What I Learned as a School Principal and Relearned as a Pandemic Parent

Voices | Personalized Learning

What I Learned as a School Principal and Relearned as a Pandemic Parent

By Emily H. Murphy     Oct 26, 2021

What I Learned as a School Principal and Relearned as a Pandemic Parent

Almost 10 years ago, I served as the principal of a blended learning pilot school. We were a tiny, K-8 Oakland charter, operating mostly on heart and scrappiness.

Then, rather unexpectedly, we were awarded a big grant to test out a hot new topic: personalized learning. We bought the fancy student laptop carts and sleek furniture. We trained ourselves in clever, kid-friendly tools and computer programs.

A year later, our test scores had shot up.

When our school opened in 2009, only seven of our 220 students were reading at grade level; by 2013, the majority were proficient or advanced readers. Enter our five minutes of fame as a school. Tour buses filled with men in suits showed up in front of our dilapidated, motel-esque building to see the magic in action. They squeezed into our tiny classrooms, taking copious notes, asking, What’s the secret? Is it the computer programs? Is it the flexible furniture?

I knew what I should say. I knew the buzzwords. But the truth was much simpler. We had amazing teachers who believed in our students. We had a clear academic vision. We were a close team. And now we were fortunate to have some helpful tools. It wasn’t anything that revolutionary or sexy—it was just that the computer programs allowed our teachers to shine by giving them a way to meet with every student every day, and they also enabled our students to have some agency over their time.

We experienced lots of trial and error, but regardless of program or schedule or desk configuration, we kept learning the same key lessons: The power was in the interaction between the teacher and student. Our teachers and students thrived; every single student received individual support and feedback every single day in both math and reading.

Were the blended learning programs themselves all that great? No. Were they better than a worksheet? Sure—they provided students with immediate feedback, and teachers did not have to waste their time making and printing worksheets late at night.

Were students on the computer all day? No. Blended learning simply meant that students had three rotations: teacher-led, small-group instruction in reading and math; partner or group projects; and some individual practice learning on the computer. It did not replace recess or Morning Circle or read-alouds or classroom discussions or science experiments or any of the other incredibly valuable whole-class experiences.

At the time, we did not know the right balance between personalized learning versus whole-class instruction. Since then, research has shown that the ideal balance is roughly 50/50, with students spending 50 percent of their time accessing and learning grade-level content and 50 percent working on their individual goals.

Blended learning also meant that our students developed agency over their time and their learning. They set goals for themselves. They could choose how and when to learn a skill online. They could choose to practice math facts on the computer, and then use the knowledge to solve a complex, real-world problem with a partner. I’ll never forget watching a 6th grader finish reading his Hunger Games book, grab his computer to take an online comprehension quiz, pass the quiz, mark that he reached his reading goal, and then beam as his entire class erupted in snaps to celebrate him without any teacher prompting it.

That was my life—my reality—almost a decade ago. Now flash forward to 2020. I am crying hysterically to my husband. I have been an educator for over 20 years—a good one, I thought—and now I am trapped at home, desperately trying and failing to “homeschool” my own three children.

My twins were in first grade. They had Zoom school for 30 minutes a day, but they were with me the rest of the time.

Somehow I had forgotten everything I had learned at my former school. I created a rigid schedule. I tried to teach them math together, which always resulted in at least one of us crying under the table. Often me. I tried to do writing lessons. My daughter wanted to write as much as humanly possible in the most elaborate ways. “I don’t do punctuation in my writing,” she announced one day. Meanwhile, my son aimed to write the fewest accurately-spelled words possible. I tried book club. My daughter showed up with pages of ideas and highlighted passages for us to discuss. My son said, “Can we just read this book by ourselves so we don’t ruin it with all this talking?”

Finally, it occurred to me: They are individuals. They like to learn differently, so why was I forcing them to do it together? They know what is hard for them and what they want to learn. Why was I not keeping their unique needs at the center?

So I sat down with each of them. They told me exactly what they wanted from homeschool and what they were curious to learn. I dug up those old adaptive programs I had tested years ago—fortunately, many had dramatically improved in 10 years. We created individual schedules.

My son was able to learn by himself most of the time and seek help only when he got stuck. My daughter preferred to get a lesson first, and then practice independently. Now he could spend hours learning about Greek history and chess as she blasted Hamilton while drawing and writing creative stories. We came together for card games and check-ins, but we were no longer pretending that we had to operate as a three-person brain. (And we were all doing a lot less crying.)

My role as a parent-teacher was to let go and let them flourish. I had to get over my self-imposed fear of screens and challenge my own assumptions. Is it really terrible if they learn multiplication from Khan Academy instead of from me? Are they going to implode if they learn some history and science from BrainPop? Do they need to spend the same amount of time as each other on every subject? What is my fear around unstructured time? As soon as I released my own expectations about the way learning “should” be, I saw them spark and come alive.

Now they are happily back at school. They love seeing their teachers and their friends and the routine of it all. I am deeply grateful. Yet I can’t help but wonder: How do we keep those sparks alive? How might we redesign the school day so that students can get targeted support and feedback while also pursuing their curiosity? How can we loosen up and allow students to set their own goals and manage their time? How can we leverage technology so that our teachers can do the irreplaceable and deeply human work of building relationships, believing in students, and challenging them academically? Ultimately, who do we want our students to become as adults, and how do we plan backwards from those skills and mindsets?

I do not have answers yet. I know that it is more than just a magical computer program or expensive flexible classroom furniture, as those men in suits might have believed years ago. It is not just letting students do whatever they want all day, but it is also not insisting that learning occur in 45-minute lectures.

It is about reimagining how we can create spaces for teachers and students to thrive. It is about trusting our students to forge their own paths and elevating our teachers to be the ones who guide, challenge and motivate them. It is about ensuring that every student receives the support and feedback they deserve and access to rigorous grade-level content. I believe it is there—in this unknown middle ground—that we will discover how all kids and teachers can truly spark.

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