The Surprising Possibilities of Virtual Team Collaboration

on Jun 4, 2020
The Throughline

In schools and classrooms, societal inequities play out every day. So, from our inception, the team at CEL has believed in supporting educational leaders to improve their practice as a path towards racial equity.

Teachers, principals and central office leaders are showing up every day to do their very best for students. We share this blog post in acknowledgment of how leaders are doubling down on their commitments to their students. And we, too, are deepening our commitment to help leaders.


I have missed working side-by-side with leaders in schools and classrooms these past months. It is in the classroom where you can both see and influence how leadership and teaching impact each student in a school. While I was eager to observe student learning, I was uncertain if doing this could inform teachers and leaders.

That changed last week, when I joined my colleague Anneke Markholt on a “virtual” learning walk with Jeff Pelzel and some of his team at Newhall School District.

Newhall School District leaders and teachers debrief after doing a virtual learning walk through of some of their classrooms.

Newhall School District leaders and teachers debrief after doing a virtual learning walk through of some of their classrooms.

I was so impressed by what I got to see. And what I saw left me with three clear thoughts for educators working to create powerful student learning experiences in virtual settings:

  1. This is complex and sophisticated work; there are no easy solutions.
  2. We need to reach new levels of professional collaboration that empower teachers as those closest to the opportunities and challenges.
  3. Improvement is possible when there is a vision for student learning.


Watching Jeff and the Newhall educators in action also reinforced three important stances leaders should be taking — especially right now.

Be curious

As leaders, the pattern-recognition that you have formed from experience just doesn’t exist right now. Find ways to see virtual or distance learning in action and to learn directly from teachers and students. Without doing this, your assumptions about which conversations to be having and problems to be solving across your school or system will probably be wrong.

A great example of this surfaced in our debrief with teachers. They talked about relying on class routines they established in person with current students. They are already thinking about how they will create those with new students if everything is online next year. This is one simple example of a new type of challenge that’s important to understand, and for which good questions are needed.


Create psychological safety for risk-taking and collaboration

Improving virtual learning experiences for students will mean solving new problems of student learning. And solving new problems of student learning will require greater collaboration — at a time when educators, too, are remote learning.

A different kind of leadership is needed to create environments in which teachers and leaders can do their best problem-solving. Leaders should promote smart risk-taking, learning from failures, and a culture of growth and feedback.

To the extent that hierarchy reinforced certain practices before, that doesn’t matter anymore. And teaching practice that previously was obscured behind school walls is now on full display in homes, increasing the vulnerability that teachers may be feeling.

The solutions our students need will come from teachers, and they need to be empowered and supported to figure those out.


Lock on to a vision for student learning

Our classroom visit in Newhall was focused on student engagement and class learning norms. Educators in Newhall have developed a shared vision for student learning that informs how they think about this.

As I observed whole group reading instruction, small group reading instruction and a pre-recorded math lesson, it was clear that each teacher was grappling with how to authentically engage students in the learning at hand.

They were also clearly working on routines to ensure student ownership and engagement. Because of the clarity of what these teachers were working on, the debrief between teachers, school leaders and central office leaders flowed easily to how to improve in the next lessons. There was little or no conversation on if students would be engaged, just how to do it better.


It was great to be back in “classrooms” again, and I’m thankful to the team at Newhall for inviting us in. I was inspired by their resolve to serve their students and their caring support for each other as educators. I hope you won’t take away from this the illusion that any of this easy. Just that it’s possible.


How can leaders help teacher teams collaborate better — while working at a distance from each other and relying on technology?

About the author

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.
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