I try to be an eternal optimist, even when times are tough. I’m the person looking for the silver lining in every bad story. Some days it drives my wife crazy because she tells me I don’t have to find a lesson in every situation, but that is a story for another day. The pandemic has offered all of us a series of lessons, whether we like it or not.

I’ve been struggling lately to be the instructional leader that I want to be for my New Hampshire high school staff. They look to me for advice as they navigate the tricky waters of teaching in a pandemic, and yet I cannot offer them first-hand advice from experience, because I’ve never been in this situation before.

The problem is none of us have. Some days we feel as educators that we are simply making it up as we go along. We never seem to have finalized plans, because we always see ourselves at the mercy of the virus, not knowing what direction it will take in our school next.

In my school, we spent the spring in a remote environment. This fall, we started the year with remote learning or all, but we transitioned to a full in-person model recently. With this model, 20% of our students have opted to remain in a remote learning format and this has produced a new dilemma for my staff: How to be an effective teacher in a blended environment. This is the same question many educators from coast to coast are asking themselves this fall. The question has forced innovation in the classroom, and I’m convinced that in the long run, we will see this as a good thing.

For years, my staff have been working hard to get better at a student-centered, personalized learning model known as competency-based learning. In this model, according to the Aurora Institute’s latest 2019 definition, students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.

They receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. Their progress is based on evidence of mastery, not seat time. They learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing. Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the very hallmarks of learning that educators are trying to recreate as we work in these new-to-us school environments, courtesy of the COVID19 pandemic.

In this recent MultiBriefs Exclusive, where I explored how educators could increase their remote learning instruction skills, I wrote, “The pandemic of 2020 has taught all of us in education that even our most time-honored traditions and practices in schools could be taken away at any time, and the true mark of an effective educator is the ability to innovate, to adjust, and to be flexible in the wake of sudden changes that may come our way. If we truly believe in providing our students all that they need to learn and grow, then we have to look in the mirror at our own instructional practices.” The opportunity for innovation is prime.

My article focused on innovation possibilities in a remote classroom. So, how does that translate to one where some students are in person and some are not? In this recent Edutopia article, author M-J Mercanti-Anthony discussed this in far more detail.

Mercanti-Anthony’s first suggestion was for teachers to make use of a flipped classroom, which he described as one “where traditional lessons are delivered via video for students to watch at home while class time is reserved for students to collaborate and apply their learning.” Such a model can promote momentum, allowing students to move at their own space and then make use of in person classroom time to dive deeper and make connections between the topics presented online. The second strategy he presented was a rotation model, where students could move through a series of stations within the classroom, including small group instruction and computer-based applications. Rotations could be done over a series of days, depending on the type of hybrid model being used at the school. The benefit of this model, as he explains, is to “provide personalization by allowing students to alternate between small group work at school and online learning at home.”

What if, after the pandemic is over, we never return to “normal?” What if some of our students continue to work remotely? What if we finally move away from seat-time and embrace anytime, anywhere learning? What if we all become teachers who promote more flexible, student-centered environments?

I think this would be a win for our profession. I believe despite the challenges we are facing now as we work through the best ways to provide meaningful instruction to our students during the pandemic, out of the ashes will rise a new vision for learning, new routines and habits for teachers, and a new approach that allows us to be better than ever at our singular goal as educators: Helping ALL students learn at high levels.