“Lead by building a positive, hope-filled climate and culture.”
The impact of COVID-19 on education during the 2019-2020 school year was vast. When the country was asked to stay-at-home to slow the disease’s spread, every school in every state pivoted on a dime to convert to remote learning. In addition to providing instruction from a distance, educators tended to the physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being of their students, families, and communities. This monumental effort was a concrete reminder to the nation of how important our educators, more specifically, how important YOU are to our young people and society overall.
With the 2019-2020 school year behind us, we must now turn our attention to 2020-2021, which brings me to the purpose of this blog. Since the pandemic will still be with us this Fall and (best case) we will only be to Phase 4 of Governor Pritzker's Restore Illinois reopening plan, returning to business as usual when going back to school is not likely. While I would prefer this not be the case, the sooner we are resolved to this probable reality the better prepared mentally and social emotionally we will be to lead in the months ahead. This is critical since our staff and communities will be keying off of us to gauge their response to how schools start-up after the summer break. With this in mind, below are some thoughts I have about nurturing the culture of your staff and community as we prepare for the next school year. I am not sharing anything you do not already know, but please consider these gentle reminders as you deal with the immediate needs of transportation, social distancing, and ordering PPE. As the pandemic grinds on (not forever, but for a while), being mindful to tend to the cultural needs of your staff and community will pay significant dividends.
Serving on the frontlines, you are well aware of the inequities your students contend with even during normal times. COVID-19 certainly has exacerbated these inequities and put a bright spotlight on them. I am grateful for the work and creativity you displayed and continue to display to ensure ALL young people are fed, have their social emotional needs met, and are provided the opportunity to continue their learning.
While possessing an equity mindset is always important when it comes to educating kids, it will be critical to regularly remind your staff, parents, and community of this while you work through the complex decisions of holding school this Fall. After communicating with and listening to ALL of your stakeholder groups, you may determine that you need to use Cares Act funds to help close the digital divide for some students assuming a form of remote learning may still be needed next school year. Or, you may decide that it is best to only bring back a certain population of students (i.e. early childhood, special education, at-risk) for in-person instruction until we reach Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois reopening plan. Although you will not be able to always fully satisfy everyone, explaining your decisions through the lens of an equity mindset strengthens your position.
To help you with assessing the needs of your staff and families, the IPA Field Service Specialists put these surveys together for you as a resource.
There is a saying that goes, “You can live 30 days without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 seconds without Hope.” Now, this may not be true literally, but do not forget that you, as a leader, are a provider of hope. Hope that uplifts. Hope that recognizes the potential those who follow you possess. With Hope, you can give them a legacy to live up to right now, even during these challenging circumstances.
Self – As your school’s leader, you are not able to provide something you do not personally possess. Thus, it is critical that you attend regularly to your own personal wellness by getting plenty of rest, hydrating, eating properly, exercising, and checking on your own mental and social emotional health. Be sure to disconnect daily from the demands of your position, spend time with family and friends, and if you are struggling, reach out for a lifeline – NOW. Also, you must be honest and forthright about your personal thoughts and feelings for returning to school in the Fall. For example, do you possess a physical condition that puts you at risk to the effects of COVID-19? If you have concerns about returning to school and becoming ill, it is critical you speak with your supervisor immediately to discuss your options.
Staff – The aforementioned staff survey is designed to help you better understand how your team felt remote learning went in the spring as well as give you a sense of how to plan for the Fall. Before addressing teaching and learning, however, time dedicated to address your staff’s physical, mental, and social emotional wellbeing will be time well spent. This can be done with person-by-person check-ins during virtual staff meetings and by personal phone calls. Individual calls to every staff member, which can be delegated within a leadership team, are highly recommended not only because of the personal touch they afford, but the calls also allow you to better assess your teams’ overall wellbeing to determine if anyone needs extra support like counseling or medical attention. Further, you can ask the sensitive and personal question about whether your staff members feel safe to return to school.
Students & Families – As with your staff, the parent survey provided will help you assess the overall wellbeing of your young people and their families to ascertain their needs. For the families who do not complete the survey, likely your at-risk population in most instances, continued personal outreach through phone calls or visits will be necessary. Also, you do not need a survey to tell you that some kids will be returning to school with increased exposure to abuse and trauma. To be prepared for these situations, it is critical to begin planning with your internal student support systems (counselors, social workers, nurses, etc.) and available external partners (county health departments, private and non-for-profit institutions, etc.).
Relationships and Community Building
Staff – Your team perceives the quality of their working environment primarily on how they perceive you work to relate with them – relationships built on empathy, listening, follow-through, resource gathering, problem solving, recognition for a job well-done and so on. Developing deeper, more trusting relationships, while always important, will be even more critical as we work to reopen schools in the Fall.
In normal times, relationship building takes intentionality but even more so during a crisis like the pandemic. During this period, I have been impressed with the ways you have worked to build relationships with your team and keep them connected with one another. Social media has been filled with many examples including Zoom movie viewing parties, car parades, hashtags (#ILSchoolsStepUp), and yard signs. Moving forward, we are likely to see more extraordinary examples like those listed, but do not lose site of the power of a simple hand-written note or a phone call. Regularly asking the question “What can I do for you?” and following-through when someone shares a need sends a strong signal of your commitment to your team. The investment of time you put into nurturing the interpersonal relationships you have with your team now will help motivate them to be ready to flex and adapt for what the Fall may bring.
New teachers and support staff will be in a unique position next school year since they are new to your school community, culture, protocols and procedures, and, of course, students and their families. Depending on how we are allowed and able to start the school year this Fall, your new team members, whether they are rookie or veteran educators, will likely need innovative support to help them get acclimated to their new positions. Thus, it is important, sooner rather than later, to get your new team members connected with teacher leaders and/or their instructional teams to help guide them. Further, they will need support understanding how they can appropriately begin the relationship building process with their students so they can hit the ground running in the Fall whether they are instructing their students in-person or remotely.
Students & Families – Like with your staff, your efforts to stay connected with your students and families have been exceptional be it through video, social distancing home visits, and creative recognition events and graduation ceremonies. You have gone to great lengths to make the connections personal, transparent, and empathetic. Obviously, the critical work to stay connected with students and their families must continue, especially with your special education and at-risk populations. Consider maintaining routine personal contact and communication with these students and their families throughout the summer, particularly in the weeks leading up to the start of school. This will be important as you work with your special education team members, students, and families to address students’ IEPs and the effect of delivering services by the pandemic.
Key Community Leaders/Organizations – While collaborating with community leaders always makes sense, COVID-19 provides unique opportunities for partnering with these individuals/organizations. For example, your community’s key leaders and organizations may be able to help you gain access to resources like food service, PPE, broadband support, equipment to assist with social distancing, physical instructional space (i.e church banquet facilities, American Legion halls, etc.), or social emotional support for students, families, and staff. Further, the pandemic will require that you continue to make difficult decisions, which some members of your community may disagree and vocalize their disagreement. Key leaders, like those in the faith community, for example, may be able to offer you their support and help communicate the rationale for your decisions.
Retired Educators – A critical group of influencers in your community is retired educators. They are well known, and people tend to listen to them. Not only can they be a key ally as you navigate through the pandemic, but they may also be available as an important resource to help you with students who are struggling academically.
As I learn with you, I am interested in your thoughts and examples about how best to nurture school staff and community culture. Please share them below in the comments. Lastly, I am grateful for your leadership. It has been extraordinary at this time. Do not hesitate to contact me or anyone at the IPA if we can be of service to you.