Teaching during the pandemic has been hard. I italicized that because hard doesn’t fully capture the extent of difficulty and challenge our educators have faced in these past two years. Even before the pandemic, teaching was hard. It’s a profession guaranteeing long hours, draining days, traditionally low pay, and the constant questioning of “Am I helping my students?”
I have spent the better part of the last decade providing targeted support to schools, educators, and students requesting advice on improving engagement at their Tier 1 level. Through this experience, I have re-engaged students who are re-entering school after hiatus, coached teachers who faced chronic absenteeism, and helped schools develop infrastructures to support better staff, community, and student engagement.
As school districts across the country are devoting more and more resources to implementing high-quality Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) processes, many district personnel are trying to figure out where the money will come from to fund such initiatives. While some funds may be available for school districts to improve their MTSS practices, many funding sources are available for school districts to implement specific components of MTSS—either across the school/district or specifically for certain targeted populations of students.
As we round the corner to almost two years of school disruption due to COVID-19, we continue to see the growing impact on our school-wide population; staff, students, and communities. The far-reaching consequences have yet to be seen; inequities in access to resources, quality instructional materials, and current technology have been magnified.
It’s no secret that these are challenging times for all educators and our students. Our most vulnerable populations have fallen the furthest behind due to school disruptions (NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps, n.d.). We have an opportunity to make a difference right NOW in all of our students' lives by addressing and resolving disproportionality within our systems, becoming stewards of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.
My co-author and I are both former school leaders and Branching Minds consultants. We support system-wide equity initiatives and tackle challenges related to disproportionality and disparities within our schools. We work hard to help schools support the mantra that ALL truly means ALL students receive support through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). So, let’s begin—grab your data and get ready to bring disproportionality to the light of day. We’ll provide critical examples of leveraging your MTSS problem-solving to address disproportionality and create equity.
Teachers spend an average of 68 hours in professional development each year (source). This statistic is undoubtedly shocking to many, and on the surface, 68 hours sounds like a lot of time. However, as a school leader, I always felt like I was struggling to support and train my team on everything we needed with the time that we had. I imagine this feeling resonates wherever you are on your school’s MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) implementation journey.
Your summer MTSS professional learning sessions are long in the rearview mirror, and you’re now left wondering where to go next with your team regarding their ongoing learning and development. You’re also probably looking at a school calendar with minimal time for professional development. Between school closings, staffing challenges, and all of the customary competing priorities of the school year, figuring out the time—and more importantly, what to prioritize—for improving your MTSS system can feel like a huge challenge.
With all this in mind, there is a path forward. These questions/considerations can guide you:
The twelfth teacher has called in sick tomorrow, and you are out of substitutes. Now, you’re deciding whether to combine classrooms or ask an administrator to step in as a teacher for the day. Suddenly, you question whether you have enough staff to open tomorrow, with any plans for student learning or interventions suddenly pushed to the side as you go into an emergency response mode.
Whether teacher absences are due to an influx in COVID-19 cases, unfilled positions from the beginning of the year, an overly stressed staff utilizing a much-needed mental health day, or all of the above, a sudden staff shortage can be an incredibly challenging hurdle for school districts to handle.
In the age of COVID-19, these shortages can come with hard decisions. In a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Colorado, district officials were forced to transition to remote learning for five days when staff absences surpassed 20%. These difficult decisions can disrupt all aspects of a school’s operations, including fidelity to MTSS processes.
However, MTSS is more relevant in times of educational crises than ever before. MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) is a systematic approach to education that accounts for the needs of the whole student, including support for academic and social-emotional elements of a student’s learning. Better yet, MTSS is not just limited to the students it serves; this system also delivers benefits to a school and its staff—benefits that can help alleviate the strain during times of stress.
When faced with times of crisis, it can be easy to push our MTSS practice off to the side as we go into crisis mitigation mode, but staff shortages do not need to spell an end to our MTSS process. Instead, this provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate our MTSS practice and system to ensure that we have implemented a process that can survive a “worse case scenario” dilemma.
Let’s take a look at some strategies to continue MTSS with a reduced staff.
We can all agree that effective educators continuously build their practice and pedagogy by collaborating and gathering new knowledge. As Albert Einstein said, “If you’re not learning, you’re dying.” It has become standard practice in schools across the country to allocate ~five full school days and several half days for Professional Learning and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) dedicated to honing our craft. This dedicated time is sacred for educators, needing to step away from the flurry of plans, decisions, and discussions that define their daily work. Professional learning allows us to reflect, learn, and grow with the ultimate goal of helping students, families, and communities achieve and live the most positive school experience.
Educators can easily get lost in day-to-day operations and mistakenly de-prioritize professional learning planning. Suddenly, we notice that a “Professional Development (PD) day” creeps up, and someone has to scrape together a last-minute plan. It may even feel like one group of teachers can be forgotten and assigned to “work in your rooms.” While all educators can appreciate the time to catch up and breathe, professional learning becomes fragmented, and time can be lost for schools working to meet strategic goals.
When it comes to Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) initiatives, this notion could not ring more true given the complexity of providing academic and social-emotional support to every student at whatever ability level they may fall. Moreover, MTSS requires educators to work much more collaboratively to support all students, which can often be challenging at first given the intricacies of school-based scheduling and the different potential levels of understanding of what MTSS means in daily practice.
What is essential to quality professional learning, specifically for an MTSS implementation, is a thoughtful plan that purposefully considers the intricacies mentioned above, level setting the understanding of MTSS, and the school’s annual goals. To accomplish these goals, every stakeholder’s contribution must be valued.
This article will outline the critical components of a thoughtful professional learning plan within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework. We hope that this guidance supports you for the next year as you begin to consider your school year goals and plan for district improvement with purpose and intention.
Ah, intervention plans. They are fun, aren’t they? All that data and planning and resources, only to take a look at a student’s progress monitoring scores and realize that those stubborn scores haven’t budged at all. Why? We may scream internally, watching our tediously placed trend lines flat-line. But we worked so hard on this skill! It is a true horror story of education—well, maybe not horror, but the frustration is definitely there.
Edward Munch, “The Scream”
As the bedrock of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), intervention plans are crucial in aiding all students to master grade-level content. While universal screeners and benchmarks can help identify which students require additional support beyond core instruction, intervention plans are the vehicle that delivers that support. Let’s take a moment to review the essential components of an MTSS intervention plan, then jump into the nitty-gritty of what to do if a plan is showing no growth.
As lifelong educators, my co-author and I have experienced a combined 50, yes 50 years in education! Spring semesters, planning, reviewing middle-of-year data, and targeting support before the final bell rings for summer. No matter what role we have held, including teacher, administrator, instructional coach, our instinctual goal was to ensure at least one year’s growth for every student.
With COVID-19 and all of its impacts still looming, we again find ourselves faced with an end-of-year deadline and, as always, evaluating student growth. Longstanding academic inequities continue to creep into our schools and classrooms as many students fall further and further behind meeting grade-level standards.
And who’s most at-risk for falling behind? Recent data suggests that our underperforming students are racially and ethnically diverse, are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and have individualized education programs (IEPs) (Methodology Studies - Achievement Gaps | NAEP). With the best intentions, after a thorough middle-of-year data review, our initial instinct is to group students to focus on remediating foundational skills only to risk excluding them from grade-level content instruction.
➡️ Related Resource: Best Practices on Interpreting Student Assessment Data in MTSS
What if, instead of focusing on growth for every student (which potentially may be grade levels below), we focus on grade-level proficiency or bust for every student? Instead of focusing on identifying the gaps and moving backward to fill them, we accelerate our core instruction by strategically curating the grade-level standards-based instruction. That way, the student can spend time and attention on identified targeted skills to prepare for upcoming learning. Student outcomes change when accelerated instruction replaces traditional remediation strategies alone.
With traditional remediation, students identified as needing additional support typically receive intervention for skill gaps that may have little or nothing to do with the current, on-grade level material and/or instruction.
While it is certainly important to "backfill" for learning gaps, when that remediation is not closely aligned to what the student needs right now to be successful with current grade-level material, the student will only slip further behind. In contrast, acceleration provides immediate access to end-of-year expectations by strategically identifying prior years’ learning and learning gaps, AND providing just-in-time support along the way.
➡️ Related Resource: Selecting the Right Interventions to Boost Accelerated Learning
Considering our classrooms’ significant and diverse needs in 2022 and beyond, we can layer the strategies and principles of accelerated instruction as an equitable multi-tiered systems solution that ensures our Tier 1 core instruction is fluid, dynamic, responsive, and matches our diverse students’ needs. But, before we can jump into how to accelerate, let’s answer the first question that comes to mind…what exactly is differentiated core Tier 1 instruction, and what is acceleration?
Reflective teaching is a practice I believe strongly in utilizing throughout the school year. Throughout my work as a University Supervisor at the National College of Education at National Louis University, I work with graduate teacher candidates to develop their reflective practices. Reflection allows educators to think about lessons they observed (or taught), analyze techniques, self-assess and consider areas of strength and growth. Recently, during my own reflective process, I could not help but think about the significant changes in teaching that have occurred over the last 20 months.
As educators, we have all come to expect that change is our new norm; especially, after we collectively experienced the transition to remote learning, hybrid learning, and the back-and-forth between the two. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, all teachers at one time or another have experienced a challenging learning curve or a difficult programmatic change. And specifically, in education, it is well known that organizational change historically moved at a snail’s pace in schools and was even more difficult than in other professional settings.