QA Blog Post

Educating the Whole Child During COVID-19 and Beyond: An Interview with Dr. Leigh Alley

Dr. Leigh Alley is a longtime educational leadership and instructional strategist, presently serving as the Executive Director of Maine Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development  (ASCD) and as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine at Augusta. Leigh has designed and implemented instructional programs on a broad range of topics including literacy, equity, social-emotional learning, trauma-sensitive practice, and whole-child education. Growing up in poverty in the poorest county in Maine, America’s most rural state, taught Leigh – a first-generation college graduate – the importance of education as a leveler of opportunity. Throughout her career, she has sought to bring educational access to the underserved, both learners and educators alike. Currently, Leigh applies her doctoral degree in Transformative Leadership to help educators and administrators in Maine and beyond, improve their practice wherever they are, whatever their means. IHE is very grateful for Leigh’s service on our Advisory Council and for all she does to help children, teachers, and families in Maine and beyond. We spoke with her about leading educational change during the COVID-19 pandemic.

IHE: With schools closed due to COVID-19, what are the steps Maine ASCD is taking to support teachers and children during this time? 

Leigh:  A couple of years ago we began developing a suite of micro-credentials to orient educators to the mission of Whole Child Education and to equip them to plan for improvement in the five tenets of the approach: health, safety, engagement, support, and challenge. Early last spring we launched “anytime/anywhere” learning for educators and began accepting individual learners and cohorts of learners from Maine and around the globe. Because this professional development opportunity isn’t bound by time and place, and because it is applicable and adaptable for educators in every role and context, we’ve been able to support teachers from afar, helping them to pause and think deeply about their practice and how they might improve that practice in support of the Whole Child.  

We’ve deeply reduced the cost of that professional learning in the face of COVID-19 to better ensure equity and access. District administrators from as far away as California and Washington state have recently signed on with us, utilizing the suite to engage faculty and staff in planning for continuous improvement. Apart from those micro-credentials, we continue to support our membership with shared resources and by other means, such as hosting Twitter chats (#EdChatME) and inviting guests to our podcast who have valuable expertise and experience to share. This crisis is underscoring the importance of nurturing the Whole Child, and we’re humbled to be able to offer resources to support that mission.  

IHE: What are your biggest concerns for children right now? How would you like to see home-based education unfold during this pandemic? 

Leigh: If each of the tenets I’ve described were pillars, they would bear equal “weight” in the nurture of a Whole Child. That said, there should be no doubt that some of those tenets need immediate prioritization at present. Children’s health and safety are foremost, without question. It’s why states have closed school buildings, sending our schoolchildren home to shelter in place. It’s why districts are keeping many of those children fed – sometimes with the help of wonderful community partners. It’s why educators are checking in regularly – through phone calls, or Class Dojo, or Zoom, or other means – to see that their learners are safe and well and to assure them that they are, too. It’s why social workers and guidance counselors are keeping regular, virtual appointments. The list goes on.

Once health and safety are ensured, support is the tenet schools should focus on most keenly. During this crisis, schools should be supports, not sources of friction. I worry for the social-emotional wellbeing of our children who are wrestling with frightening realities they may not fully understand (or that they may understand all too well); who are missing their friends and favorite activities; who may have considerable new responsibilities at home; who are mourning milestones they worry they won’t mark though they’ve been looking forward to them for a long time; whose circles may be touched directly by this terrible pandemic. I worry when I see schools mistaking assignments for instruction or scrambling to find the electronic means to return to the semblance of “business as usual,” expecting schoolchildren to sit in seats in front of screens for five hours, asking them to keep lockstep with their old schedules, still overvaluing compliance and grades. I’d like folks to understand that EQ – the emotional intelligence quotient – is every bit as important as IQ, if not more important. I’d like them to understand that a high EQ is a better predictor of future and long-term success in life than a high IQ. We could, and should, embrace those realities now as we think about how best to serve our learners in this uncertain interim. We can focus on their social-emotional learning and on the cultivation of a growth mindset. We can focus on support.  

IHE: We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic. What do you see that’s working, and what needs to shift for the well-being of children and families?

Leigh: I’m pleased with the response of many of our states’ Departments of Education (DOE). Our Maine DOE, for example, moved swiftly to waive and ease expectations that are impossible to satisfy in these unprecedented circumstances. They’ve trusted School Administrative Units (SAUs) to know and to decide what is best for their learners in the midst of the crisis, and they have pledged to honor those local decisions. They’ve ramped up their own efforts to support teachers, learners, and families, scheduling virtual office hours, creating new repositories for resources, and communicating regularly – sometimes several times per day – with stakeholders.  

If projections are accurate, we will be sheltering in place for quite some time in order to “flatten the curve.” Time at home can be filled with opportunities for rich learning. We are all living during a process of the rapid unfolding of history, and learners can keep journals about their experiences. No two people will live through this pandemic in the same way, and years from now, their accounts will be primary source material others can reference and learn from. Learners can pursue passion projects, read and be read to, create, telephone elderly neighbors, research career paths, learn to use jumper cables, follow recipes, etc. Learning never has happened wholly at school, perhaps not even primarily at school. Children are continually apprenticing. They are the apprentices of family and friends and community members, YouTubers and bloggers and TV DIYers. Schools can choose to value and empower those “apprenticeships” at this time when learners and educators are displaced from the classroom. They can choose to give families flexibility, and to give learners voice and choice, embracing an interest-based learning approach and student-led learning. If we value learner participation, empowerment, and agency as we say we do (and as I believe we truly do), we could choose the turning point that this crisis, like any crisis, poses to more fully engender these qualities.   

IHE: What might we learn from this pandemic about schooling? What could be some of the positives that we could apply to our classrooms when this is all over?

Leigh: I don’t like the social networking posts I’m seeing shared about families coming to realize how tough teachers’ responsibilities are as a result of this shelter- (and school-) in-place experience. They suggest that families don’t already understand and value teachers’ important work and imply that families – the first and continuing educators of children – don’t already share in those responsibilities. What the pandemic holds up to us is a lens for examining our priorities and for understanding better the deep, inextricable interconnectedness of “school” and “home.”  Schools will always be one of the most important hubs of any community, which is why school closures impact communities and families for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with instruction. We can each more fully appreciate our interconnectedness now, perhaps as never before, and appreciating that interconnectedness issues both the opportunity and the imperative to strengthen our partnership. Inviting greater collaboration with families and the wider community; connecting learners’ instructional experiences more meaningfully and authentically to their “lived lives;” embracing design thinking and systems thinking; working together to find local (Solutionary!) solutions to local problems: these could be the work of family/school partnerships if we give them the necessary energy, resources, and supportive structures. Learners, families, schools, and communities would be stronger for it.