Tom Vacanti, City School District of Albany, NY: Getting Back to the Basics

Tom Vacanti

Amid change and uncertainty, there are educators among us who are leading the way. Day in and day out, they are fully engaged in the challenging work of moving education forward. These educators are inspirational. They view disruptive change as an opportunity to reinvigorate our commitment to learning and push us toward innovation.  The most valuable resource they bring to this work is often not crisp, concise answers, but rather the mindset necessary to respond to constantly changing circumstances and the willingness to lean into a future that is uncertain for the sake of the students they serve. In this series,  it is a privilege to introduce you to educators who are leading the way.

Meet Tom Vacanti.  He serves as the Online Learning Coordinator for the City School District of Albany, New York, a district serving more than 10,000 K-12 students. For nearly a decade, Vacanti has been instrumental in supporting students and teachers alike in implementing effective strategies to support online learning. Despite a year that has brought challenges and uncertainties,  Vacanti approaches each day with an intentional  focus on building student relationships,  fostering student engagement, ensuring effective communication, and driving consistent and meaningful connections with students.  How does he do it?   As he often says,  “It requires getting back to the basics.”


Building Student Relationships

“Creating that personal connection with students is the first and perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to the basics,” Vacanti says.  Building relationships with students, especially from a distance, requires both intentionality and time.  And, according to Vacanti, one of the most effective ways to make this happen is for teachers to schedule time to meet with every student 1:1 each week.  “In my opinion, the best way to conduct these meetings is with video cameras turned on. Just seeing their face, and them seeing yours, is important. And, if you can’t make that happen, get on the phone and have a conversation,” Vacanti says.   He encourages teachers to focus first on the student.  He believes that getting them engaged on a personal level by asking how they are doing or what is going on in their  life is the starting point when it comes to building relationships.  “Then, “ he says, “ let the conversation unfold naturally from the students’ perspective. Not all conversations have to focus on curriculum and assignments,  but that will flow from the conversation.”  Vacanti reiterates what research indicates and  teachers will tell you anecdotally, “When you have that personal connection with a student, it’s going to produce better results academically.” A lot of kids will work for someone they know cares about the,” he adds.


Fostering Student Engagement

For many students in the City School District of Albany, Vacanti is pleased to say that they are showing up and getting their work done.  “We have a lot of students who are succeeding and are finding they actually enjoy an online learning experience.”  Yet, Vacanti acknowledges there are also students who are struggling. “They have many challenges to overcome and the issues they deal with on a daily basis make remote learning  difficult.” Ensuring kids are supported but held accountable has been one of the biggest struggles. For Vacanti,  however, there is another  concern that he simply can’t get out of  his mind.  Students across the spectrum of age and ability have expressed that they simply don’t feel like they’ve learned a lot this year.  “Many students find themselves going through the motions, but they are not really engaged in the learning,” he says. “ It’s easy for kids to detach when they don’t feel they are a part of the learning.  Many kids are simply missing the connection to the learning.”

That brings Vacanti to another critical point that he feels compelled to share.  “One of the greatest fears in remote learning, specifically when it comes to the use of robust instructional software, has been that these programs are going to take teachers jobs and replace teachers.  And, I would be hard pressed to find anybody right now that thinks that’s true.  Because if there is one main thing we’ve learned from this period of time,  it’s that teachers are crucial, beyond critical, in getting students to learn.  That’s been a great lesson.”


Ensuring Effective Communication

Communication is always important. And from the beginning of the school year, Vacanti employed a strategy designed to foster communication and connection.   Leveraging the concept  of ‘pods,’ each teacher or counselor was assigned a caseload of 10-12 students that they were expected to communicate with on a regular, ongoing basis.  “This initiative has worked out phenomenally well,” Vacanti reports. “We may not even talk about school. In fact, I often talk with kids about their personal well-being.” However, by being intentional about communication with students, he says, We have basically been able to get the results as if we were in the classroom with the kids.  We are getting about three-quarters of the kids engaged, doing the work they are supposed to be doing, feeling comfortable with their classes and with their ‘caseworker.’  And teachers are enjoying the relationships with the kids.  That’s huge.” While students often want to simply get through an assignment and move on, Vacanti adds that, “Teachers are able to help students appreciate the value of the education,  beyond simply the assignment and the grade.  And that goes back to the personal connection.  A student is not going to pick up what you’re laying down, if you don’t have a personal connection with them.”

For the additional work required to build those personal conversations with students, do the tutoring, and connect with the students,  teachers have been paid, Vacanti acknowledges, sometimes up to ten additional hours a week. He is hopeful that,  “In the future, once the pandemic is over, we can use some of these same strategies to help kids who struggled with success in the regular school day.  And, we’ll begin to actually see the results increase by using effective distance learning strategies,” he says.


Driving Consistent and Meaningful Connections

While the pandemic has exposed some of our greatest weaknesses in the  education system, it  has also reinforced some of our greatest strategies.  According to Vacanti,  “We  always knew that the personal connection was important.  And, in difficult times, it is more important than perhaps we thought.  In fact, you get nowhere without it.”  Teachers recognize that their  job is a mix between the role of teacher and that of a social worker.  What has become clear for Vacanti  is that the social-emotional learning is foundational.  “Everything builds on top of that.  It’s like the base of the pyramid. And, if you don’t have the supports systems built in, you can’t expect the results at all. It is essential  that kids feel comfortable with you, particularly when you’re working with them at a distance. ”   Teachers need a diverse toolkit of resources and strategies to connect with students.

When it comes to his students, Vacanti has coined the phrase “ aggressive advocacy” to drive meaningful connection.  He  describes it this way.  “For me, I want my  students to  know I am available to them whenever they might need it.   And, I will tell you that most of my colleagues who work in special programming have found the same thing to be true.  You can’t set up office hours for an hour a day and expect students to come.  You have to be ready for students when they are ready and that requires us to be flexible with our time.”  Vacanti, however, takes it a step further explaining,  “Aggressive advocacy means that  you are unrelenting in your pursuit of what is key to the success of your students.”   

Finally, Vacanti offers one more piece of advice for this time of uncertainty, “Just have  fun.  Let’s face it,” he says, “ Everyone wants to enjoy their work.  The pandemic, however, has produced anxiety and frustration.    We need to relax and stop worrying about all the details.”   When Vacanti thinks  about how he is approaching his  daily work, he asks the question, ‘How am I going to enjoy what’s happening in the digital classroom and how are the students going to enjoy what’s happening?’   “I try not to get caught up in all the small stuff and instead find some enjoyment in all this,” he says.  And these days, that’s the question Vacanti finds himself asking most often—of teachers, of students, and of himself.   “How are we having fun here?”  After all, the best teachers--those who get the best results from students--- have fun connecting with the kids.”  And as Vacanti knows, kids will work for someone they know cares about them.

This article reflects a conversation Jean Sharp, who serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Apex Learning, recently had with Tom Vacanti.  On a personal note, I want to thank Tom Vacanti for sharing his student-centered philosophy and strategies that exemplify  how mindset impacts action.  Like so many educators, Tom keeps his focus on the needs of his students while supporting teachers as they hone their best practices in online and virtual learning.  By “getting back to the basics” Tom is leading the way.