Boulder Valley School District

Exploring ways to return to in-person learning begins with building empathy for stakeholder needs, concerns

Exploring ways to return to in-person learning begins with building empathy for stakeholder needs, concerns
Randy Barber

The mere mention of her students is enough to make Ryan Elementary teacher Katie Gambardella get a little misty. 

“We want to be with kids,” Gambardella said on the week that school was originally supposed to start. “We love this profession, we love what we do and we love being with students. For six months now I have felt a void of not having that interaction. I’m even getting teary-eyed just thinking about it.”

Ms. Gambardella says that she and her colleagues went into the teaching profession not only because they wanted to help students grow academically, but because they love building relationships with the little “humans” in their class. That is one of the reasons that Back to School is always something she looks forward to – an opportunity to begin that process afresh. 

“Teaching for such a long time, the beginning of the school year is about the idea of starting anew and really being able to reflect about things that have gone well for you and being able to make improvements where needed. Ultimately, just to have those kids and have the excitement of having them come back into a classroom,” Gambardella said.

She says her goal is always to build an environment like what we saw when we visited her classroom in spring of 2018, a place where students are engaged, excited and supported to reach their full potential.

“No matter where they are academically, it is imperative that students are feeling happy and feeling safe, where they can take risks and try things that are different,” Gambardella said.

This year, of course, the beginning of school will be a bit different. The Boulder Valley School District is beginning with remote learning. While Ms. Gambardella did everything she could to make Home Learning a success for her students last spring and already has plans on ways to make it better, she admits it just won’t be the same as when she is with students in-person.

“I have improved my instruction via remote learning. I’ve come up with some new ideas and things that I believe will be stronger, but I still really have a void to not be with students like in the past,” Gambardella said.

That is why she and 33 others, including principals, parents, district staff and teachers from across BVSD have come together. They are part of the Working Advisory Committee, stood up by BVSD Superintendent Rob Anderson to explore potential solutions that would allow some students to return to the classroom in Phase 2+ - Limited In-Person Learning. 

They are using the same design thinking process used by business, non profit organizations and even Gambardella’s students, as they worked collaboratively to build battle bots.

“What the kids create through design thinking is incredible. It always starts with a user-centered approach,” Gambardella said, pleased that the district took this approach when broaching this important and highly-debated topic.


August 4, 2020 Special Board of Education Meeting - Working Advisory Committee Launch
August 11, 2020 Regular Board of Education Meeting - Working Advisory Committee Update 

She appreciated the empathy interviews that kicked off the process. While she feels that she typically has a lot of empathy for parents, the experience was eye-opening.

“I was blown away by speaking to each and every one of these individuals,” Gambardella said. “They brought up concerns that had never occurred to me, just that there is so much worry and anxiety, not only in terms of safety, but also from learning.”

The committee was kept small so that it was nimble. BVSD and the Boulder Valley Education Association hand-selected participants to ensure that those selected were problem solvers and represented different aspects of the school district including school level and geography. 

“They all come with their own perspectives,” added BVSD Area Superintendent Sam Messier who is leading the group. “Part of the purpose of the empathy interviews was to help them put themselves in the place of someone with a different perspective on the same problem, so they are able to see the same problem from different viewpoints or lenses because there are so many different perspectives on it and there are so many competing needs and tensions that exist within this problem that we are wrestling with.”

Messier says the interviews go deeper than the kind of information that you’d normally get from surveys. 

“In a survey, sometimes it is actually tough to get at what people really need and want,” explained Messier. “Sometimes that is because they don’t even know what they need or want. It is in the stories that emerge in the interviews that you start to understand what people’s experiences are, what they’ve struggled with, what is working for them, what is really not working for them. It is an opportunity for people to reflect out loud and think, ‘Wow, this part of the problem has really been tough for me, but maybe this part hasn’t been such a big deal.’” 

In many cases, the interviewees would open up, sharing their raw experiences.

“There are so many families that are struggling with situational poverty and mental health. School can be a respite for some kids. Those are the situations that are most difficult to hear stories about,” explained Gambardella. “They were emotional interviews, not only in what the person would say, but then also how those words would speak, invoking really big emotions in me.”

The next step will be for the team to analyze the big themes that were heard in the empathy interviews. So far, safety, learning, and social-emotional health appear to be among the biggest concerns.

Gambardella says ultimately it feels like everyone is focused on both safety and learning. The difficulty is how to strike the right balance between both of these important goals.

“I don’t think we are going to come to anything that is going to be a perfect position for every parent or teacher or student for the entire district. I just don’t think that is possible,” Gambardella said.

She does, however, believe that the committee can find new ways to meet students' needs, if it is willing to think past what school has always looked like.

“During this time, it might be wise to look at ideas outside of the box and not try to put what we normally do inside the box of remote learning. Trying to replicate brick and mortar learning in a remote learning environment will send us into a spiral,” Gambardella said. 

“Our paradigm for what education looks like has been around for more than 100 years. It is what we know, what our parents knew, what our grandparents knew,” added Messier. “Thinking about how it could look very different is challenging to folks.”

Ultimately, for Gambardella, it is something that a student said to her last spring that is driving her to find solutions during this difficult time.

“I had a student who said, ‘I actually like [remote learning] better. I’m not distracted by others. I can start with what I want to start with and move on through that. I can take a break when I need to.’ That really made me think -- I thought I had set up that kind of environment in my classroom, but why does this student have the perception he couldn’t do those things,” Gambardella wondered. 

“Let’s look at this through a different lens. How do we take what is working really well in this environment and hope to not reform, but transform education into something that could be really incredible for kids.” Gambardella said

The Working Advisory Group will continue its design thinking process for one month and is expected to report its recommendations to the BVSD Board of Education on September 22. 


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