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Coping, Adjusting, and Transforming through COVID-19 

Listen to co-author Dwight Carter talking about thriving through hyperchange on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast with Peter DeWitt: 

When schools began closing in March of 2020, it was the beginning of one of the most painful episodes in the history of American educators  and it was also one of their proudest moments. In the months after the closings, teachers and administrators could say with justifiable pride, “It’s amazing how quickly teachers shifted their practices to try to help kids learn remotely.”  

However, school leaders, teachers, students and parents agreed on an essential point about the remote learning of the COVID-19 pandemic: it usually was not as effective as classroom instruction (Shapiro and Kim). This is an important lesson to be remembered in the 2020s: hard work doesn’t always lead to more learning.  

But there’s a huge bright spot; let’s look at the process educators used in 2020, and the mindset and practices being used today, to see how educators began to cope, adjust and transform their practices to deal with the disruptions.  

The CAT Model and COVID-19 

We can view the changes made by teachers and principals as being in three iterations: 

1. Coping 

In the days immediately following the school closings, educators scrambled to disseminate worksheet packets or hotspots and devices to students. This was generally seen as surviving in panic mode. Educators, students, and parents quickly adjusted to a variety of learning obstacles and did their best to keep education continuing in a regular, albeit new, form. In the CAT model, this was the coping phase.  

2. Adjusting 

In the late spring, summer, and fall of 2020, schools (more than had previously been imaginable) began to move more of their lessons online. In the spring, they often began with generic, online lessons designed for each grade level or course that could be accessed by students and parents through portals on school district websites. Educators helped parents and students troubleshoot issues with hotspots, devices, passwords, and assignment submission. By the fall of 2020, as many schools remained closed, teachers took a step forward and were able to offer more of their curriculum in online classes that were meeting daily or in a hybrid remote/in-person model. In other words, they moved from the days of paper packets and generic online lessons to online teaching and learning designed by the individual teacher for his or her class of students. In many cases, this entailed just moving the traditional classroom lessons online; put another way, teachers moved their lessons from the large screen in the classroom to the computer screen in the students’ houses. Lessons moved online without adjustment for the digital space were often were not as effective as when those same leessons were taught in classrooms; however, this migration was still a significant shift in that more teachers than ever had moved their teaching online. They were learning to use technology to deliver their content. In the CAT model, this was the adjusting phase. 

3. Transforming 

The third iteration of remote learning began for some teachers in the fall of 2020: they already had their lessons online, but they began to study which tactics worked and didn’t work in remote learning. They began to fine-tune their lessons for the digital space; they became more competent and their online teaching became more effective. These are the teachers, and the principals who supported, who recognized the landscape had changed and new ways of operating were a necessity. They recognized this as the new normal and wanted to keep growing. In the CAT model, this was the transformation phase.  

Educators coped with the initial closings, adjusted by putting more lessons online, and then began to transform as they studied the results in this new environment. However, many teachers and school leaders didn’t get to the transforming part; they put their old classroom lessons online and didn’t do enough to shift their tactics. They worked hard to adjust to the technology of remote learning, but they stuck with their old, previously used lesson plans as they waited for the old school world to return. Thus, a new teaching gap arose: on one side were the teachers and school leaders who tried to survive using pre-COVID tactics, and on the other side were the teachers and school leaders who embraced a transformative mindet and took their first steps into a post-COVID world.  

Steps to Move Forward 

So what can school leaders do to move forward? The RAND Corporation, a group that conducts in-depth research, surveyed a broad cross section of educators about their needs in late spring of 2020. Here are four of their findings school leaders can use as they guide their staffs through the pandemic and its aftermath: 

  1. Teachers need professional development in effective ways to teach remotely.  
  2. Students need engaging activities, especially in remote learning.  
  3. Schools should have up-to-the-date contact information for families that include the best ways of contacting them.  
  4. District leaders should provide assistance to building leaders who are dealing with constantly changing situations perstaining to student emtotional issues and academic gaps exacerbated by the pandemic (Hamilton, et al.).  

These four points probably resonate with school leaders who saw them in their own buildings in 2020, and they are leadership areas on which to focus in the future. The first two points about remote learning will be new constants. While more students will return to their schools as the pandemic wanes, various forms of remote learning will continue to be explored, even as the world returns to a more normal stage; Internet learning is here to stay. The third point, dealing with maintaining accurate contact information, reinforces the need to find new ways (perhaps through social media and other internet based channels) to communicate with parents who live in a connected, mobile society. The final point, which urges district leaders to assist the building administrators in handling this new disruption, is hugely symbolic  it reinforces a guiding principle of the CAT philosophy that building leaders have reached their saturation points in what they can handle alone; in the last two decades they have seen disruption after disruption piled upon their already crowded plates, and if they are to successfully transform through the aftermath of this pandemic, then they will need more assistance from district leaders (who also are dealing with new disruptions and have seen their jobs shift dramatically). School district operations must transform to reimagine the scope and definition of campus leadership roles. 


This post is an excerpt from Leading Schools in Disruptive Times, 2nd Edition.

Written by

Dwight Carter is the highly respected principal of New Albany High School, a high school in New Albany, Ohio, that is regularly ranked among the top 100 high schools in the nation. Prior to accepting the position at New Albany High School, he was the principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School, in Gahanna, Ohio, and he played a key role in the design of Clark Hall and the implementation of global skills and technology into its curriculum. In 2013 he was named a national Technology Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). He is also an inductee in the Renaissance National Hall of Fame because of his incredible work in developing positive student culture. Mr. Carter has frequently been a guest speaker in schools, universities, and at local, state, and national conferences that deal with Generation Zs, technology usage, staff development, school culture, and other 21st Century education topics. He has authored numerous blogs and has written on behalf of NASSP. During his twenty year career, he has also been a high school social studies teacher, a high school assistant principal, and a middle school principal.

Mark White is a school leadership and training consultant. Previously, he was the Director of Education and Outreach at Mindset Digital and Academic Principal in the International Department of the Beijing National Day School in Beijing, China. As the superintendent of the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools in Gahanna, Ohio, he played a key role in the design of Clark Hall and the implementation of global skills and technology into its curriculum. During his tenure as superintendent, the district earned the state’s highest academic ranking, opened Clark Hall, and achieved financial stability. Mr. White has been a consultant to both the College Board and the ACT and has served on two national education reform committees. He has frequently been a guest speaker at schools and universities and at local, state, and national conferences. Prior to being a superintendent, Mr. White was a band director, high school English teacher and department head, high school assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. Dwight and Mark are the authors of What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps to Better School and Classroom Design.

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