Learning From Our Online Principals at the Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA)

Roz Thompson
May 03, 2020

Distance learning blog

In our massive shift to remote learning, and in the spirit of being a continuous learner, I’ve been trying to learn more about online learning. What are effective ways to teach students online? How do we structure communication (including instruction and feedback) to students via computers or phones? And what are some strategies that AWSP can share with principals as they shift to becoming digital principals who are responsible for managing their culture, systems, and learning in their (now) remote buildings. 

Here are some initial thoughts from the principals at the Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) about teaching in an online setting. And, guess what the very first thing they all say about teaching online is? You got it. It’s the same as teaching in an actual building or classroom. Building relationships with kids is the key to success. 

The Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) uses the K12 online curriculum for Washington students in grades K-12. This program reaches thousands of Washington students and there are three principals (elementary, middle school, and high school) and one head of school. These leaders have all had experience leading brick and mortar buildings and last week they shared with us some of their advice about taking initial steps to leading in a digital environment. 

Principals should:

  • Support teachers and make sure they are doing okay.

  • Empower teachers to do the same things they did in buildings.

  • Focus on staff meetings and PLC meetings.

  • Lean on building leadership.

  • Develop a communication plan with their staff--When and how will you communicate? Develop a schedule together with your building leadership.

  • Categorize the emails and questions you receive and try to answer them at one time each day. 

  • Develop a plan for parent communication--Choose one or two platforms, don’t try to do them all.

Jayme Evans, Principal at WAVA High School, also shared these additional resources:

  • WAVA Student Enrollment Video

  • WAVA Parent-Student Handbook

  • WAVA High School Student Handbook

  • WAVA Master Schedule for Second Semester

  • WAVA List of Administrative Duties (includes information about assistant principals)

These four WAVA principals have a lot more information to share with all of us and we will be looking to them for more guidance in the months ahead. They know that online learning is not ideal for all students. And, unfortunately, we know that not all students have the ability to engage in learning online. Working to establish access to the internet and getting devices into kids’ hands is becoming an essential service and will be an important part of our work in the months ahead.

For even more information about teaching online, check out these Q and A’s with Jayme Evans:

What are some key learnings that building leaders should know related to leading online learning in schools? 
Different people require different levels of monitoring. If I do not hear from a teacher regularly, I reach out to them. There is a pyramid of responses--email, phone call with a follow-up email, then a meeting with me in Zoom.

How do you lead culture, systems, and learning in an online environment?
All schools have a building leadership team. We meet with the union representation monthly, we host weekly staff meetings (best practices & other trainings), student award assemblies, and teacher recognition by ASB and PLC groups.

If we begin the school year next fall in an online environment, what are some strategies for building a strong culture and getting to know students?
Spend time getting to know your students, play games, gather interest surveys, have kids introduce themselves to their homeroom classmates, create connections between the teacher and students as well as student to student connections.  Try to get every student to enroll in a club or commit to an activity.  Have a new student & freshman orientation day (meet staff and review general tips and tricks to being a successful online student), make connection calls to homeroom students, provide immediate follow-up when a student misses a live session (this takes about a month of training), and provide immediate follow-up to a lack of response to an email.

How do you navigate pressure to getting a student caught up in their learning vs. meeting their social and emotional needs?
We are a Kids at Hope school.  All communications are focused on a strength-based model where teachers talk about student success and work towards an increase in each student’s success. We also have a team of student support professionals who focus on the non-academic needs of our students.  They will connect with students to support them in organization, navigation of the online platform, time management, and other needs.

We are hearing that students are having a hard time taking on assignments with multiple components on their own. How do you break down learning and individualize it for students? 
Well planned assignments are critical to student success as well as student interest.  Choice in assignment has always been a key to student success.  To get an A on an assignment you can complete 4 pieces, for a B complete 3 pieces, to get a C complete 2 etc … I have also seen web based projects where all the links are embedded on the website for ease of navigation but the student gets to choose the topic or subject matter. 

Do you provide instruction/learning that doesn’t require technology?
If so, what does this look like? Students may do some experiments or art at home.  The student still needs to report their findings or take photos of their project for submission to be graded. 

What does teacher evaluation look like in an online environment?
Very similar to in-person observations and walk-throughs.  We follow a master schedule just like a building and can enter any teacher’s classroom at any time.  We look for learning targets, impactful instruction where all students participate, and exit tickets to evaluate that learning occurred on behalf of the student.

Do you have any resources you can share with us?
I will send out an introductory video for WAVA students and our WAVA handbooks. The Zoom tutorial page is a great resource.  Having teachers build relationships with kids is the key to success in teaching in a building or online.

  • Distance Learning
  • Online Learning
  • Virtual Learning
  • WAVA
  • COVID-19
  • Productivity
  • Resource

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