Lessons Learned: From Surviving to Thriving

Steven WeberBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better, Lesson Plan Better


  • School districts can go from surviving to thriving by shifting from isolation to collaboration.
  • Other ways to go from surviving to thriving include assessing for learning and shifting the focus from teaching to learning.

In mid-March, school districts across the United States began adjusting the school schedule and learning environment.  Due to a global pandemic, several schools closed for two weeks, believing that the storm would calm and school could resume after spring break.  Some schools shifted to online learning, while other schools continued with a traditional schedule.  

For nearly fifty years, the first day of school has looked familiar.  Teachers welcome students with open arms.  Kindergarten parents drop their children off in the classroom for the first day of school.  Some schools have a red carpet and welcome students back to school with fist bumps and high fives from the faculty.  Student assemblies help build school spirit and allow students to meet the mascot, teachers, principal, and learn more about their school.

This year, school staff made plans for socially-distanced classrooms, virtual lessons, trauma-informed schools, safety guidelines, and identifying ways to support potential learning loss from the spring semester.  

In the midst of complexity, teacher teams and administrators shifted from surviving to thriving.

No educator prepared for this moment in grad school or previous teaching roles.  In some cases, there were feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed before the first day of school.  While there are still many unpredictable turns for educators, the following shifts have supported teaching and learning. 

Teacher teams have been forced to collaborate more than ever. As teams share resources, instructional strategies, and tech tools, they form a bond. Click To Tweet

Shifting From Isolation to Collaboration 

Teachers have found innovative ways to communicate, collaborate, and curate.  If teachers were previously operating in isolation, then the pandemic has forced a team approach.  Effective teams develop and agree to provide all students with essential learning outcomes. 

Teacher teams have been forced to collaborate more than ever.  As teams share resources, instructional strategies, and tech tools, they form a bond.  Teacher teams have supported each other from teaching at home through video conferencing, Google Docs, and finding new ways to celebrate with team members.  

Roland Barth (2006) highlighted the importance of professional learning teams in K-12 education. He wrote, “A precondition for doing anything to strengthen our practice and improve a school is the existence of a collegial culture in which professionals talk about practice, share their craft knowledge, and observe and root for the success of one another.”

Do the teachers in your school district share craft knowledge and root for the success of their co-workers?  Collaborative teams are going to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever.  

Shifting From Weekly Tests to Assessment FOR Learning

Several teachers have made the shift from testing to assessment.  Assessment is not a new topic for classroom teachers.  Stiggins (2005) wrote, “Assessment FOR learning turns the classroom assessment process and its results into an instructional intervention designed to increase, not merely monitor, student learning.” 

As schools reopened, teachers were fully aware of the need to identify student readiness and possible deficits that students may have as a result of school closings around the world.  As teachers continue to focus on assessment data, it provides the opportunity for questions about teaching, learning, and instructional strategies.  

The professional learning community approach highlighted a need for collaborative teams to use data to inform planning and instruction.  The global pandemic has required teacher teams to lean on each other and to assess student understanding.  In addition to supporting teaching, “Feedback is the intervention tool with which teachers can empower learners to get into the driver’s seat of their own instructional decision-making. More importantly, it is the tool with which teachers can build hope and efficacy for their learners” (Erkens, 2015).

Several students may have test anxiety or lack confidence at the beginning of the school year.  The closing of schools was traumatic, and academics were impacted by social, economic, and emotional issues that families faced.  Assessment FOR learning will provide teachers with a playbook for coaching students, planning instruction, and leading through uncertainty, ultimately helping them go from surviving to thriving.

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Shifting From a Focus on Teaching to a Focus on Learning 

From March to August, teachers and administrators communicated with students and their co-workers via Zoom, text messages, phone calls, and email.  The inability to meet at school made lesson planning and co-planning challenging for most teams. 

Throughout the summer, several school districts remained closed and teacher teams began planning instruction, without knowing if their classes would be held virtually, in a hybrid setting, or face-to-face.  Teachers reflected on the end of the previous school year and identified key skills and concepts that were not taught or starting points for the new school year. 

Through identifying the priority (essential) standards, learning targets, and transfer skills, teacher teams were able to create a laser focus on the priorities for reopening schools.

During the traditional reopening of schools, it has been tempting to focus on activities, open house, thematic units, pep rallies, and opening week activities. 

The pandemic has created disruption for all schools and the disruption has created more collaboration within and across schools.  Teachers have identified key skills that every student should know and be able to do and have identified new instructional strategies.  According to Rick DuFour (2004), a “simple shift – from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning – has profound implications for schools” (p. 6). 

More than ever before, teacher teams are clear about the first semester priorities and how to support student understanding.  This clarity provides teachers with the ability to pivot from traditional classrooms to virtual teaching and learning. 

Teachers continue to collaborate and identify a clear path for learning.  While several things have blown the reopening of schools off course, a focus on learning has provided direction and a strong foundation for teachers and administrators. 

The new norm may not be what teachers and administrators were expecting in 2020, but a fierce commitment to students and co-workers has helped many teams shift from surviving to thriving.


Barth, R.S. (2006). Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse. Educational Leadership, 63(6), 8-13. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar06/vol63/num06/Improving-Relationships-Within-the-Schoolhouse.aspx 

DuFour, R. (2004). What Is A Professional Learning Community? Educational Leadership. 61(8), 6-11. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may04/vol61/num08/What-Is-a-Professional-Learning-Community%C2%A2.aspx 

Erkens, C. (2015). Make Sure Every Student Learns. Retrieved from https://www.solutiontree.com/blog/make-sure-every-student-learns/ 

Pascale, R.T., Milleman, M., & Gioja, L. (2001). Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business. Three Rivers Press.

Stiggins, R. (2005). Assessment for Learning Defined. Retrieved from http://downloads.pearsonassessments.com/ati/downloads/afldefined.pdf

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.