At the outset of implementation, students in newly blended classrooms were responsible for a large number of software platforms and logins. These took time and practice to manage effectively, and many students needed support using technology for learning purposes. As one teacher shared, “There was a belief that [students] were digital natives, but they are not actually savvy…They do not know how to perform basic functions on the computer.” At the same time, teachers saw a similar learning curve for their new learning management system, a new assessment tool, and several new digital content tools. As was expected, the 15 participating teachers experienced varied levels of progress and comfort during these early stages; looking back, some of the less tech-savvy teachers reflected that the first semester would have been more manageable had the new technologies been adopted on a more gradual basis.
When blended learning launched, the district offered support through digital learning specialists from the Instructional Technology Department. Academic deans at pilot campuses were also asked to support teachers, though their time was limited due to other campus responsibilities. However, these early supports were limited relative to the large number of pilot teachers. Since blended learning was so new to the district, those who were supporting teachers also lacked deep blended expertise, making it harder to model what strong blended instruction actually looked like in practice. In some cases, pilot teachers and campus leaders noticed that existing district structures or initiatives already in motion for the coming school year had not been revised to support blended classrooms. As one district staff member said, “…. [district] leaders did not completely internalize what this was going to take.” Across schools, early on teachers reported fatigue and expressed concern about potential burnout.
However, as teachers gained experience, they also began to rely on one another for support. The pilot teachers met daily as part of professional learning communities (PLCs) within each school to help one another with technology skill development. Within the first several months, the PLCs expanded to become a staging ground for exploring new ideas and troubleshooting all aspects of blended classroom implementation. Sample topics of discussion included sharing what blended learning looked like in different classrooms, developing new tools and blended content, and providing encouragement and feedback to peers as they worked to reformulate their classrooms.
The PLCs also played an important role in school culture. For some teachers, often those who were early adopters of blended learning or who brought stronger technical skills, the PLCs were an opportunity to grow as teacher leaders and to influence the beliefs of their peers. Two schools, with stronger PLCs and a collective consensus around the need for change, began to advance more quickly with blended learning implementation, while the third school experienced more challenges. Teachers and school leaders at the third site attributed these challenges to several factors – among them the degree of leader engagement, limited coaching support, and a desire to maintain existing instructional practices.
Like the pilot teachers, Birdville’s district leaders adapted their approach over Year 1. To better coordinate implementation and build buy-in among senior leaders, the district formed an “RBL Leadership Team” in late fall. This included several senior district officials who had not previously been engaged as deeply, particularly around curriculum and instruction. The team met regularly, and soon identified issues raised through blended learning that affected the broader district. The pilot teachers’ early work with TNTP around strengthening rigor, for example, led to the realization that rigor levels were suppressed in literacy due to the number of students below grade level. This was confirmed by STAR 360 progress data, which was employed for the second time across the district in Year 1. These realizations spurred reflection among multiple department heads about the various contributing factors to low literacy, and, most importantly, led to more aligned district actions to support literacy and intervene for struggling students.
The increased engagement from district leadership gradually led to a more cohesive approach to implementation. At the school level, district leaders and coaches increased their work with principals to offer support for their blended learning teachers. This was particularly important in instances when school leaders had traditionally taken more of an administrative role and spent less time in classrooms; in this case teachers particularly struggled with the blended transition. Gradually, however, more hands-on instructional leadership helped to improve teacher morale and blended learning practices began to improve.
In classrooms, teachers began seeing bright spots towards the end of the first semester. Pockets of teachers developed their own approaches to implementing the project’s design pillars, which generated some early successes around smaller learning clusters, station rotations, playlists, and student-teacher check-ins. One teacher offered, “As a group, we [have] also done a great job of experimentation. I would tell anyone who’s trying to make this work that you have to be fearless. You have to just try a few things and see what’s going to work out the best for your kids.”