Today we have a very special guest blog by Susan Corrie, a former elementary building principal for the Clarence Central School District in Western New York. Susan has worked in education for over 35 years and works with PLS 3rd Learning, SuperEval’s parent company. We hope you enjoy her insight about the challenges that school administrators are facing as the new school year gets underway and how we can overcome them. Please share this article with your school district leaders.
Traditionally, the preparation for a new school year revolves around scheduling, staffing, checking in supplies, completing summer building projects, and answering student and parent questions. As a former building principal, I remember those long To-Do lists and the gratification as each item was checked off, edging closer to the exciting first day of school. This year, however, brings an entirely different scenario for building administrators. A scenario of unfamiliar territory with a landscape that changes almost on a daily basis. The unknown looms large as districts work very hard to establish safe, academically rich, and welcoming environments for students while striving to reassure families, faculty and staff that they have done due diligence against the Coronavirus.
School administrators sit right on the front line of this struggle. Principals will tell you that even in the best of times, the job is challenging yet it is a challenge they embrace and live for. On a daily basis, they balance the needs and wants of parents, students, faculty, staff, budgets, and the community. Combined with those demands are the exciting positives that students and their successes bring to each day. Those are the moments that make the job so rewarding. It is the most difficult job that each of them will tell you they LOVED doing. Yet those days are not the days they face now (Kress, 2020).
Building leaders are accustomed to those around them having questions and needing something. Often the line at the principal’s door begins well before the school bell rings to start the day. As administrators, we are accustomed to providing answers, solving problems, designing alternate solutions and creatively planning to meet the needs of the school community. The complex nature of the Coronavirus and its impact on our communities has created a very unstable environment for building administrators. There are many more questions than answers and a corresponding increase in stress and anxiety.
So where does one begin?
What do we look to as the key focal points and the most important elements to be addressed if children are to return to their school buildings? In truth, we must look beyond the physical preparation of the building and the academic planning. Those elements will be addressed by guidance documents, state mandates, and executive orders as well as the requests of unions and community members. What lies ahead as a school leader’s greatest challenge will be the invisible, the immeasurable, and the ability to lead in the true sense of the word (Gonzalez, 2020).
It will be the emotional and social well-being of the building leader, faculty, staff, students and their families that will determine the success of the 2020-21 school year. Whether a school opens in-person, in a hybrid model, or completely remote, it will be the spirit of those involved that will guide them forward. A school leader is expected to be the individual that all can trust, the one to provide support and help, and the one that reminds everyone that there is a light at the end of this curvy tunnel. In order to be that leader, the administrator will need to care for himself/herself as well as others.
It is often said, “One cannot help others if they cannot help themselves”. Building principals must keep this in mind. As Dr. Claudia Luiz shares, “a new level of decision making is almost constant” (Frost, 2020) and principals must learn to designate time to “switch off”. The article, “Have You Checked on Your Principal Lately? Pandemic Planning is Taking a Toll” by Alexandra Frost also shares insights from Psychotherapist, Jennifer Tomko and Dr. Sarah Howling on tips for the overwhelmed administrator.
Just as we care for ourselves, we must support and care for our faculty and staff. In many instances, teachers are being asked to teach in a manner that is foreign to them and truly puts the meaning of the word “distant” in distance learning. The best teachers are accustomed to being there for their students – right there! They welcome student interactions, questions, enthusiasm and excitement. Teachers may even be experiencing additional worry about their students whose basic needs including food, shelter, safety and caring aren’t being met while they are out of school.
How can we as school leaders rise to the challenge of supporting all of those who depend on us to do so? A few basic tenets of leadership:
- Strive to be a strong communicator. Provide accurate and timely information. This must be a priority to ease the unknown and high anxiety levels.
- Be prepared to avoid snap decisions. How? Plan, plan, and plan some more – have plans B, C and D ready when A fails.
- Present a calm, encouraging, reassuring manner when working with stakeholders. No matter how you feel inside – you must present that confident calm they can lean on.
- Acknowledge that there will be glitches and bumps along the way. Remember that we are learning together – this is new territory for EVERYONE. We should bring our best effort each day and we will end in a better place.
- Monitor how time is allotted. Make time to check in on families, and check in on faculty and staff members. This can be done in person or virtually.
- Show support, compassion and understanding to all. More importantly – be willing to ACCEPT support, compassion and understanding from others!
The quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which I have always found to be inspiring, reminds me of my role as a school leader, “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.” This is very timely for the new school year. Inspire others in this new normal, call upon their strengths and ideas, and encourage a shared endeavor when designing and planning, building a collaborative professional learning community around you as you lead. Empower those to work with you easing the fear of the unknown that lies ahead. Together – you will be able to make this new school year a memorable one, which brings brightness to the future.
Frost , A. (2020, August 14). Have You Checked on Your Principal Lately? Pandemic Planning Taking a Toll on Mental Health. WeAreTeachers. https://www.weareteachers.com/principal-mental-health-pandemic/.
Gonzales, J. (2020, August 5). Distance Learning: A Gently Curated Collection of Resources for Teachers. Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/distance-learning/.
Kress, M. (2020, March 18). Principals Without a Playbook: Leadership Amid the Pandemic. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/principals-without-a-playbook-leadership-amid-the-pandemic.