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05.01.20What Can Deans of Students Do During Online Learning

My TLAC colleagues and I have always loved Deans of Students—we think they do some of the most important work in any school and have always thought it was a major problem that they are asked to do such critical and challenging work without access for the most part to quality training and resources. In response we created a “Dean Team” under the leadership of the amazing Hilary Lewis. Over the past few years they’ve followed Deans around to study their work. 

One result of the Dean Team’s work has been a two-day  Dean of Students workshop held during the summer for the past few years. Another is a Dean’s Curriculum—we’re finishing it as I write this–to help ensure that teaching and learning happen more effectively in often busy Dean’s offices.

Suddenly, though, Deans have a whole new set of challenges. How do you build culture in a school when you’re never face-to-face with kids? We’ve been reflecting on this question and asked our Dean Team to share some idea for how Deans can best support their school, when “school” is virtual for the remainder of this school year.

Kim Griffith: The Power of Informal Check-ins

One of the most difficult parts about remote education is the lack of face-to-face interactions with students, especially those who may need them most. In a brick and mortar world, there are several points during the school day where a Dean might get to have informal interactions with students. Remote learning makes creating such organic interactions challenging, but several School Culture Leaders we’ve been working with have been taking matters into their own hands and making daily check-ins with some students in order to stay connected. Generally their goal is to reach out to the most at-risk- of dropping off the school’s radar or of finding themselves in difficult situations. Ironically a list of such students often overlaps with a list of students who are frequently in the Dean’s office when school is in session.  In other words, informal check-ins offer Dean’s the opportunity to build positive, caring relationships with exactly the students whom they will most need positive relationships with on that bright sunny day when we all walk back through the doors of an actual school building.

Informal check-ins could take a variety of forms, depending on how well you know a student.  It could be:

If you know a student and perhaps their family a little better it could be a bit more friendly:

If you know a family situation might be challenging there’s great opportunity to be supportive

If you know a bit about a student’s particular interests that can be another way to connect.

We think informal check-ins are powerful because they allow School Culture Leaders to build trust with all students so that even though we are physically distant we don’t become emotionally distant. It’s a great move to include parents as you do so: “Just a heads up that I’m going to give Jelani a call this afternoon to check in,” so they know your purpose and can share relevant information.  It’s also important for them to know that you care about and support their children.

Brittany Hargrove: Supporting Community with Communication

Community circles and school wide assemblies are opportunities many Dean’s rely on to build core values and a sense of community. While it’s probably not possible to do a synchronous zoom call for 500 or so people—or while we’re not aware of anyone who’s tried it—Dean’s could try whole-school asynchronous messages to  highlight both academic and culture successes throughout the week. Here are the great things people are doing to express our core values.  Here’s the great work people have been doing. Or you could try shout outs is through photo reel, competitions, and the like. These opportunities allow students to continue to build relationships from afar.

Hilary Lewis: Supporting Our Families

Calling and checking in on our students during this unprecedented time is crucial. We’d also argue that checking in with families is also essential—and can help to build relationships and trust which in turn may help you understand the challenges your students are facing. We are all in the midst of coping with this new way of living—perhaps with some unexpected positives (like getting a chance to eat dinner together as a family), and certainly some challenges (being isolated from loved ones and/or not having a moment to yourself for the foreseeable future). Some of us are teaching/leading schools while being parents and/or caretakers ourselves—and this balancing act can feel like daunting one.

Some of the families we support are trying to wrangle kids into a room to simultaneously, read, write, and watch a video on their phones while also attending to full time work, or possibly searching for work. There are families who are trying to make ends meet, lack food security, are without shelter, or grappling with fears about their own or a loved one’s health. We are in an unprecedented time—and now more than ever we need to pull together as school communities to support each other in our time of need.

Some language we might use in these conversations include:

  • It’s wonderful to have the chance to check in and see how you and the family are doing. How is everyone doing? How are things going?
  • How might the school be a support to you in this time?
  • What does learning time look like for your family right now? What could be helpful during this time?

Consider how schools might intentionally connect with families—via phone, letter, video messages—to remind them that even though the school building may be closed, “school” is still, and will remain open to support students and families throughout this year. Perhaps Deans can even take the lead in assembling resources. One school we know assembled kits of emergency food for families in need. The obvious question–Do you need help?–is a hard one to ask and can feel patronizing, but the Deans quickly figured out that it was much easier to ask people if they knew anyone who needed help with food. If they did the Dean said: please tell them to reach out to me. And sometimes parents said, “Actually we’re having a hard time,” to which the Dean said, “We’d love to help.”

Anyway, we urge Deans to pick up the phone, call families, ask how they are doing, and really listen. We may not be able to provide answers—and we think that should be okay and not the point of this exercise. Rather, the point is to support each other though empathy, through listening, and simply being there for each other. 

We are all experiencing something new and possibly scary—and so I challenge all our School Culture Leaders to reach out to a few families this week, and just offer a listening ear, an empathetic heart or ask if they know anyone who needs help.

On behalf of the Dean Team, I hope these thoughts are useful and that you’ll share a few ideas of your own. Meanwhile we’re hoping to launch an Dean of Students Cohort to support professional development later this spring. Reach out if you might be interested in having your school participate!

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