Leigh Cooksey, SCORE’s director of educator engagement, recently caught up with Dr. Derek Voiles, assistant principal at Lincoln Heights Middle School in Hamblen County, to hear how he and his team are innovating to serve students well during a challenging school year. Derek was a member of the inaugural cohort of the Tennessee Educator Fellowship (2014-15) and served as the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.

How are you ensuring strong teaching and learning are continuing this year?

We are still operating on the basis that in our building, grade-level instruction happens for all kids every day.

We’ve provided training and support for teachers. We’ve used NIET’s virtual instruction rubric as a guide to strengthen virtual instruction. Before we ever had a need to move to virtual instruction, we all practiced preparing and delivering virtual lessons. Our principal, instructional facilitator, and I engaged in the lessons virtually to get the true student experience and offered feedback on the lessons.

When moved to virtual after winter break, we made sure our students who need the most support had access to in-person supports. This included space dedicated to special education students and English language learners where they could receive additional support.

Delivering real time feedback for students in the virtual environment has been more challenging, but we’re figuring it out. Breakouts in Google classrooms have helped. Students are sharing peer feedback with one another, and classroom teachers and special educators work with students in small groups or 1-1 in breakouts.

How are you supporting students who are struggling? What does family engagement look like?

We believe that every child can and will succeed. That takes thinking outside the box and doing extra. Extra doesn’t have to mean hard –  it just means we ask ourselves, “How do we rethink this to get them everything they need?”

It’s on us to intervene when a student is failing due to circumstances beyond their control. We had kids making great grades in the building and then doing not as great in virtual learning. We call those families and provide those students with individual supports. We want those students working with us in the building, even when school is primarily in a virtual environment.

Each school leader works with 10-15 kids to help them get caught up and understand concepts that they hadn’t grasped in virtual lessons. We’ve received great feedback from parents.

Outside of academics, related arts teachers do wellness calls and needs assessments. We have six agencies we work with to ensure students and families have their needs met.

We know how hard this year is for teachers too. How is the leadership team at your school supporting teachers and staff members?

Teachers are rock stars — learning something new in no time and jumping in with a “whatever it takes” mentality, but we also know we need to support them and value their well-being. First, we laid out a schedule that makes instruction a priority. We also made a list of everything we ask teachers to do and considered what can we do differently to ensure they can focus on instruction and taking care of themselves.

How does this year have you reflecting on leadership?

I have been afforded the opportunity to grow. I did practicum in this building, then became a teacher here, and people poured into me. I became a teacher leader and served alongside amazing people, and then I entered administration — all at Lincoln Heights Middle.

When I think about the people in this school, it’s unique in the sense that the people who stay here are the people who love collaborating with other adults to serve kids —  people who want the best for kids. That gets me out of bed every day. I want to be that leader who encourages people to grow personally and professionally, as others have done for me. Together, we’re all pursuing excellence. Not just because we know that’s what is needed, but because it’s the decent, right thing to do. For many families, their hope is within these walls.

Dr. Derek Voiles is the assistant principal at Lincoln Heights Middle School in Hamblen County.