“Give Yourself Some Grace." How One Principal is Redefining Virtual Instruction

A New Leaders alum and principal is creating a brand-new blueprint for instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out what is working well for students, staff, and families.
New Leaders school principal with young student outside school garden smiling
5/5/20
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“Give yourself some grace. …This is not normal. This is not business as usual. We are creating a paradigm shift in terms of how we’re doing school,” Maisha Riddlesprigger advises her team. A New Leaders alum and principal of John H. Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C., Riddlesprigger is creating a brand-new blueprint for instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The process is both iterative and collaborative. “We have to give ourselves opportunities,” she adds, “to try and possibly fail as we engage in a constant cycle of improvement.”

Riddlesprigger is not afraid to do things differently. Over the past six years, she has led her school to surpass annual growth and performance standards. In January 2019, she cut the ribbon on a new childcare center for future Ketcham students 6 weeks of age to 3 years old – as part of a district and community initiative to offer a 10-year pathway for neighborhood children. In May, she was named the District of Columbia Public Schools Principal of the Year. As of March 2020, Ketcham and the center are closed – and will remain so through the end of school year.

Like educators and leaders across the country, Riddlesprigger is redefining what high-quality instruction looks like in a virtual reality. At first, she and her staff zeroed in on securing devices and internet capability for families. Instruction focused solely on review. But once they started introducing new content, they discovered that live teacher demonstrations engaged more students – and asynchronous videos supported parents, especially essential workers and first responders.

Teachers went back into the school building and scooped up markers, whiteboards and word walls. They set up at-home classrooms to offer families the option of live teaching or pre-recorded content. “We want to mimic the classroom setting as much as possible,” Riddlesprigger explains.

In the weeks since, as they iterate and problem solve, Riddlesprigger strives to set clear expectations amid an endless barrage of new questions and challenges: How do we support teachers in what for many is a steep learning curve? How do we address the trauma related to school closures? How do we know if students are learning? What evidence do we look for?  

Listen as Riddlesprigger describes how she embraces trial and error, how she communicates the “what” and the “why” of her instructional decisions, and how she leads her team and school community to step back and regularly reassess what is, and is not, working in order to move forward differently.

Riddlesprigger prioritizes predictability and flexibility, along with connectedness and social-emotional support. Her goal is to help bring a sense of ease – and grace – to teachers and parents alike. “Similar to all of us,” she observes, “if your educators are not well, your school is not well. If your families are feeling anxiety and not feeling supported, they’re not going to be at their very best. We’re trying to provide that bridge since we no longer have in-person touch points.”

Knowing what is most important keeps her focused and motivated as a leader. Grateful to her network of leaders and national thought partners, Riddlesprigger wants educators to rely on each other.

“We don’t have to do this alone… It can seem very isolating. Here I am, in my kitchen, at the counter, on a Zoom call, doing work… Lean on your network, whether it be New Leaders or the principals in your specific district. Everybody has hurdles that they’ve overcome. …None of us have done it perfectly. So use the people and the resources that you have because we’re not alone in this.”

Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger with her students planting a tree.
Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger with her students planting a tree.

For more about inspiration from Riddlesprigger, read her op-ed about what it means to be a principal.

Maisha Riddlesprigger began her education career as a fifth-grade teacher in Compton Unified School District in California. Named as the District of Columbia Public School Principal of the Year last year, Riddlesprigger has led John T. Ketcham Elementary School since 2013. She believes the school motto – Our Students. Our Future. Our Responsibility – defines her role as principal and her deep commitment to the school community.

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Maisha Riddlesprigger

Maisha Riddlesprigger

Maisha Riddlesprigger began her education career as a fifth-grade teacher in Compton Unified School District in California. Named as the District of Columbia Public School Principal of the Year last year, Riddlesprigger has led John T. Ketcham Elementary School since 2013. She believes the school motto – Our Students. Our Future. Our Responsibility – defines her role as principal and her deep commitment to the school community.

Maisha Riddlesprigger

Maisha Riddlesprigger

Maisha Riddlesprigger

Maisha Riddlesprigger

From New Leaders, this is our Leadership Changes Everything series. We're elevating leader voices from across the country to support educators and leaders as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic together. Today we hear from Maisha Riddlesprigger.

She's from Ketcham Elementary and she serves as a principal at Ketcham Elementary School in DCPS. She was also the Principal of the Year for the 2019 school year, so we're excited to be here with her today and hear some insights from her.

Today we're going to talk with her about ways that we can protect learning during this time.

We know that it's important that our students have a way in which to engage with the content and a licensed professional educator to help support them. We know parents are doing an excellent job with supporting their children at home. But in the parent meeting we had, one parent was like, well, this is a new term they're using. When I was in school, it was called this, but now it's called this. So we want to make sure that we can house instructional videos to not only help students but help parents too, as they're doing their absolute very best to support children at home.

For us, what we found the most bang for our buck in terms of making sure instruction is still happening, is making sure that we are recording live teacher demonstrations of lessons in the way that they would do the lessons in the classroom. Teachers have come into the school to get markers, whiteboards, they set up their own classroom, they're making word walls on their own, like at-home classrooms. We want to mimic the classroom setting as much as possible, knowing that it's not going to be the same in any way.

Next question, how do you support teachers and students in this virtual world?

So during LEAP and during the professional development time, my assistant principals can help teachers as they're trying to figure out what's the most important content to deliver.

Today, I had a meeting with a teacher and he was like, you know, in one of our sessions, I was able to talk to a teacher, and another teacher of the same subject area told me that vocabulary, making sure you get the vocabulary down, especially because it can change from what parents know, and defining the specific content is really the most important thing to get out in the video.

So during those LEAP sessions, teachers are able to support each other with the help of a content area specialist in order to make sure that we're making videos that are most responsive to student needs and cover the most pertinent content. Because as you know, there's so much to cover in any one lesson but when you're on video and when you have limited time, you want to make sure that you're getting out the most important part of the standard, as well as the most important part of the skill that you're trying to teach whether that be a new skill or a review skill.

We've structured our instructional week to be Monday is what we call Makeup Monday. Those are the days that teachers look at student work samples that have been uploaded, and then either do a reteach lesson or reach out to students individually to do makeup and to do a reteach based on the work that they're seeing being submitted, so that we can make sure that we're hitting and correcting errors in a timely way and not letting those errors persist so that students can make sure that they're getting feedback on a weekly basis.

What are the things that you might do differently? I know you guys have taken lots of time to problem solve and step back, but are there things that you guys might do differently?

I think that if we could start all over again, we would really focus on that first week, focusing on building a sense of community and relationship building. Because what we found is, you know, we have some exceptional teachers at certain grade levels and great teachers all around, but our highest-performing teachers and the highest engagement are teachers that took the time to focus on relationship building.

It can be frustrating as a teacher if you're doing all of this and then only getting three or four students online, or if you're only getting five students online. Teachers that started out strong out the gate, when they got the low engagement, kind of slowed down. And so we've had to take a step back and say, you have to focus on building a sense of community during this time.

I mean, honestly, we all do, whether it be even me as a leader for building a sense of community for a school. So we have weekly staff huddles in addition to our team meeting, where we all come together. I try to start with like an SEL opener. One of our first ones was like, hey, go get a picture of something in your house since we're at home, that you can't live without during this time, and something that gives you comfort and peace, right? So that was a way for us to build a sense of community and kind of talk about our feelings during this time.

In the same way that we have to do that as a staff, we have to do that for our students. We have to build a sense of community and make students and families, during this time, feel that there is some sense of normalcy in the community.

I would tell leaders all around the nation, we don't have to do this alone, right? It can seem very isolating. Here I am, in my kitchen, at the counter, on a Zoom call, doing my work. I would really say just as a leader to lean on your network, whether it be New Leaders, whether it be the other principals within your network, in your specific districts, because everybody is dealing with challenges, has hurdles that they've overcome, had to take a step back from and then course correct along this time. None of us have done it perfectly. So use the people and resources that you have, because we're not in this alone even though it can feel like a very solitary time.

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