A first year principal’s story about COVID-19, the dedication of teachers, and the critical role of quality curricula.
I could have never imagined that my first year as a principal would come with a pandemic, school closures, and a transition to remote learning in a matter of weeks. I came to this role knowing I had a lot to learn. The pandemic has made that learning curve steeper than I could have ever imagined.
Like many others, our school’s first priority has been ensuring students have access to our district’s meals. Simultaneously, it has been essential to provide teachers with resources and training to offer remote instruction, to provide parents with the information they need to support our new structure, and to support students so they can be in a mental and physical environment where learning can take place. My staff and I have been working around the clock. Some days feel more successful than others.
While there is so much I’ve been forced to learn on the spot, there are certain aspects of the job that I had utmost certainty about on day one. In particular, I know that all students need and deserve quality instructional materials. In our rapid response to the pandemic, so much of our preparation and success has relied on having content that can support our teachers and students whether kids are learning in a school or inside their home. Unfortunately, inconsistency in our published materials has made an already challenging situation so much harder.
In the past few months I've seen the impact of working with inconsistent, poorly designed materials on the teachers and students in my school. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, my district faced real challenges with mathematics scores. There can be little argument that our materials do not provide the necessary supports to teach math in alignment to college and career-ready standards. The teachers at my school are passionate, dedicated educators often asked to be experts in more than one subject. Pre-pandemic, our teacher’s persevered to make our materials more aligned for students. Now, they are being asked to teach this same math content remotely and without the benefit of in-school supports. We know we have to do better.
My focus on instructional materials is not new. I was a middle school math teacher for 10 years before moving into administration, and I saw first hand the difference quality content made in my own practice. I’m also a parent who spends every evening (and now morning and afternoon) with a third and fifth grader on their school work. I’m regularly frustrated by the fact that materials they bring home don’t approach math conceptually or consistently include the instructional shifts of focus, coherence, and rigor.
Personally and professionally, I have witnessed the impact aligned (and unaligned) materials can have on students and teachers. This is the reason I became involved with Student Achievement Partners (where I studied the standards in depth) and EdReports.org (where I review how well materials align to those standards). The professional learning I have gained, along with my years of experience in the classroom, has guided my work as an educator, principal, and father before and during the COVID-19 crisis. I’m certain that it will continue to guide me as we transition into the next phases of our new reality.
Without a doubt, students will return to school with learning gaps. I am more convinced than ever that a high-quality aligned math program is critical not only for helping students recover unfinished learning but for their new learning as well. That’s why I have been continuing work that began before our school closed with a team of teachers and other principals to narrow down potential math programs for our next adoption. We’re laser focused on a material’s alignment to the standards and how well they meet our local needs. We plan to pilot one of these programs next year with the hopes of adopting and implementing new materials fully in the 2021-2022 school year.
If I’ve learned anything this year (and believe me I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined as a first year principal) it’s that circumstances are often beyond our individual control. But how we react to those challenges is up to us. There are no perfect solutions, and quality instructional materials are not a silver bullet. However, the tools and resources we are equipped with to tackle obstacles matter. They matter now and they will matter in the fall. Let’s make sure we’re providing our students with the support they need, which includes great materials, to ensure they have every opportunity to overcome this crisis and be ready for college and career.
Joshua Zagorski is a first year Principal of Ralph J. Steinhauer School in Maple Shade, NJ. Steinhauer school is the home to approximately 350 5th and 6th grade students. Prior to becoming principal Josh spent four years as the Director of STEM & Network Technology for the Maple Shade school district. Josh was also a middle school mathematics teacher for ten years.