Restarting with Compassion
The combination of the pandemic and protests calling for racial justice in the spring and early summer of 2020 have forced school leaders to reimagine their roles and recalibrate how to prepare administrators to lead. School administrators will need to get a 2.0 version of our current education leadership training to reassess how their school districts approach issues of equity, technology, developmental awareness, and relationships within the school community while remaining conscious of the feedback and data acquired during this unsettled period.
The pandemic and racial justice protests have pushed equity issues to the forefront in the United States. School districts will need to address the inequities that exist inside and outside of classrooms and create solutions to resolve the inequities. For example, some children who were issued laptops and provided with free Internet may have to return the laptops and now pay for Internet service. Returning to the norm of schooling prior to March 2020 should not be an option, particularly for those families that have been the most disenfranchised. Administrators and school boards will need to examine these inequities and reallocate funds to eliminate them. Another area to address are those students who were provided with laptops and Internet access but still did not attend online classes because of the lack of belonging, significance, and engagement in learning they may have felt or due to critical home circumstances that prevented them from participating in calling in to remote learning. Too many of our special needs children were left behind during the change to remote learning because the switch came so quickly that educators were given no time to make their learning viable using online resources paired with IEP goals.
Schools will also need to address virtual learning via IEP teams to ensure access to curriculum and instruction is truly maintained. School districts will need to include all stakeholders to ensure an historically accurate, anti-racist curriculum that is culturally responsive, is truly engaging, and represents all students. School districts should seize the opportunity to move beyond what was offered in March 2020 and create a better path of learning for all students.
In March 2020, we faced the realization that technological skill sets were no longer just nice to have but were now a necessity. How to share a screen, post a polling question, or break out your video call into five smaller sessions while recording the feedback from the participants was often something the IT groups would be called on for assistance. Post-pandemic, every educator, especially school administrators, will need these skills. For leaders, learning these skills alongside our teachers will make the journey of learning real. As a principal, I often thought, “If I can’t run a decent Morning Meeting, how can I expect this from my teachers?” Practicing and doing what we expect of others will keep our expectations in check and give school leaders lasting credibility with colleagues.
Now more than ever parents and caregivers will be looking to school leaders for clarity, support, and answers. School leaders will be asked to truly understand and articulate child development, much more so than before last spring. One result of students learning at home is that parents are more aware of how developmental characteristics can impact their children’s learning and even their children’s responses to the pandemic. School leaders will need to share child development resources with parents to enable them to affirm or recalibrate their expectations, which is critical to positive relationships and to the child’s feeling of success when distance learning.
I recently participated in a school’s “Ask the Principal” forum where a parent voiced a concern that students will be behind in their schooling because of their remote learning experience this past spring. They urged administrators to share how they will fast-track academics at the start of the school year. The assistant principal began her answer by noting that the school follows the recommendations outlined in The First Six Weeks of School, which elevates social-emotional skills, relationship-building, and proactive discipline to a place of equal importance to academics at the start of a school year (Responsive Classroom, 2015). She carefully walked the parent through the early parts of the school year, when relationships were built. She pointed out that had these relationships not been strong, students and families probably would have already checked out of online learning. Instead, the school found that students remained highly engaged once they transitioned to the virtual format—showing up daily and submitting their assignments.
As educators, we need to prioritize relationship- and community-building over fast-tracking and “getting to academics quicker.” Taking this one step further, school administrators should also take the time to build and rekindle relationships with staff. Leaders should develop empathy for teachers who have been working in a very different way with students remotely, where family members can witness mistakes in the moment. There will be pressure to “get back to business quickly,” but I would caution that in the field of educational administration moving a school forward around a mutual commitment starts with building quality relationships. Leaders need to resist the urge to dive right back in and instead take into consideration that staff, students, and their families are not in the same place as they were before the pandemic affected everyone’s life.
Feedback and Data
It will be critical for teachers, schools, and district leaders to collect and use feedback about the traumatic experience of teaching and learning throughout the pandemic and protests for racial justice. What worked? What didn’t? Being honest and transparent about shortcomings that may have existed in instruction and communication is critical to improvement. Educators cannot pretend this will not occur again. Instead, they need to say to themselves and to the wider community: “If or when this happens again, we will do a better job with ______.”
The field is rich now for gathering data regarding absenteeism after the switch to remote classes. Did students participate in synchronous or asynchronous formats? If a student had a high level of absenteeism before the pandemic, did that trend continue after online learning was initiated? As we return to learning this fall, regardless of whether students are back in a classroom or need to continue online classes, the opportunity for authentic reform needs our close attention. What changes will support students with multiple family responsibilities? Administrators need to understand what worked during distance learning and apply that knowledge to future school years.
Reflecting on the end of this past school year and looking ahead to the uncertainty that the fall brings, everyone is an armchair educator, much like a Monday morning quarterback. But there is wisdom to be found in that perspective. We can see that some educators were more effective leading and teaching throughout the pandemic than others, and an awareness of what worked and what did not should not create a divide among educators. Instead, this should be a time to come together as a true professional learning community and share the social-emotional learning and academic practices that worked best, so that in the uncertain future every student gets what they need in order to succeed.
Responsive Classroom. (2015). The First Six Weeks of School. Center for Responsive Schools.