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Why We Did Not Go Virtual

By Bambi Betts, Director, Principals’ Training Center
Why We Did Not Go Virtual

For 32 years, we have provided in-person professional learning opportunities for practicing and aspiring principals, teachers, counselors, and school governance members working in international schools. Until now. Stopped in our tracks, like so many of you across the world by COVID-19. By early March it was clear that anything "in-person" was becoming a remote possibility and we had a decision to make: go virtual, go blended, or go not. After weeks of deliberation, we made the decision. We will not take our 28 international school professional learning “experiences” due to take place over a five-week period in Miami and Rome online. Impact? No professional learning programs in person or online for 2020. The decision did not come easily. In fact, it was agonizing. Here is a slice of our journey. Given the completely unpredictable circumstances, we set out to answer the questions: Is there any other way to accomplish the professional learning we had already promised (and which had been paid for) to hundreds of educators from everywhere in the world? The freedom—and urgency—to choose to set the stage for designing a streamlined, effective decision-making process. So we dug into the vast set of tools that we teach school leaders to use and began to learn in the ultimate case study. Here is what we learned: Ask Questions As with all effective learning, we start by asking questions, always beginning with the big picture. Questions such as: - Generative (big picture) questions: Would any deviation from our current model be serious mission drift? Would our organization become something different with a different model? Would we be compromising our participants and schools? - Strategic questions: Are we solving a short-term problem? Defining a long-term strategy? - Fiduciary questions: What would the impact be? Can we afford it? Ground deliberations in design principles The question asking is ALWAYS rooted in “design” principles. Whether articulated or not, all entities—schools, businesses, organizations—are built on some underlying principles. What are the key “drivers” of our mission? What are the underlying premises for all we do? For us, these are rock solid. All our programs are designed with these six at the heart of all planning: 1. Access an up-to-date, research-based, relevant curriculum driven by essential questions and skill, with the expectation that new knowledge will emerge. 2. Trainers who are experienced international school practitioners 3. Access to the best we know about how adults learn collaboratively in-person 4. Experiences beyond the course that intentionally and substantially contribute to the collaborative learning culture 5. Participants uniquely from international schools 6. Every “experience” is part of working towards a full certificate, for which we will work to achieve genuine currency in the international school community. As we discuss, we “filter” each idea through these; to what extent could we preserve each through any sort of digital delivery options? Create a “Value” Matrix It’s all well and good to have design principles; but they do beg the question: Do all of them hold equal value? Which ones, if we did not achieve them would mean that we no longer had the central core of who we are? What if you can achieve some and not others? Is that OK? When is it NOT ok? So we created what we call the ‘”Value” matrix to “zoom out” ( term I have used for years which now has a whole new meaning, I realize) and view the design principles through the broader lenses. Not a magic bullet but at least a simple organizer that FORCED us to value design principles relative to four factors: Social responsibility: To what extent are we risking health and safety of participants if we keep things in person? Participant Experience: To what extent can we offer our participants what they expect and have paid for? Overall reputation: To what extent might moving away from our ‘norm’ erode the long fought for reputation and the prospects for future years?? Financial viability: Can we afford to change modes and if so for how long? This was NOT a linear process; we cycled around these tools daily and came to rely on these as set of tools that led us to the ultimate decision that: On social responsibility it was too irresponsible to ask our participants to make the decision about whether to attend in person or not. We should relieve them of that burden. On participant experience: at least three of our six design principles would be severely compromised were we to go virtual. On overall reputation: Survey data from past participants really helped out here. The vast majority told us “no way” would they attend a virtual version. Too much of the experience is impossible to reproduce. On financial viability: We had determined early on that that we could just eek through with no programs at all. While it will stress us significantly, for a mission driven non-profit like ours, the other factors had to carry more weight. In lieu our physical presence this this summer in the international schools world, perhaps these lessons learned can expand your leadership toolbox as you work through even far more significant decisions. Choosing NOT to do something demands just as robust a set of skills and tools as its more popular cousin. Onward to 2021.

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