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Where do we grow from here?

Ranjit Sidhu recalls the moment that set the course for his work in education. He was on a backpacking trek through India and Nepal, mulling over his career. He had just left his job as a strategist in the oil industry and was seeking his next opportunity.

“Whatever I was going to do had to have a pretty deep personal connection -- it needed to internally resonate,” he says. “[And] it needed to be more than about me. It needed to really be about other people.” 

Sidhu was in Kathmandu, in an area of high poverty, sitting at an outdoor altar and watching parents leave offerings and pray. Another visitor told him that they were praying for their children to get educated.

“I was sitting there and I was like, ‘Wow, look at the value  that parents are placing in education’,” he says.

The experience left an imprint on Sidhu. He knew he wanted to work in education in communities of need. He returned to the states, earned his teaching credential, and started teaching social studies in inner city high schools. 

Sidhu later segued into working at education organizations. 

“I've stayed pretty close to that personal anchor,” Sidhu says. “Obviously, I don't serve students directly anymore...but all my work has been in servant leadership [and] also growing organizations to be able to do it.”

Sidhu took the reins as CEO and executive director of ASCD in early 2020, just before the pandemic shuttered schools. SmartBrief sat down with Sidhu to talk about what he learned from the past year and what it means for education and ASCD moving forward. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and format.

As you survey the education landscape and consider the events of the last year, where do you see opportunities for growth and change?

Before the pandemic, many education experts would say that innovation and the ability to adapt are 21st century skills and that we need to teach those things. I think that educators demonstrated that capability during the pandemic -- and so did students. Was it perfect? No. But we should build off that asset base and an individual's ability to innovate, adapt and be proactive -- both students and educators. 

I think this also speaks to an opportunity for greater personalization, in particular through technology -- how individuals consume information; personalized learning pathways; how students access education and learning; and the ability to learn at your own pace or access different types of courses. We need to lead with this now. Kids are different from one another; all kids are different. You may give them one test -- a standardized test -- but they may do poorly or well, for different reasons.

Personalization lets us rethink our systems -- in terms of virtual learning, blended learning, seat time and what growth looks like when we return. It is schooling in a different way and will likely include a combination of delivery modes.

What are the urgencies for school leaders moving forward?

The first one is the social-emotional well-being of students. Students have gone through a lot, and how they will respond to all the transitions in schools and in their lives is unpredictable. How can educators support them in managing all these changes and how do we integrate how they socialize into learning? These things are critically important. Educators are already sensitive to these needs, but professional learning will have to hit on that in a bigger way. 

Second is the social-emotional well-being of educators. We did a virtual event earlier this year, a leadership summit on educators’ social-emotional well-being. About 2000 people -- superintendents, principals, and teachers -- attended and the chat box was fascinating. Talk about vulnerability! People shared about being lonely, feeling disconnected or not having the right support because everybody was trying to fly the new plane while building it. These folks are servant leaders -- making sure they get what they need has got to be top of mind for school systems and those of us who support educators. 

And then there’s student engagement. A lot of kids’ engagement levels may have gone down. ASCD has long been an early leader in whole child education -- looking at student’s education more broadly and holistically. I think that really comes into play now. 

How do we do a better job of serving the vulnerable students such as those with special needs and those who are from low-income backgrounds?

Let’s start by looking at learning levels -- what students need and where they are. Do they need help catching up or help succeeding over time? And here again, there is the need for greater personalization. We have got to ingrain that in how we look at underserved or marginalized and vulnerable student populations. We need to be able to be responsive to their individual needs. 

Next, we need to become invested in trauma-informed practices. That is a broad need now because of what students have been through. For vulnerable student populations, though, that was a need before the pandemic and that focus was starting to gain momentum and traction. But the good news is that many students develop resiliency from what they go through. I hear it in conversations that I have had with some of them. And resiliency is an asset we want all students to have so they can navigate this world.

More generally, we must keep schools at the center of society, in terms of policy making and public support. For some students, schools are their primary source of health care, food security, internet access. When we shut down schools, we removed their source of community and basic needs. We also saw that when schools were closed communities had difficulties functioning.  Fortunately, we are starting to tackle these issues through policy supports. Funding is starting to increase in a targeted way, in terms of support for facility infrastructures and wider broadband access as well as student counseling and student and educator supports. That is going to continue to be key going forward. 

The pandemic and the social unrest of the last year underscored the importance of interconnectivity among individuals and groups. Interconnectivity is the heartbeat of society. Marginalized communities were more disconnected and isolated because of a lack of technology and other issues. Resolving these issues may be the biggest opportunity out of all of this --in that the pandemic exposed such long-running inequities and started to spur action.

The pandemic pummeled the teacher workforce. Morale is low, stress is high, and the exit rate is creeping up. What can we do to better support teachers?

We need to carve out more time for collaborative learning between educators.  There has never been a time where that was so acutely apparent. We need to let them come together, talk and figure out how things are going -- “You had five kids in your classroom, and the rest on screens. How did that go? Where are the instructional gaps? Sit down with your department, or peers more broadly and talk about that.”  The result can be not only developing solutions but providing peer support.  What are the implications of that moving forward to support student growth?  ASCD plans to connect educators around the country in a much deeper way. 

And then obviously for us as a professional learning organization, we also want to start ingraining or imparting some of what we do best much earlier at the pre-service level. We are committed to that -- to making sure that educators have tailored support for what they need at all stages of their careers. 

What is ASCD’s vision for the next year?

We have two clear goals. One is to increase our impact through educator professional learning, which ultimately then is connected to student success. Impact leads our focus. The second is to increase our reach. We reach a lot of educators, but we can impact a lot more.

We are anchoring our goals in three things. One is great content. Folks need information -- research-based information and practice-based information -- to fuel innovation and better practice. 

The second is community -- a peer-to-peer community where educators are digesting, implementing, executing, trying, failing, getting better together. We are going to increase that ability throughout the year with our members and broader education community using technology and other tools -- not just in-person convenings or events. 

We are one of the primary partners of Teach to Lead -- when teachers come together and solve problems of practice. We believe strongly in teachers’ ability to do that -- to innovate and solve problems. We not only want to provide good ongoing professional development and content but give them the platform and ability to solve problems and share what happened organically in a continuous way. We want to be much more thoughtful and proactive about how to provide those opportunities.

We have also just launched a new community platform. Discussions can be parsed and categorized into various groupings, such as job function or role, opinion group or a theme -- for example, equity, technology integration or instructional coaching. And in the virtual platform rooms you will create a sense of community with people. You can share challenges and solutions. If you attended one of our webinars or are utilizing one of our books, or went to one of our trainings, you can talk about it -- how you applied that knowledge, how someone else applied it, what went well, what did not. It will be specific and personalized to people's interests and what they need. 

And the third anchor is coaching. That is a huge point for us moving forward. We are going to amplify our learnings. We can seed a lot of expertise, authors, experts, practitioners into this community of educators we are supporting and developing in a way that will add jet fuel to spark innovation and growth, which are going to be the key goals as educators reimagine the work of schools and how to best serve students. 

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Reach her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com

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