What we’ve learned

… and how it paves the way for a brighter future for NJ public schools and students

by Michael Cohan

NJEA is an organization that learns. Its members both drive and benefit from this organizational approach to learning.

The past 14 months have been quite a ride for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic thrust everyone—virtually overnight—into a world for which few of us were prepared. The pandemic exacerbated inequities and left trauma and suffering in its wake. Educators and students endured unprecedented anxiety and stress. But we have also learned a lot in the last year that can eliminate inequities and ameliorate suffering. Much of what we’ve learned provides opportunities for a future that can be brighter than our pre-pandemic experience.

New Jersey educators showed why our public schools are rated first in the country. Without much training or support, teachers and educational support professionals stepped up immediately to figure out how to provide meals to children in need, set up remote instruction, and offer both learning and emotional support to students. A year ago, the challenges of learning new technology platforms to facilitate that remote learning were complicated by weak or nonexistent internet access. In many economically challenged communities, the supports for children provided by public schools also became less effective or unavailable, yet teachers did their best to help the students who arrived in their online classrooms.

Through the struggle we learned. Many educators are now more comfortable, and more expert, at planning and facilitating remote instruction. Applications and tools that were only lightly used or hardly known in February 2020 are now easily navigated. Who even knew what Zoom was in the first half of last school year?

In response to these early technology challenges, NJEA staff in the Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division (PDII) got right to work developing a pilot program to offer webinars focused on teaching strategies in the virtual environment and tech support for the most common online teaching tools. Based on the learning from these early sessions, a new microsite was born: NJEA Learning (learning.njea.org). The site continues to operate as a source of professional development and as a repository of advisories, event announcements, and other resources for members to use in their schools and worksites. NJEA Learning will live on as an asset that will enable NJEA members to connect to professional issues.

Trauma-informed care

A significant development that was directly related to the pandemic was an intensification of the focus on trauma and restorative practices. Communities, students and school staff suffered significant upheaval and trauma. Through its work in the areas of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care, NJEA provided resources to members to help them respond to the needs of their students.

An important component of this work is Peace Circle conversations, which help students and educators process their trauma and support the growth of self-healing communities. Another key component is the launch of the HOPE Series (Healing Opportunities for Educators), an effort to ensure that educators and administrators are informed and organized around strategies for becoming trauma-informed, resilient, and affirming of our students, their families and each other.

Racial affirmation and literacy

In the midst of the pandemic spring of 2020, we joined the world in horror at the murder of George Floyd. Within a week of that tragedy the concept behind the NJEA Racial Equity Affirmation and Literacy (REAL) Movement was conceived and launched. Creating a foundation for the REAL Movement was a series of “Freestyle Friday” discussions focused on issues of racial equity, justice and white supremacy culture. Moderated by an NJEA member, each panel featured both members and outside experts in conversation about authentic and challenging issues for members to consider.

Throughout the summer and fall, including sessions at the Summer Leadership Conference and virtual NJEA Convention, the REAL Movement network has grown to over 1,500 members. Since the start of 2021, there have bi-weekly “REAL Talk” sessions, which consistently average over 100 registrants.

Teacher Leadership

Barely six weeks following the first session of students of the brand new NJEA Teacher Leader Academy (TLA), the pandemic lockdown began. TLA staff suspended scheduled sessions for two weeks and worked to redesign academy classes and learning activities for implementation in the virtual environment. All the developmental plans completed in the fall had to be completely reviewed to ensure that fidelity to the state-approved TLA academic model could be sustained in online meetings.

This effort was not just successful—by all accounts, this shift enhanced many aspects of the inaugural year of the academy. All first cohort students successfully completed the program and will soon graduate with their Teacher Leader Endorsement from the state. The second cohort began in mid-March, using all the learning from the past year to strengthen the experience for the next group of TLA students.

Priority Schools

Another program highly valued by NJEA members is the Priority Schools Initiative. Like the TLA effort, program staff had to map out quickly how to sustain support for members using virtual meetings. Meetings with the program’s 15 school-level implementation teams, conversations with teams of teachers meeting in professional learning communities (PLCs) and whole school faculty meetings continued. PSI offers direct and indirect support for over 750 members.

Over the course of the 10 years of PSI’s work, we learned a lot that became more clearly focused during the challenges of the pandemic. A core goal of PSI is to support educators in changing their schools to operate consistent with research on effective practice. Initially, this was done school by school. It’s become clear that we need to refocus at the system level, providing more broad-based supports. Beginning in September, PSI will become a Community Schools program that seeks involvement from the entire community to provide wraparound support for students and their learning.

NJEA Convention

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all was conducting the NJEA Convention in a virtual environment. We knew we had to deliver an online experience for NJEA members that approached something representative of the massive event that is the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City.

Our plan did not seek to equal the in-person event. While many traditional convention activities had to be cancelled because they wouldn’t work in the virtual setting, many of the convention’s features were successfully reformatted for an online platform. These included the hallmarks of the NJEA Convention: 120 professional learning sessions and a virtual exhibit floor, with opportunities to interact with NJEA staff on Main Street NJEA.

The highlight of the 2020 NJEA Convention was the closing keynote session featuring Ruby Bridges talking with the NJEA officers about her lifelong advocacy for civil rights and justice – a commitment born of her experience as the first child in New Orleans to integrate a public school there. The virtual convention had an audience that was 12.4% larger in overall attendance compared with 2019, with 63% of the attendees participating for first time!

We love to be together, and many people value the opportunities at the convention to network with colleagues. While we’ve begun tentative steps to return to be fully together in Atlantic City, we don’t yet know what the public health rules will be in the fall. However, New Jersey’s education community has been steadfast in its fidelity to safety, science and careful consideration of the well-being of educators and students.

Building for the future

NJEA will use the learning of the past year to help us build for the future. We will sustain the structures that enable us to meet members’ professional learning needs remotely through online-meeting sessions, we’ll continue to provide support for the social-emotional needs of both members and students, and we will build on our success in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in our union and our schools. And, we also know that we can shift our work into the virtual environment if another crisis requires us to do so.

If we continue to be an organization that learns, there is no limit to what we can achieve together.

Michael Cohan is the director of the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. He can be reached at mcohan@njea.org.