic of discussion in any community Facebook groups? Maybe you released some information in a podcast episode, and it became the topic of discussion elsewhere, and so you know that your information is being communicated.
Is a podcast a good tool for me? Used effectively in conjunction with other established strategies, podcasts can be very effective for school districts. Today, more than ever, parents want to know with full transparency the workings of their local public schools. By providing additional channels and means of receiving that information, we, as school administrators, can continue to build and foster the relationships with parents that we strongly value. n
Erin McCann is the director of digital media and marketing for Allen ISD, has worked in multiple public education communications in Texas, and has been a TSPRA member for six years.
Promotion is another key part of implementation. No matter how great your audio content is, if you don’t have a solid plan for promoting and cross-promoting your material, your audiences will not find it.
Evaluation Education is data driven. In everything from state academics to UIL competitions and school finance, we rely on numbers and data to inform the success of our initiatives. Communications are no different. If we aren’t measuring the success of a strategy, do we even know if it was successful? How do we decide that we want to continue (or discontinue) this work?
Get to know TASA’s member service representatives One of the many TASA member benefits is access to member service representatives. These former school leaders serve as an extension of the TASA staff, dedicating their time to support individual TASA members in their respective regions.
spending eight years in the district while returning to Pan American University for his educational administration and superintendent certificates.
The roles of a TASA member service representative are many, from welcoming new administrators to supporting those who’ve been in their positions for an extended period of time and find themselves in need of a mentor. Over the past year in INSIGHT, we’ve been featuring TASA’s member service representatives, the work they do and how they came to serve. Find contact information for all of the member service representatives at tasanet.org/ about/tasa-staff. We complete our series with Roel Peña, TASA member services representative for regions 1, 2, 19 and 20.
oel Peña is a lifelong resident of the Rio Grande Valley and a tireless supporter of Texas public education, dedicating his entire career, and beyond, to working for school districts. He graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School, located between Edinburg and Harlingen, not far from the Texas/Mexico border, and received his bachelor’s degree in biology and physical education at Pan American University. He was drawn to work in public education because, growing up in the Valley, he knew his personal experience gave him a unique insight into how best to work with students in the area. 28
Roel Peña “Kids here in the Rio Grande Valley, they have special learning needs and economical disadvantages,” Peña says, “I wanted to work with those students, so I started teaching in Edcouch-Elsa High School my first year.” Peña taught high school biology and physical science at his alma mater for three years before moving north. His wife was a student at Texas Woman’s University, and so he moved with her to Denton, where he started working in Frisco ISD while pursuing his master’s degree at North Texas State University. Frisco was a small district in those days, and the administration asked Peña to serve as a pseudo-assistant principal, working to help with learning needs and discipline situations of Frisco’s Hispanic students. He remained in the district for two years, then once Peña and his wife had completed their studies, the couple moved back to the Valley. Peña began working in Edinburg ISD as a counselor, then moved into assistant principal and principal positions,
Nearby McAllen ISD hired Peña to serve as its administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction, a position in which he was responsible for overseeing the district’s secondary school program. Peña was asked to serve as superintendent of San Perlita ISD in 1994, after the district had been categorized as low performing by the TEA. Over the next three years, Peña held the superintendency and helped bring the district’s rating up to exemplary. “I was very proud of the fact that it became recognized as an exemplary school district by the state of Texas,” he says. “It continues today as an exemplary district.” From San Perlita, Peña moved to Region 1 ESC, where he served as a deputy executive director for seven years, up until his retirement. Former TASA executive director Johnny Veselka was quick to ask the newly retired Peña to come aboard as a member service representative. “He saw that I had a good connection with superintendents, because that was really my job at Region 1, working with superintendents,” Peña says. “And Region 1 continued using me as a board training field service agent, so I did both.” In his role as TASA MSR, Peña is focused on communicating with superintendents and central office staff in regions 1, 2, 19 and 20. “I have a total of about 147 superintendents that I work with, providing them with up-to-date information on TASA policy development, initiatives and statelevel priorities,” he explains. “I welcome new superintendents to their positions and provide assistance and support.”
Peña also attends regional advisory committee meetings, which he says allow him to stay abreast of critical issues and initiatives in his districts. His favorite part of the job are the connections he’s formed and maintained with dozens of superintendents, even during COVID-19, when many of his meetings have gone to a virtual space. “I’m proud of the human connection I have with superintendents and being able to relate to what they do,” he says. “They appreciate the fact that their member service rep is someone who’s been there, done that. And remaining connected with a job I always enjoyed makes it almost not feel like a job. I enjoy what I do tremendously.” Serving as superintendent during a global pandemic makes an already challenging job even more so, Peña says, though he believes Texas’ school administrators are making necessary adjustments and rising to the occasion. “You have to consider the emotional aspect of what they’re going through,” he says. “It’s not an easy job, and it’s difficult times right now, but I do think schools and educators can meet the challenge.” n
TEACHER PERSPECTIVE A pandemic that shifted the world of education By Michelle Sandoval Villegas Dear Texas community, I honor every educator across Texas, their parents, families, administrators and
Today is Sept. 8, 2020, and I am sitting at my home desk with my fingers on the keyboard trying to find the right words to describe how I am feeling, how my students are feeling, their families, my school administrators, and my school district. We are going into week four of virtual learning in El Paso’s Ysleta ISD, and COVID-19 robbed so much of how the beginning of the year should have been. I miss my campus, the sounds, the smiles and the energy I would get on day one even if it was my 12th year teaching.
school staff. A million thank yous cannot do you justice.
I know the safety of all named above is so much more important, and I know that educators across Texas serving millions of students rose to the challenge of starting a new year online. I never in a million years thought I would meet my new students through a screen from my home and see mixed feelings of happiness to simply make a connection and see their friends in a 2-by-2 quadrant on Google Meet, and some somberness to not be with their peers and teachers. Day one of virtual learning was a mixture of the following: “You’re on mute,” “Your camera is off, sweetheart,” “I think you need to close that tab,” and “OMG, I am so HAPPY to see you all!” Teachers and students had bittersweet feelings on day one in Ysleta ISD and across Texas because this pandemic shifted the world of education as we knew it. Things would never be the same and this was an historical moment in teaching … we have come to face with a new normal. This new normal is not one-size-fits-all. This new change is not a decision that makes everyone happy. There is no right answer. Our school district has done everything in its power to reach all families during this time to provide the safest, most loving, caring and “normal” environment possible for our students. I do not envy the decision-makers during this difficult time, as we cannot make the “shoe fit” for everyone during virtual learning. In El Paso, we have low income families facing the grave digital divide that affects so many across Texas. The district has done its best to provide hot spots for families in need and make sure they are safe and healthy in the process. To keep our students and families safe, our district has decided on a return date in October, while some families and students yearn for it to be tomorrow if it could. I have learned a couple of things over four weeks of virtual learning. I am a new teacher once again. I am learning so many different technology platforms. I am being pushed, challenged and faced with the fact that I must do better and be better for my students. My mantra has always been, “Never stop learning.” COVID-19 made this into a reality not only for students, but for educators. Teachers across the state are resigning due to stress; new teachers are coming on board; teachers are seeking additional income … teachers are going through it. It saddens me to know a couple of people who have left the profession. More than ever, teachers need to be valued and families supporting their children need to be valued at all costs.
I have always been a firm believer that teachers are the foundation of all. We are teaching ourselves to take risks, try new things and be bold during virtual learning. I, like so many educators, am incredibly tired, worn out, and, simply put, stressed out; but, I can personally attest, that this does not stop us. We work countless hours in front of our computers to make sure our lessons are engaging and will reach our students. We spend countless days making connections and building relationships for the day that we return. We are working through this pandemic. I AM A TEACHER DURING A PANDEMIC. I give gratitude and blessings to teachers who have returned to campus fearing for their safety and doing everything in their power to make education whole again, like my fellow Texas Teacher of the Year, Karen Sams. I honor every educator across Texas, their parents, families, administrators and school staff. A million thank yous cannot do you justice. Above all, I want everyone to remember one thing. This pandemic may have shifted us, but we will be stronger when we bounce back. We must remember that every child during this ever-changing time in education has a story and has a reason why their camera may be off. We must have grace during this time in education and always remind ourselves, “Grace before grades.” Parents, I understand how hard this is for you and I am here for you. Just know, we appreciate you. I hope we continue to grow during this time and be better … for a better tomorrow. Until we can fist bump in the hallways again, students …. n
Texas School Public Relations Association EDUCATION NETWORKING CRISIS MANAGEMENT PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT ANNUAL CONFERENCE
Michelle Sandoval Villegas, 2020 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year, teaches eighth-grade math in Ysleta ISD.
TCEA TECH TAKE Using tech to empower remote learners (and their parents) By Diana Benner, TCEA director of professional development
In a remote learning environment, it’s important to design lessons with choice.
stablishing connections with families during remote learning is so very important. But those connections look a little different now due to physical distance limitations. One thing that helps is being as consistent as possible. Consistency will help develop routines and form habits so that the communication becomes second nature. As the school year progresses, teachers in your district may be looking to refocus and renew their communication with parents. Please share with them the following ways they may want to use tech to create consistent, positive communication with parents and families.
Hold digital office hours Establish office hours and let families know when you will be available. Share if you will be available by phone or through video conferencing or both. If your schedule permits, try to provide a morning and evening time to help with family work schedules. Consider your school or district’s capacity and existing tools, too. You likely have services such as Google Meet, Zoom or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that can help.
Share your schedule Share your schedule, including both your teaching schedule and your communication schedule. When you developed your schedule, you likely made time for planning, meetings, recording lessons and, most importantly, your own self care. Stick to this, even when considering ways to share your time with parents. Giving them access to a virtual calendar can help parents reach out even when parent-teacher meetings aren’t scheduled.
Send newsletters Send a newsletter to families to keep them abreast of what is going on in your remote classroom. You can include upcoming events, share success stories or provide links to resources for how families can support their child at home. You can find a variety of Google Doc template designs online.
Anticipate questions and provide information More than likely, your students and families will have some of the same questions. Consider creating a Q&A document or website that will help answer those questions. Make sure families know how their child is progressing. Provide them with ways in which they can access their child’s grades and any feedback you are providing. It’s also important to keep a document or spreadsheet so you can keep track of your communication. You might not always remember when you communicate with families, so making note of it will be helpful. This way, you can identify those families that you have and have not had any contact with. 32
Don’t forget to provide consistent feedback to both guardians and with students. Focus on feedback. Students will need to be assessed on how they are progressing with their learning. Feedback can have a powerful impact on student learning. Guide students in their instruction with regular and timely feedback in whatever way you find effective, whether in virtual meetings, through a learning management system (LMS), and more.
Establish norms with students (and revisit them) Remember, remote learning refers to a class that intends to meet face-to face in a traditional format, but is transitioned or started online due to unforeseen circumstances. In our current situation, creating norms may provide a sense of normalcy. Students are more likely to buy into the class norms if they have a hand in creating them. One way to do this is start with a list of what you consider bare essentials. Then, work together with your students to develop a set of norms. In a remote learning environment, the learning might happen synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous learning happens in real time, whereas asynchronous learning occurs without real-time interaction. Developing norms for remote learning will help foster engagement and accountability. By this point in the school year, you’ve probably established a set of expectations for students. But remember to revisit and review these norms often — even before each video meeting. This helps learners remember and apply these norms. Make a recorded video in Screencastify, Flipgrid, or elsewhere that outlines the norms and that students can watch at any time.
Keeping the big ideas in mind As you choose tools, set expectations and keep up with families, it’s useful to remember your goals in remote teaching and the outcomes you wish to achieve. Though it’s an ongoing experiment, there are some emerging best practices to follow when it comes to remote learning. Making sure that instructional materials are accessible for all students is a must. It is always a good idea to provide more than one way for students to interact with the material. In addition, many platforms offer accessibility features. Hypertext documents, Bitmoji classrooms and more are all great ways to offer multiple presentations and ways to access class content.
In a remote learning environment, it’s important to design lessons with choice. Choice will help students stay engaged with the content, and it’s a great way to differentiate for students. Choice boards and learning menus are examples of activities that allow for them to be in control of their own learning. Collaboration and communication should always be a central part of learning. Social interaction and collaboration is an effective strategy for learning in a remote environment. Students need social interaction. Allow them to complete assignments or projects where they can collaborate and connect with other students. Beyond the classroom, schools are the center of our communities and thus play a very important role in our students’ and families’ lives. As outlined above, when transitioning to or continuing in a remote learning setting, teachers should have regular and predictable opportunities for families and students to connect with them. As we touched on when discussing schedules, time — and a lack thereof — can be a major challenge for teachers, students and parents. The amount of time students are expected to learn and complete work is different from the amount of time instruction is delivered in a face-to-face classroom. Students will not be spending the traditional hours or the same amount of time on school work as when they are in a physical classroom. Focus on the most important learning outcomes when designing your lessons.
Be flexible Remote learning must be flexible. We do not want students to feel overwhelmed and become frustrated. Learning should be planned over multiple days to allow students to move at their own pace. Forming and revising class norms and communicating often with families and guardians can ensure success and shape class culture in positive ways. However, be sure to be flexible and have realistic expectations. Remember, we are in a remote learning situation for a reason and even under the best circumstances, learning can be messy. n
Diana Benner has been involved in education for more than 20 years. She has served as an instructional technologist, instructional designer and an online learning specialist, supporting districts all over Texas and in state government. She loves offering engaging staff development and working with teachers to get them excited about using digital tools in the classroom in order to impact student achievement. She has a master’s of education in educational technology and is an ISTE certified educator.
Introducing the 2021
! S T S I L & FINA This fall, TASA announced the 2021 Texas Teacher of the Year! We’d like to introduce you to 2021 Texas Teacher of the Year Eric Hale, Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year Anthony Lopez-Waste, and the other four finalists — all amazing educators who vied for the top honor.
Eric Hale, Texas Teacher of the Year Dallas ISD’s Eric Hale was chosen as Texas’ 2021 Teacher of the Year and will go on to represent Texas in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year program. A kindergarten and first grade teacher at David G. Burnet Elementary School, Hale is the first Black man to be named Texas Teacher of the Year. With 10 years of teaching under his belt, Hale brings a message of perseverance to his work, empowering his students and guiding them to believe in their own potential, no matter what their circumstances might be. Born into poverty and raised in traumatic conditions, Hale was able to overcome severe obstacles to rise to his position. He hopes to inspire his students, most of which also live in poverty, to do the same. Through innovative, active, hands-on lessons, Hale works to reach every child in his classroom, meeting their individual needs and going above and beyond to ensure they’re engaged and encouraged. “I know all children can thrive, not just survive, in their public-school education if they are provided a safe, nurturing and engaging environment where the only thing higher than the rigor is the joy of the experience,” Hale wrote, summing up his teaching philosophy for the program application. “I know we as Americans are facing some dark times, but we must keep the faith and remember that some of the brightest minds come from the darkest places.” Look for more on Hale in other TASA communications, including his upcoming “Teacher Perspective” columns in INSIGHT. 34
Anthony Lopez-Waste, Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year A high school history teacher and coach at Canutillo High School in El Paso’s Canutillo ISD, Anthony Lopez-Waste has been selected as Texas’ 2021 Secondary Teacher of the Year. A teacher for the last three years, Lopez-Waste previously spent 20 years serving in the U.S. Army. Lopez-Waste enjoys teaching history, a subject he says many students might consider “boring,” because he loves to challenge that assumption. He takes a hands-on approach and frequently holds class outside, using creative teaching techniques that are anything but boring, such as recreating interactive battle simulations or imagining world leaders participating in speed dating. When teaching world history, Lopez-Waste uses his extensive world travel background as an infantryman to bring a unique, firsthand perspective to his lessons. His primary goal is to build relationships with his students so that they feel engaged and listened to in his class. It’s a leadership example he picked up from one of his Army supervisors, who told him: “Soldiers don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” “Students are no different from soldiers — the question is, how do we show our students that we as educators, truly care?” Lopez-Waste mused on the program application. His response: “Establishing relationships early on will help get our students off on the right foot because, ‘students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’” Look for more on Lopez-Waste in other TASA communications, including his upcoming “Teacher Perspective” columns in INSIGHT.
Adriana Abundis A dual-language math teacher at Lanier High School in San Antonio ISD, Adriana Abundis was chosen as a finalist for Secondary Teacher of the Year. With nearly nine years of teaching experience, Abundis overcame extreme poverty to get to where she is today. In high school, she got a part-time job so she could pay her own SAT fees; today she holds two master’s degrees. Abundis became a teacher to help students facing similar challenges meet their highest potential. She has a passion for educational justice and works to remove educational barriers based on poverty, race and gender. “I believe that our students are not blank canvases, but beautiful agglomerations of histories, traumas, triumphs and talents,” Abundis wrote. “I honor my students, my colleagues, my community; not because I was told to do so, but because I view their tenacity as reflections of my own. I allow education to liberate — because I love.”
Lisa Barry A finalist for 2021 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year, Lisa Barry teaches fifth grade reading, writing and social studies at Woodridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights ISD. A 24-year veteran educator, Barry made headlines earlier this year when she advocated for SB 1828, a new law that directs Texas public and charter schools to include lessons on tolerance, genocide and the Holocaust at each grade level. Barry has been teaching tolerance in her classroom since 2003, when she noticed increased instances of bullying in schools. Knowing the long-term damage bullying can cause to a child, she has created lessons designed to teach her students to be active in fighting intolerance. “My message to students is about the choices you make,” Barry told TASA. “Embrace diversity, know the consequences of hatred, and use your differences to help each other become civicminded, productive, lifelong learners.”
Ida Cisneros Frenship ISD’s Ida Cisneros was named as a finalist for Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year. A middle school English/language arts and reading teacher, Cisneros has been teaching in the district for 10 years. Her focus is on helping every student reach his or her potential, with a goal of guiding all of her students to expand their minds through literacy. Cisneros focuses on not only teaching her students traditional lessons in reading and writing, but also preparing them for the careers of the future through interactive and hands-on literature analysis, using technology in novel and creative ways. She also encourages community responsibility in her students, and worked with her classes to gather dog toys to donate to a local police office’s K-9 unit. “As a teacher it is easy to become bogged down by assessments, data, lesson planning, meetings, training, but we must remember the only thing worth teaching for are the hearts of our students,” Cisneros wrote. “When you take your eyes off of yourself and begin to sincerely care for others, you will find purpose and joy in life. You will begin to believe that your problems aren’t nearly as bad as you think they are, and you will see that your love can make all the difference in the world.”
Alexis Miller A third grade teacher at Lewisville ISD’s Southridge Elementary School, Alexis Miller was named a 2021 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year finalist. An LISD graduate herself, Miller has been teaching in the district for six years. Her passion lies in creating an innovative, handson and high-energy learning environment for her students. Miller created an initiative called Rise Up Girls, a program meant to support social and emotional learning, self-awareness, healthy habits and empowerment for girls in upper elementary grades. The program includes mentorship opportunities and small-group sessions designed to embrace inclusivity. “I desperately want all my scholars to understand how powerful their voices are,” Miller wrote. “There are times when our scholars speak so clearly. We as educators must remain humble enough to listen. I want my scholars to feel fearless and confident even when it seems too tough. Our schools should welcome voices of all frequencies — no matter if it’s a loud cheer or a subtle whisper.”
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