Temple Independent School District (ISD), which is located north of Austin and south of Waco, Texas, has a very diverse student population. More than 75 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged and our ethnicity is comprised of roughly equal distribution of African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian. Like other similar districts, we meet our students’ needs through enhancing instruction, building strong relationships between students and their teachers, and creating opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning. Despite our success, this wasn’t something that happened overnight.
For years, we’ve been working toward blended learning because we felt it would be the answer to meeting the needs of our students. In 2015, Temple High School was chosen to be a Raising Blended Learners pilot site through Raise Your Hand Texas. For the next two years, we had 13 teachers experiment with innovative instructional models and new ways to leverage technology to enhance instruction. After the pilot, we saw how blended learning could help meet our students’ needs. Our teachers in the pilot learned to differentiate instruction, had more time to develop meaningful relationships with students, and helped students take ownership of their learning.
Blended learning for everyone
We’re now in our first year of a district-wide blended-learning initiative. We are proud of the progress we’re seeing already and we have learned a few things along the way.
Lesson 1: Find an expert to help.
If you’re new to blended learning, find an expert who will lead you down the right path. We knew this instructional shift would be challenging for teachers, administrators, students, and parents, and we’ve read plenty of horror stories about new instructional initiatives not working as intended.
We wanted to avoid the instructional “swinging pendulum”–swinging back to old instructional practices after something new doesn’t work, then trying something else new. That’s why we began working with Education Elements in 2016. Their team shared their vast expertise and resources with us, walked us through the blended- learning design process, helped us understand what blended learning would look like in action, and how to sustain it.
Lesson 2: Support your principals.
When we announced our districtwide blended-learning initiative last spring, some of our teachers were afraid to try something new because they thought they would be to blame if it didn’t work. Many teachers were focused on end-of-year assessment scores and how they would be evaluated based on those scores. Teachers and principals wanted to know what it would look like to teach using blended learning, and they asked for an exact calendar of when things would take place. This told us that people were afraid to take risks.
Our first step in addressing this issue was to support our principals in creating a culture of innovation among their teachers. Our principals needed to understand the design-thinking process—trying something new, reflecting on how it went, making tweaks, and trying it again—in order to make their teachers feel comfortable with the implementation process. This led to more risk taking and improvements throughout the year.
Lesson 3: Make time for collaboration.
When we picked teachers for our pilot, we took anyone willing to participate. This led to a diverse group of teachers including an art teacher, a French teacher, some English teachers, science teachers, and math teachers. While this sounds ideal, we quickly learned it wasn’t.