Joel Medley, Director Leadership Development, K12

Joel Medley, the son of a high school dropout, became the 3rd person in his family to graduate from high school and the 1st to receive a degree from a four-year university.  He has a Bachelor’s in Social Studies Education, a Masters in History, a Masters in School Administration, and a Ph.D. in Leadership. He has taught history in both middle and high schools while also teaching at the community college level.  With administrative experience in both charter and traditional schools, Joel became the Director of the NC Office of Charter Schools tasked with overseeing the expansion of those public schools in his home state.

In 2015, Joel became the Head of School at the North Carolina Virtual Academy, a K-12 powered public charter school serving nearly 2,500 students. He stayed with the school during its first four years and then transitioned into a new role at K12.  As Director of Leadership Development, he leads a small team focused on inspiring school leaders to ignite the passion of their students through innovation in the virtual education sector.

The current worldwide pandemic has demonstrated a need for change within the education sector.  Students and teachers are receiving a heavy dose of online learning, and as the crisis continues, so too will the cry for instructional change, with many families and educators calling for more – or better – digital options. 

Because let’s be clear: the virtual education being delivered this spring has been an emergency response to an unforeseen crisis. I applaud the efforts of educators and families who are doing their very best to do what they can in an unbelievable situation. But effective online education takes years of training and work to produce success.  You simply cannot replicate that model by (in the best of cases) distributing computers, providing Wi-Fi hot spots, and wishing everyone good luck. 

We are at a critical crossroads and must ask ourselves what we want the future of education to become. If our reflection does not lead to action, we are merely philosophers.  If, however, our reflection translates into action, then we become pacesetters. 

Now is the time for action.  So, how do you create a comprehensive digital learning environment that sets up educators and students for success? Here’s how to start and keep P.A.C.E.

Personalizing

You may wonder if the wrong word was selected because, surely, it must be personnel.  But personalized is the right choice. To be effective, online education must be personalized for students and teachers. 

If we focus on developing people in the right way, then they will be inspired to teach in ways that meet students’ needs and inspire lifelong learning. I have met students that chose a digital school because they struggled in their former school due to a medical diagnosis that resulted in bullying.  After time in the digital school, that student’s performance dramatically improved because teaching matched their learning style.

To personalize instruction, teachers must receive personalized development that blends skill with core principles in both synchronous and asynchronous formats.  Far too often, we speak of professional development but that focus misses the point.  Developing a person’s skill is admirable, but the true change comes when we develop a person’s being.  Better people will make better professionals and, together, they create better results.  We have accomplished this through university partnerships while creating internal teacher and leader development teams.

Adaptation

Every aspect of our world is changing at seemingly lightning speed. Online education can adapt quickly to promote student achievement by tapping into a wealth of student data that enables nimble decision-making required to drive student success.  

The North Carolina Virtual Academy collects family satisfaction surveys seven times a year and from teachers four times a year. Administrators, teachers, and support teams pour over the results and together translate data into action directly benefitting instructional practices and student performance. 

Reading the open-ended comments from a survey led staff to create new social and emotional supports for students and families. The counseling team established a monthly series of live sessions with age-appropriate themes (e.g. managing emotions, overcoming anxiety, or coping with grief). While attendance was optional, the turnout was solid. My children attended this school and self-selected sessions that helped them with their anxiety, fueling their personal and academic success for years to come.

Connection

Effective online education does not allow students to hide or fall through the cracks; relationship-building is a must. School leaders must seek out ways to connect with families and when the connection is not happening, consider new strategies to reach the family. 

Heading into high school, Blake was a successful student. All that changed when his father became unemployed.  The job loss created chaos as the family was evicted from their home.  Being homeless, Blake was losing hope as school ranked last on his list of concerns. When one of Blake’s teachers at Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy discovered the family’s situation, she quickly rallied the school to provide support. Thanks to her encouragement and connection, Blake was able to reignite his love of learning and beat the odds. In his valedictory address, he offered an inspiring example of how students, with the help of a dedicated teacher, can overcome challenges.

Equitableness

Every school serves students with diverse needs. Online schools can and do serve students with varying disabilities well, filling an important role in the overall fabric of education. Even when faced with challenges, learning does not stop, and teachers do not give up.

Born with scoliosis, the physical demands of brick-and-mortar settings became an academic distraction for Amelia. The pain of sitting in a hard chair all day reduced her to tears. Though she had spinal surgery at the end of eighth grade, she was left with pain, discomfort, and even anxiety that affected her grades. Her family decided she could no longer attend a traditional school. Enrolling at Indiana Digital Learning School allowed Amelia to learn in an environment where she is comfortable, getting her grades back on track.   

Online education can transform the learning experience for families of students with disabilities. Parents play a vital role in their student’s education and can interact with teachers in real-time. The live classes and constant communication enable the state-licensed teachers to create personalized learning plans, accelerate change for student benefit, and connect with their needs. 

These students’ needs – just like those across the world – will continue to evolve. Academic, personal, and professional success will require strong interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt to the rapid pace of a changing world. When done right, online education nurtures these skills, helps students build connections with others, unlocks their potential, and prepares them to enter a dynamic and increasingly digital global economy.  

The best way to prepare students for that future is by offering education options that mirror it today. The time is now.  No longer can school leaders operate as philosophers about online learning; rather, they must become pacesetters. They must decide on a course of action. Philosophers discuss. Pacesetters decide.

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