Illinois Superintendent Emphasizes Need for Flexibility and Planning

Chelsea Penney
February 9, 2022

Illinois Superintendent Emphasizes Need for Flexibility and Planning

From variants to mandates to flexible settings, administrators were charged with rapidly meeting the needs of all students, despite the obstacles in their way. With this experience, Dr. April Willis uncovers how Prairie-Hills Elementary District 144 Superintendent, Dr. Kimako Patterson, is preparing for an even more successful 2022.

What have we learned about the need for quality virtual instruction in the P-12 environment?

Dr. Patterson: I’m going to start with the fact that we have learned about the importance of quality. In the P-12 virtual environment, there is a need for ensuring that there is quality in the product that we provide students, similar to what we would do if it was in person. 

“I think it is important to be able to go to high-quality partners to assist you in providing students with the best instruction possible.”

Dr. Patterson: In addition to quality, there’s also a need for training to occur. What we found is that, especially as we have just jumped right into the virtual world, there’s a huge need for training to occur on both sides: parents/students and staff. It is a different world that we weren’t familiar with that some of us have had to master in a short period of time. 

Dr. Willis: I can’t agree with you more. One of the things that I love to drive home when I’m having this conversation with people who are skeptical or cynical of virtual learning in the P-12 environment is that we know virtual works. We have seen it work in higher education for the past 20 to 30 years as an incredibly successful model. The difference is people were ready for that. We trained our instructors on what it looks like. 

In this covid environment, our teachers were thrown into a virtual classroom with little to no training, of course by no choice of their own. We can’t possibly hold them to the same standards and say virtual for P-12 just doesn’t work, it’s an utter failure. Well, it was because we didn’t come at it the right way. It doesn’t mean we can’t make it successful though. It is absolutely an effective model for teaching. We just have to give people the tools they need to implement it right.

What takeaways have you and your district learned regarding the preparation for a more effective virtual education experience?

Dr. Patterson: One of the bigger takeaways that we’ve learned is to vet the company that’s providing virtual instruction. That’s been critical because Proximity Learning has done an outstanding job. We’ve been working with Proximity for the last three and a half years. We were working with another company, and we were not prepared the day before classes started, there was a huge failure in technology. We were unable to provide any instruction virtually to the students. It was my junior high, so that’s the largest building. There are approximately one thousand students in that building. I cannot describe the anxiety and stress that occurred. One of the big takeaways is to ensure that the company that is providing the virtual instruction has the capacity to meet the technology needs as well as the quality of instruction that you’re looking for. 

In addition to that, I would probably say that we need to make sure that we ensure adequate space, lighting and supervision. All of that has to be taken care of, and that’s the district’s responsibility. Then we need to prepare students. The students need to be able to understand that there’s going to be a different relationship with the classroom instructor virtually versus in person. For the P-12 environment that looks different because we’re talking about little people instead of higher ed. With children, you just have to prepare them differently, which is just talking to them about the expectations. For us, that’s been a seamless process. 

Describe some of the ways your district has demonstrated flexibility during uncertain times.

Dr. Patterson: We have always been prepared to pivot. That’s just the nature of what we do. You plan accordingly for that which you can control. Of course, when things occur that you cannot control, then you have to be prepared to be flexible. We’ve been prepared to provide devices. We’ve been prepared to provide breakfast and lunch for students. We’ve been prepared to deliver instruction materials to homes. We set up testing sites and vaccination sites. As it relates to the virtual program, we’ve been prepared to instruct students. Of course, if something occurs virtually with technology, we’re prepared to be flexible and to pull in administrators or auxiliary staff members to meet the needs of students. 

In the last two and a half years, we have experienced each and every scenario you can imagine that calls for flexibility. The importance of being flexible is once you’re prepared to pivot and you have the mindset to be flexible, it decreases your anxiety and your stress because you already know that you’re going to encounter things that you did not anticipate. You have to be prepared with moving to the solution. I’m always about being solution-oriented. 

Dr. Willis: The flexibility during uncertain times has to be there. Expect the unexpected. Proactive flexibility is going to continue to guide our work in education.

What is something you wish someone would have prepared you for when you first started to offer virtual instruction options?

Dr. Patterson: I was probably one of those superintendents that would have said to you three years ago that the virtual environment would not work with our student population, that they’re too young. But it has been successful. It has really been extremely successful, and I don’t mind being the person to admit that I was wrong. I absolutely was. 

We have worked with Proximity Learning for about three and a half years now. The level of professionalism and engagement I see when I attend the classes with my students is great. I have actually experienced the instruction that occurs with the teachers when the students have individual devices. They have the ability to ask questions and have some one-on-one instruction, if that’s necessary. I must say to you that I have been pleasantly, pleasantly surprised and very happy that it’s been successful. I have seen it work because we have Proximity Learning in every subject area at my junior high school: Language Arts, Science, Math and Social Science. It actually works. 

When students exhibit a lack of motivation or even isolation, what instructional strategies do your teachers implement?

Dr. Patterson: Typically when we encounter this, we look at one-on-one tutoring, not just small groups, but some individual tutoring, counseling, social work, and social-emotional well-being checks with students. We are always focused on the equity aspect, which is meeting the needs of individual learners. And that, of course, looks different because all children learn differently. My teachers are really sensitive and do an outstanding job of being sensitive to students who may not be able to work even in a small group. Typically, for us when we reference small groups, we’re talking about three to five students. 

We just received a tutorial grant with one of our local universities and that’s going to provide even more one-on-one tutoring because we found that the lack of motivation stems from students who need someone to connect with them individually, as opposed to collectively in a group. Their social-emotional needs have been critical. That called for us to again be flexible and be able to pivot. It’s difficult to provide Math instruction if our students are feeling signs of depression. If they’re confused and they’re unwilling to engage because they’re feeling sad, we have implemented the calm classroom as well as some other programs to assist with this process. It continues to be ongoing as well. 

Dr. Willis: Social-emotional learning has been such a buzzword in education for the last several years. Now, it’s taken on a completely different meaning in the virtual environment because we don’t have that same physical connection with students that we were able to high-five them, pat them on the back or give them a hug if they need it. If we notice they’re distracted, we used to put ourselves next to them, tap on their desk, put ourselves between the two students that would cause a distraction. 

All of those strategies are no longer applicable in the virtual environment, so we have to come up with new ways to show that we care and to build those relationships. We let them know that although there’s a screen separating them, the teacher is still here for you. "I still love you and care for you and want to see you succeed in the classroom." It’s just a little bit harder to do that in a virtual realm, but it’s not impossible. It just requires some good brainstorming about what strategies work and what other teachers have used. We need to continue to circulate those ideas among the teacher environment virtually, which is also harder to do because we don’t have a teacher break room. We have to create these ideas for ourselves. Those professional learning committee communities look so different, but they still exist. 

Dr. Patterson: One piece that I love, even within the virtual environment, is the small classroom. You can put the students in a small classroom or you can put them in their own room, so I’ve seen that work really well. Whatever it takes, we attempt to be there to meet the needs of our students.

Dr. Willis: That level of innovation is absolutely required to be able to use breakout rooms and understand how to use the chat appropriately because there are ways where you can make that chat more private. You can bring other people in. I love the idea of allowing students to teach their peers. That can still happen because you can let them share their screen or pin their video. Learning these different techniques allows us to continue to build these relationships and empower students in their own educational journeys. We just need to continue to share those ideas.

How does your district set itself apart as a quality educational option for families?

Dr. Patterson: By ensuring equality and that’s making sure that all students have exactly the same thing. Ensuring equity which is making sure that we meet the individual needs of all of our students and trying to be excellent at everything that we do. We try to remain flexible and provide options. If any of my peers are listening then they would know that I have remained in the seat as a superintendent for 11 years because I focused on relationship building and seeking high-quality partnerships. I don’t typically support subpar work in any avenue.

“We provide excellence in everything and that is one of the things that I have enjoyed the most with Proximity Learning.

Dr. Patterson: What always sets us apart is what we’re willing to do for children and the fact that we’re willing to provide them with an excellent learning experience, bar none, period. There’s just no debating, no discussion about that. 

What professional development session/topic would you recommend other virtual administrators or educators explore?

Dr. Patterson: I’m a member of our local Illinois Associations of School Administrators, so last year we did a virtual PD and quite a few of my teachers attended. It was open to them to attend on weekends and in the evening. They learned about the virtual toolbox. It was all-encompassing for our teachers teaching them not only how to utilize different tools online but how to utilize them effectively to be more effective and more efficient with students. 

I call it ‘online learning 101’ because people do make an assumption that it’s really easy just to jump on the screen and start teaching, and that’s not true. Trying to gauge people via a screen looks completely different than in-person because you can’t move around, touch a shoulder. You can smile and joke but that looks different online. I’ve seen a lot of online PD courses that deal with how to engage learners, how to teach Reading or Math online, how to utilize your toolbox, or how to conduct small group sessions because that’s something that you probably would need some assistance with. Those have been awesome, and our teachers and administrators have taken advantage of them. 

When you encounter a challenge in the virtual education world, where do you go to find solutions?

Dr. Patterson: Typically in the virtual world, it just depends on the platform. For instance, if I am dealing with the classes that are offered by Proximity, I go to them. If we’re encountering challenges in our environment, then I’m going to seek the solution. We’ve encountered problems with connectivity, so our solution was to purchase access points for parents and additional devices. I’m always about the solutions, so I just don’t think there is a challenge that I’m unable to provide a solution to. You just sometimes have to be willing to be flexible and willing to pivot. Many times, you have to innovate and think outside the box like filling teacher vacancies. 

“Our district is no different from other districts in that we experience a shortage of teachers. That challenge is overwhelming, to say the least. I must admit that Proximity Learning was the first company that I thought of.”

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Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline of the many marketing initiatives for Proximity Learning.

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