As schools cautiously inch toward normalcy, there is no shortage of difficult questions being asked. Redbird Jennifer Gill fields many of them as the leader of Springfield School District 186, where she has served as superintendent since May 2014.
To make it all work, administrators were forced to be reactive in solving issues over the past 15 months. But there’s one question Gill has kept in her sights through the uncertainty.
“How can we as educators and communities use what we’ve endured during this time to innovate and improve?” she said.
To help answer this, she’s turning to “disruptive innovation” theory. The perspective, which applies to both education and business, is not only driving her work in Springfield but her dissertation research. Gill is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations’ (EAF) P-12 administration program, having previously earned her chief school business official (CSBO) and superintendent endorsements through the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“There are times in our lives where something so disruptive happens that we have to change, and the pandemic did this for us overnight,” she said.
The theory was initially created for business industry, but it has long demonstrated value in many other fields, particularly education. Gill says the approach is situated in finding silver linings and being prepared to adapt.
“Nobody likes the discomfort of disruption. But when something bad happens, there is always something good that comes out of it because we learn to adapt, and we learn to overcome the challenges in front of us,” she said.
“My focus all along has been to think about the positives and to move us forward.”
Remaining upbeat was tough when it came to the first task of the pandemic—telling teachers and families that their schools’ doors would be closing indefinitely. It signaled a temporary end to traditional schooling.
Then came the remote teaching and learning environment.
“When we said we have to teach remotely, the idea of technology being a disrupter became even more obvious,” she said.
“If we focus on understanding, accepting, and dealing with this disruptive force in a very organized way, we can help to determine how this disruption is going to help us in the future.”
Few can forget the pain points. The words “spring 2020” may still induce anxiety as teachers recall the immediate heavy lifting required to put their classes online.
For Gill and other administrators, this meant supporting their community’s many new needs. They were faced with a mile-long checklist, from getting technology into students’ hands to preparing teachers to succeed in this new environment.
She said the matters of safety and security came first. But over time, the district has moved toward adaptive thinking to serve students who haven’t been engaging and adding programming to prevent learning loss.
But solving these issues has sometimes required a change in mindset. For Gill, one of the biggest developments that has freed up time and resources are virtual meetings.
“As a leadership team we are actually meeting more often today than we were before the pandemic,” she said.
“Face to face meetings were ingrained into the way we do things. But with 31 principals and site administrators, you don’t want to pull everyone out of their buildings.”
The same goes for teacher leadership, training, and committee meetings. Gone are the days where educators need to get in their cars and drive to other schools. It’s just one example of many where disruption is uncovering new strategies and ways to combat problems of inequity.
“Prior to the pandemic, the thought of one-to-one student technology for K-12 seemed unreachable. Not just because it is costly to maintain, but because of the inequity of connectivity in our families’ homes and across our city,” she said.
Gill’s district was able to bridge that gap by getting a device into the hands of every student. They also purchased internet hotspots for more than 1,700 households.
Because parents and guardians play an enhanced role in the new learning environment, professional development and family and community engagement activities were created to help them learn more about using the technology platforms.
“Now that we were pushed to have this type of environment, it is unlikely we will ever go back.”
But Gill knows Springfield is just a small illustration of what’s going on across the U.S. Her research focuses on uncovering as many of these effective new ideas as possible. To accomplish that, she’s calling on superintendents to pull their experiences together so instances of innovation can proliferate rather than dissipate.
“The creator of disruptive innovation describes how businesses failed when they sat back and said, ‘Oh, this tough time is going to pass,’ or ‘my product’s good, I don’t need to change it.’
“And I think education is at that crossroads. This pandemic has been a lever for us to realize that we can’t just continue on with comprehensive education as we always have done. We need to make sure that we’re opening our eyes to what’s possible in remote learning.”
Importantly, Gill is not claiming strategies that have worked during the pandemic are sure-fire wins for districts in 2022 and beyond. However, the lengthy remote and hybrid periods have allowed for more evidence and clarity.
“We are in the middle of it still. But we’re getting to the other side, slowly, but surely. I’m working toward understanding what resonates with other superintendents in my interviews, and there will be follow-ups and focus groups. But Springfield and other districts are getting a feel for which of the promising practices that were initially put in place are going to be the ones that really stick for the long term.”
Between serving in one of the most demanding roles in education, being a mother, and finishing her coursework, Gill said it has taken her a little longer than some of her fellow students to complete her dissertation. She believes the strong support system in the department is a primary contributor to her persistence.
“My classes were a great balance of teaching you how to be a good researcher; how to be a good writer; and how to think about things analytically using a variety of resources,” she said.
“But also, at the same time, EAF gives you those opportunities to apply that to the real world. And to the jobs that we’re doing.”
As we all dream of greener pastures in a post-pandemic world, educators can also look forward to Gill’s contribution for tilling new ground in the field of education.