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