Tom Hamer, Associate Superintendent, Learning Services and Technology at Palliser School Division, spoke with us about the challenges, surprises and triumphs of the past year and what the 2021-2022 school year has in store.
The last year has been one of the greatest periods in history for change and disruption in education. Every student, teacher, school and division weathered the pandemic differently; some students embraced the changes while others ghosted school completely. Managing this disparity amongst students and families, while reconnecting with everyone, is a key concern for Tom Hamer as many schools look to return to the classroom this Fall.
Tom’s team was in a better position than many other boards at the start of the pandemic.
Two and half years ago Palliser School Division distributed Chromebooks to all of their teachers to take home, embed into their daily routines and use all the time for everything tech-related.
“I was thinking about the geography of a classroom, if a teacher has students doing presentations in front of the class, why can’t we have them with a device that allows them to sit at the back and type their notes in, instead of the old model where you have a classroom computer tethered to the front of the room.” - Tom Hamer
It was this kind of thinking and dedication to providing teachers with the flexibility they needed to plan, prepare and teach from where they were comfortable that put Palliser School Division in a place to quickly pivot to online learning. In fact, it led to the biggest surprise Tom had over the past year, the speed at which teachers got comfortable with the technology.
Before the pandemic, they encouraged the adoption of the Chromebooks through a soft sell, a tool they wanted to encourage teachers to use, but weren’t putting pressure on them to fully adopt right away. COVID became a wake-up call for many that this technology was necessary and here to stay and Palliser put their full support behind it, offering on-demand Professional Development for the tools now in place like video conferencing.
As a relatively small school division, Tom, his team, their Superintendent and their principals had the opportunity, prior to the pandemic, for a lot of face-to-face conversations and connections with students, staff and parents in hallways. The pandemic caused a dramatic shift in those relationships. Gone were the impromptu chats, the staffroom discussion and the casual conversations as a parent dropped a child off at school, to be replaced with tools that are still seen as very formal methods of communication.
“Email communications do not have emotion. Even if you put caps lock on, it still doesn’t convey the intended emotion. The recipient has to interpret that message through their personal emotional state and that leaves a lot of room for error.” - Tom
So many families were overwhelmed with information that Palliser made the choice to limit the amount of emailed information and save urgent messages for SMS and text. The last 18 months of online learning and the shift to a less frequent communication model coupled with the loss of in-person conversations have negatively impacted the relationships with staff, students and families
For Tom, it is a priority for 2021-2022 to focus on being visible, back in the schools, and rebuilding those relationships with principals, teachers, students and families.
A culture of open and honest feedback and support is needed to see success with any technology. This was truly highlighted for Tom as the pandemic waned and previously postponed projects were brought back online. One such project for Palliser was the introduction of a VOIP system for their phones. There were a few challenges implementing the system and a few situations where they actually had no phones working in the building for a while. There was a silver lining to these hiccups though; it allowed Palliser to really dive deep into the culture that existed with their admin team. The principals had known phones weren’t working and when they spoke to them afterward, they told them they thought the team would get it up and running and just didn’t want to bother us.
“It really caused us to circle back and sit down with our principals. We had a culture that people would suffer in silence, and while we aren’t there yet, we’re getting to a place where people in the division are reaching out to say something isn’t working can I talk to you about it. I want to get to a place where they're not asking permission to ask a question but we're getting there.” - Tom
“There are some amazing things that we now know that we didn’t know a very short time ago that will make teaching and learning better, that are still not widespread in schools,” says Tom.
Improving the adoption of new techniques, new styles of teaching and assessing learning is key to the future of education. One such piece, which Tom says has been talked about for a long time, at least 20 years, is the understanding of Formative and Summative assessment, essentially feedback collected during learning which should not be used to negatively impact a student's final grade but rather inform the student and the teacher of what to focus on next. As a division, this has become an area of focus and they hope it will help their students be more engaged in their own learning.
Technology has a big part to play in these shifts. The early adoption of technology, along with the opportunities for Professional Development for staff and teachers, will allow school divisions to shift quickly in times of change. By listening to the needs of the people you serve and taking the time to hear what they are saying your board will be primed for success as we move into 2022 and beyond.
This is based on an interview with Tom Hamer, Associate Superintendent, Learning Services and Technology for Palliser School Division.
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