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The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders

The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders
Leading for Engagement and Impact in Any Setting

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December 2020 | 152 pages | Corwin

Effective school leadership is effective leadership, regardless of where it occurs

In March 2020, there was no manual for leading schools and school systems during a pandemic. School leaders had to figure things out as the crisis unfolded. But starting now, leaders have the opportunity to prepare for leading schools through distance learning with purpose and intent—using what works best to accelerate students’ learning all the while maintaining an indelible focus on equity.

Harnessing the insights and experience of renowned educators Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie, The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders applies the wisdom and evidence of the VISIBLE LEARNING® research to understand what works best. Spanning topics from school climate at a distance, leader credibility, care for self and colleagues, instructional leadership teams, stakeholder advisory groups, and virtual visibility, this comprehensive playbook details the research- and evidence-based strategies school leaders can mobilize to lead the delivery of high-impact learning in an online, virtual, and distributed environment.

This powerful guide includes:

  • Actionable insights and hands-on steps for each module to help school leaders realize the evidence-based leadership practices that result in meaningful learning in a distance environment
  • Discussion of equity challenges associated with distance learning, along with examples of how leaders can work to ensure that equity gains that have been realized are not lost.
  • Analysis of the mindsets that empower leaders to manage change, rather than technology
  • Space to write and reflect on current practices and plan future leadership strategies
  • The mindframes for distance learning that serve leaders well in any instructional setting and will position schools after the pandemic to come back better than they were before 

The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders is the essential hands-on guide to leading school and school systems from a distance and delivering on the promise of equitable, quality learning experiences for students.

To purchase from an Authorized Corwin Distributor click here.

Chapter 1. School Climate at a Distance
Take Care of Yourself

Take Care of Your Colleagues

Leader Credibility

Instructional Leadership Teams

Stakeholder Advisory Groups

Virtual Visibility

The Feel of School

Chapter 2. Professional Learning at a Distance
Learning Beliefs at a Distance

Collaborative Inquiry Cycles

Input Training

Safe Practice

Virtual Learning Walks

Microteaching in Distance Learning

Personalized Professional Learning

Social Presence

Parent Education and Support

Chapter 3. Instructional Leadership at a Distance
Revisit School Goals in Light of Distance Learning

Align Goals to Expectations

Clarify Teacher Expectations

Ensure Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies

Use a Distance Learning Instructional Framework

Demonstrating in Distance Learning

Collaborating in Distance Learning

Coaching and Facilitating in Distance Learning

Practicing in Distance Learning

Chapter 4. Mindframes for Leaders From a Distance
I am an evaluator of my impact on teacher and student learning.

I see assessment as informing my impact and next steps.

I collaborate with my peers and my teachers about my conceptions of progress and my impact.

I am a change agent and I believe all teachers and students can improve.

I strive for challenge rather than merely doing my best.

I give and help students and teachers understand feedback and I interpret and act on feedback given to me.

I engage as much in dialogue as in monologue.

I explicitly inform teachers and students what successful impact looks like from the outset.

I build relationships and trust so that learning can occur in a place where it is safe to make mistakes and learn from others.

I focus on learning and the language of learning.

About the Authors


Research has highlighted the role of instructional leadership on teacher efficacy and effectiveness. Strong, positive instructional leadership has a significant impact on both teaching and learning in our brick and mortar classrooms. Furthermore, teaching and learning at a distance is no exception. Fisher, Frey, Smith, and Hattie have provided a practical, user-friendly playbook that supports school leaders as they strive to leverage their leadership skills in what is called the “new normal.” But my main take-away from this playbook is that the ideas within these pages will enhance instructional leadership well beyond distance learning and allow school leaders to extend the reach of their impact to any setting at any time. This playbook will enhance leading for engagement and impact for years to come. 

John Almarode, Associate Professor and Executive Director of Teaching and Learning
Author, Great Teaching by Design and The Distance Learning Playbook for College and University Instruction
College of Education, James Madison University, Waynesboro, VA

Learning can happen from a distance -- especially when leaders support teachers, students, and parents, also from a distance. This essential guide offers practical steps for leaders to foster a sense of community and lead professional learning with teachers. With resources like this, we just might all emerge from this crisis as better educators than we were before.  

Julie Stern, International Consultant and Educator
Author, Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Learning That Transfers, and Visible Learning® for Social Studies
Washington, D.C.

As schools transition into a new way of operating, The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders helps us to dot our Is and cross our Ts as we move into learning, leading, and continuously growing in a virtual setting. Not only does the playbook ensure a well-rounded view of our current situation, it provides leaders an opportunity to pause and carefully develop plans of action based on guided reflection. Fisher, Frey, Smith, and Hattie have created a playbook that will enable leaders to persevere through today's challenges and keep the focus on student learning. 

Connie Hamilton, Speaker and Education Consultant
Author, Hacking Questions and Hacking Homework

The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders is an essential companion for any leader (whether school or district) who is looking for measured, actionable, and practical insights. Fisher, Frey, Smith, and Hattie have created a resource that supports leaders as they navigate through the uncharted territory of leading from a distance. By including stories from the field balanced with research based strategies and insights, this book should be used by all leaders regardless of whether they are leading face to face or virtually.

Vince Bustamante, Consultant and Instructional Coach
Co-Author, Great Teaching by Design
Edmonton, AB Canada

With The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders, Fisher, Frey, Smith and Hattie have created an accessible and thorough guide for educators addressing the complex needs of all members of their school communities in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using an extensive evidence base and the authors’ real-world experience, this thoughtful and practical guide addresses the most common concerns and questions of school leaders in the new era of distance learning, and reframes these challenges as opportunities to deepen educational practice and connected leadership, while compassionately supporting staff and students. This book arrives just in time to be an invaluable resource for educators and school communities across the country looking to uphold high standards for teaching and provide students with quality educational experiences, even when it is at a distance. 

Martha Staeheli, Instructor
Program for Recovery and Community Health
Yale School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, New Haven, CT

This is the book school leaders need to be reading right now. The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders provides just-in-time support while also being timeless in nature. The authors tackle the very things we are wrestling with in a highly relatable and action-oriented way.

Dr. Brad Gustafson
National Distinguished Principal and Best-Selling Author
St. Michael, MN

As an administrator who has been working since the pandemic began, I find that most leadership books tell you how to work harder or more efficiently, without acknowledging the mental health burden school leadership often takes. What’s refreshing in this book is that it starts with individual self-care and self-care for your colleagues. I intend to use the planning frameworks the authors suggested in order to ensure self-care is prioritized for myself & my colleagues at my school site. 

Courtney Miller, Assistant Principal
California School of the Arts, San Gabriel Valley, Culturally Responsive Teaching & Restorative Practices Consultant, Inclusive Teacher Academy
Covina, CA

In these tumultuous times, balanced and effective leadership is critical. This book provides a compelling view into the complex art of leading schools today. This is an invaluable book for any school leader who seeks to be balanced, wise, engaged and effective with all stakeholders.

Fatma Trabelsi, Independent Educational Consultant
Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color
Tunis, Tunisia

With school systems now consigned to an online learning model as a response to the ongoing pandemic, school leaders need to deeply consider how to lead learning from a distance. With no established guidelines, no specific training, and no prior experience in this scenario, many leaders still struggle to assess their own effectiveness and impact with their staff. How do you know the quality of learning in your school? The Distance Learning Playbook for School leaders not only details myriad challenges; it also usefully provide practical strategies, rubrics, surveys, and activities to address the problems faced in the new "normal". Utilizing a motif of essential questions paired with a strategic goal, the authors enter the lifeworld of school leadership and provide actionable insights. For any administrator seeking a hands-on guide to maximize their impact and increase engagement in uncertain and complex settings, this book is your must-have, go-to resource. 

Megel Barker, MYP Coordinator
Assistant Principal, ABA Oman International School
Muscat, Oman

Adjusting to the present norm effectively is a major concern for most educators. The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders is a timely and relevant guide for leaders on how to carry out their roles virtually without compromising standards and expectations. Leaders will learn how every stakeholder’s--including parents, families, communities, and teachers--interests can be fully protected in an online learning environment.

Ngozi Umoru, Educator
Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color
Lagos, Nigeria

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ISBN: 9781071839843

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