Next Year Won’t Be A “Normal” School Year—So Let’s Plan Accordingly Now
Since the early days of the pandemic, there have been two competing impulses. For every call to see our school systems return to “normal,” there’s been recognition that “normal” was the site of oppression and injustice for far too many students. In the words of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “normal is where the problems reside.”
No matter your vantage point, the reality is this: next year will not be a “normal” school year. As the White House warns of the potential for a fall COVID-19 surge, as school systems continue to be hotbeds of political conflict in the runup to the November 2022 election season, and as mental health concerns for students, parents, and educators escalate, there is little reason to believe that the factors that have made the current school year the “hardest year ever” will fade into the rearview after a summer of rest and restoration. In truth, the challenges of the current school year will likely remain.
The reality that next year will not be “normal” may be daunting. But planning now for the challenges ahead may be what helps you and your leadership team realize the opportunities of the current moment.
But school and district leaders can mitigate this by planning proactively now. You can do so by reckoning with the reality of what staff, students, and communities have experienced and then planning to rebuild in a way that both acknowledges the hardships and recommits to the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. Here’s how:
Start by listening
Before this school year comes to a close, seize the opportunity to engage in deep and purposeful listening. Using an empathy interview framework, seek to learn more from your key stakeholders, including your staff, students, and families:
- What do you need as we finish out the year?
- What are you hoping to see in my leadership and in the practice of our school/district as we head into the next school year?
- What do you see as the core issues that will be critical for us to address as a team in the year ahead?
These stories and insights from members of your school community—particularly from those whose voices and perspectives are too often confined to the margins—are critical. That data will help you diagnose the current state of your school or school district and begin to plan for what’s next. And by employing a distributed leadership approach and investing team members in being part of the diagnosing and problem-solving, you as a leader can ensure your plans address and respond to the most important and pressing challenges, including student achievement.
As you listen and learn, don’t forget that subtracting can be just as powerful (if not more!) than adding new initiatives to drive improvement. Consider what you can leave behind in this school year because it’s no longer serving you, your students, or your school community well.
Embrace and leverage community strengths
Amid the tremendous wear and tear our school communities have experienced over the past two years, it can be hard to focus on strengths and assets. But doing so is critical, especially given the destructive legacy of deficit thinking and low expectations that has plagued our education system, particularly for students of color and students from communities with lower incomes.
As a leader, engage in asset mapping, starting by identifying the existing strengths, talents, and capacities of members of your team. Consider:
- What practices have teachers and school leaders employed that have led to meaningful gains for students this year? To strong family engagement?
- Where have teachers and school leaders introduced innovative practices that have had a positive impact on students and families?
- Who have members of your team turned to for support? For resources? For new ideas?
Once you’ve mapped assets across your staff, broaden your focus to the entire school community, considering the practices, structures, and support systems that exist beyond school walls. Doing so may help you consider a wider array of resources that might be available to you and your school community in support of your goals. For example:
- Can older students within the community tutor and support younger students, helping to accelerate learning while easing the burden of putting yet one more thing on teachers’ plates?
- Can parents engage in mutual aid and support to alleviate issues they may be otherwise dealing with in isolation?
- Are there broader structural supports the school or district might put in place to ease personal responsibility for “self-care?”
Focusing on community strengths can be re-energizing, and effective leaders will be sure to apply this perspective to student assets as well. As you plan for end-of-year recordkeeping and data transfer, support teachers in finding ways to capture and memorialize student strengths: how they’ve grown, where they’ve developed capacity, what they’ve been motivated by, and what’s worked over the last year. Ensuring these insights are not lost in the transition from one year to the next can build positive momentum at the start of the new year, elevating students’ brilliance and capacity to grow even amidst disruption and hardship.
Plan proactively for staffing challenges
Though it remains to be seen what percentage of teachers will leave the classroom at the end of this school year, no matter how turnover rates pan out, staffing shortages across schools and school systems will continue to be a challenge in the year ahead. Being strategic about managing staffing is key to a school leader’s success in any year—and all the more critical in the current context.
Here are a few ways to plan proactively for staffing challenges on the horizon. First, be sure to use what you learned in your empathy interviews to plan for thoughtful communication leading into the new school year. This shows your staff you’ve been listening. Then, continue to scenario plan, considering how you might create alternate schedules and/or staffing plans that allow you to adjust and adapt while protecting your most important priorities. Lastly, leverage the strength of the entire team to mitigate shortages and reinvest in the power of the collective. Consider:
- How can the first day of school for both returning and new team members serve as a defining moment: meaningful, memorable, and reigniting a sense of pride and connection to the broader school community?
- Rather than having individual teachers create last-minute coverage plans in the event of unplanned absences, could grade-level teams create shared banks of resources that are at the ready to help ensure meaningful instruction takes place even when unexpected shifts arise?
- Are there ways your team can leverage the benefits of technology to facilitate asynchronous and virtual collaboration, so that shared planning can continue amid schedule changes and coverage plans?
The reality that next year will not be “normal” may be daunting. But planning now for the challenges ahead may be what helps you and your leadership team realize the opportunities of the current moment. By using the last few weeks of this school year to get out in front of these challenges, you can head into the summer months knowing that you and your team have the strength and resolve to tackle what’s next, even amid the unknown.