Virtual Learning & Leading in Education During COVID-19 | Interview with Dr. Jay Ferguson

In today's Vanderbloemen LIVE for Schools session, I interviewed Dr. Jay Ferguson, Head of School at Grace Community School, and Brian Jensen, Executive Search Consultant at Vanderbloemen, about tips and practical ways for schools to maximize learning and leading during COVID-19. 

Jay and Brian both agreed it’s imperative for every school to focus on cultivating an online environment for education that works best for their students and families. They also mentioned how Christian schools are in a unique position during this global crisis. This can be an opportunity for families outside of the school community to witness the way Christian schools are equipped to assist their students and families in the midst of challenging times. 

Lasting Impact on Education Due to COVID-19 

During this crisis, we see teachers being innovative in the way they curate their curriculum. Although delivering instruction during this global crisis can be challenging and have a vast learning curve, we see great opportunities for our teachers to be innovative and creative. It’s not effective to deliver a 45-minute lecture on Zoom, so teachers are providing instruction in new ways. Our staff has become committed to being fluent in online learning platforms and instructional delivery. 

Jay highlighted the advantages of implementing virtual instruction which will be a quantum leap if schools can take what they learn and apply it in the classrooms when we are able to gather again. It’s evident that teachers can provide more creative instruction virtually and be just as effective, if not more than before. 

There will be a global shift in the way teachers use their creativity virtually and translate it into their classrooms in the future. Also, veteran teachers are realizing they are more than capable of learning how to utilize new software programs and developing a sense of self-efficacy that is encouraging, motivating, and empowering.

The Economic Downturn Impacting Schools

The unfortunate reality of the economic climate for our families is important for schools to acknowledge and be in prayer about. Families are concerned about paying tuition and what that looks like in the future for them. The same way the future is uncertain for school leaders, the future is just as uncertain for families. It’s important for schools to consider these concerns now and long-term while making decisions for the future.

Setting up financial aid and emergency funds for families to help each other is a way for schools to take care of their community short-term. A positive thing to remember right now is that your community wants to help if they are able to and providing them a way to do so will be mutually beneficial. There are emergency needs for schools during this crisis, and a great way to meet these needs and build connections  is through fundraising and utilizing the resources within your community.

Long-term, all schools have to take a look at their budgets and create a contingency budget plan. You can’t predict the future of what will happen within the next few months, however you can begin to prepare for possible scenarios. Creating a contingency plan for a decrease in enrollment will help you map out your decisions moving forward. 

4 Things Schools Should Continue Doing

1. Utilize your resources. Schools have more resources than they think, and they tend to have a community that loves and cares for them because it’s where their child spends so much of their time. Leaders at Christian schools have the opportunity to walk in their unwavering faith in Christ while serving their school families. Jay and Brian explained that schools are in a position where their students and families need love, support, and normalcy through a routine. The best way to do this is by providing an effective form of instruction and maximizing learning for their students. Online access, digital devices, and supportive families have shown to be the three most essential things in providing education during COVID-19. Doing your part by providing a routine and positive environment will go a long way for students.

2. Move forward with the current budget and plans. Schools should think about how they can use their online platform to keep moving forward. Discover if your school is capable of offering deferred tuition payments and how you could go about doing that for your families. Also, consider how teachers are learning new ways to deliver content virtually to begin exploring possibilities of leveraging this in the future. This is a good way to extend your ministry reach as a school beyond what you’re currently doing. 

3. Continue your school initiatives. Jay mentioned a diversity initiative that his school has in place and their commitment to continuing that initiative. Schools put initiatives in place for a reason so, take the time to pray about ways you can continue these programs in the midst of challenging times. Even if it’s scheduling virtual meetings to stay in connection with each other.

4. Stay true to your mission. Even though schools may not have all of the resources they need during this time, it’s imperative that the mission remains at the center of all decisions moving forward.

Brian expressed, “Even in the midst of this global crisis, we are called to be the city on the hill for Christ.” Leaders can use this as a time to provide a high quality education at a high level of excellence through the wisdom of Christ. Remember that Christian schools have the opportunity and privilege to  provide hope to their students and families. That is something you can continue to achieve despite curriculum changes.

Virtual Learning Best Practices

1. Get creative. Schools should do their best with what they have. This includes being creative with your instructional materials. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have technology equipment, provide the best with what you have. If you do have the resources to do more then you can think of ways to replicate your Fine Arts program to give your students even more of their school experience. In this unique times, students are happy to be able to interact with you in any way. Remember that as you prepare lessons to take the pressure off and focus on loving your students.

2. Stay connected - Contact your teams individually more often. Jay has implemented Community Group Leaders in his school by having his hourly staff reach out to school families to check on them and pray with them. His school has also created virtual teacher conference hours in the mornings for families and teachers to remain connected.

3. Lead by communicating well. Be the symbolic leader of the organization in new ways. Lead by communicating well. People are looking to you to speak words of life and encourage them. Just staying in touch to let students and parents know what to expect in the coming days will provide families with extra security in this uncertain time.

Communication with Parents

A helpful way for Principals to communicate with parents is by designating one or two days to consistently send out communication. Having all communication funnel through one department also helps the consistency and schedule for the communication. It’s okay to communicate more through email now than before, but be mindful of the amount of communication so you don’t inundate families. Reaching out to set up calls with those concerned will save you both time and offer a better environment for communication.

It’s normal for families to have questions about testing, curriculum, financial plans, and many other uncertainties. To help answer these questions, schools can create a hub/landing page where parents can go to FAQ for questions and also reach out to teachers and school leaders. Having a hub will ensure consistency and save you time answering questions.

4 Tips  to Leading Remote Teams

  • Incorporate weekly leadership meetings to connect and walk through issues with grace. Staying connected can be hard in this environment. A weekly maintenance check up will go a long way. 

  • Encourage teachers to stay about a week ahead so they do not get overwhelmed and have a consistent schedule.

  • Maximum flexibility with your staff. We all need extra grace right now as we’re expanding out of our comfort zones. While excellence is important, we need to put our people first and allow them space to figure out what works best for them in this time.

  • Be thoughtful of your community and remember that small gestures go a long way. Checking in with parents, organizing virtual meetings or fun events, and sending out fun emails like games, puzzles, or quizes are easy ways to boost morale and stay connected.

Let's remember to use this time as a way to innovate, stretch, and grow. Viewing these challenges as opportunities will provide you with better resources and tools now and in the future. 

Additional resources: 

Dr. Jay Ferguson’s Blog: