To my fellow educational leaders:

I hope you all had the opportunity to celebrate, in some small way, the Thanksgiving holiday this past week. As we enter the season of giving this month, we will all need to make some adjustments and concessions to our “normal” celebration routines during the holiday season as a result of the challenges brought to us by the pandemic. You may have already experienced some of these this past week. Our Thanksgiving gathering was certainly smaller with family.

We didn’t travel as far and wide as we would have to visit family and friends. Lastly, our annual Black Friday holiday shopping experience kicked off virtually, with no trips to the stores for my wife Erica and I. Yet, with all the changes, Thanksgiving is still a time for being thankful. This fall, as an educational leader, there is no shortage of things to be thankful about. Here are the top two things that made my list this year, thanks to the pandemic:

1. Educators are getting better with integrating technology tools into their classrooms.

There is no doubt the pandemic has brought about an increased use by teachers of technology in the classroom. Of course, much of this was born out of necessity — as many schools made a quick pivot from in person to remote learning models this past spring. As we began the fall, many schools continued to embed at least some element of remote learning into their programming for students.

In 2020, teachers at all grade levels have been on a fast track to developing proficiency with technology integration. Many ed-tech companies new and old, took advantage of the opportunity and the need in the system to showcase their latest tools, and the market quickly became saturated with them.

For a teacher new to this area, determining which tools to use became an overwhelming task. To ease this, educator support groups such as TeachThought offer their list of the top 100 blended learning resources for teachers. In this recent EdWeek article, Larry Ferlazzo shares a list of favorite online teaching tools used by educators this year.

Effective technology integration is driven by the need for increased student engagement, particularly in classrooms where students and teachers are not always face to face for a set period of time each day. Although the pandemic has increased the need for this, the reality is that this need will stick around long after the pandemic subsides because when done right, it is best practice for kids. It can promote rigor, equity, and personalization.

2. We may finally see the end of Carnegie Units and “seat time.”

Imagine a learning model whereby students can move at their own pace, and the teacher acts more as a coach or learning facilitator and less as a provider of direct instruction. When students are ready to demonstrate what they know, they are provided the opportunity to do so and then can move onto the next phase of their learning.

This type of model is radically different from the one used by most schools today, yet it represents the future of learning that we, as educators, must find ways to implement in our classrooms. The pandemic has shed new light on this topic and brought about a renewed energy to develop robust anytime, anywhere learning models.

In a recent article, Mind/Shift’s Kareem Farah offers suggestions on how educators can create an effective self-paced classroom, which Farah defined as one where “students can complete learning tasks at a speed that’s customized to their personal levels of mastery. This means they may take longer with material they struggle with, skip topics that cover material they already know, or repeat topics as needed.”

Educational leaders looking to foster such models in their school should consider three things. First, schools need policy language that supports a model whereby students can advance academically upon demonstration of mastery — regardless of grade level. Second, teachers need the ability to monitor the pace and progress of each student as they are challenged at their appropriate level. Lastly, the schools must require that students produce sufficient evidence in order to be deemed proficient.

Like all of you, I too long for the days when the pandemic won’t drive the majority of the decisions that we make in our schools. I’m tired of supervising social distancing, health and safety protocols, and contact tracing. I want to see our students’ smiling faces, not their stylish masks. But I recognize that we aren’t quite there yet, and while we wait out this pandemic, we must continue to push forward our work to support all learners in our schools.

The pandemic of 2020 may have challenged our thinking, but that doesn’t mean it has to stifle our creativity and innovation. I am upbeat and thankful for the ways in which it has caused us to rethink what we do. Educational leaders, what makes your 2020 list of things to be thankful for?