Pandemic Lessons To Bring Into the School Year Ahead
All school leaders and educators in our nation’s public schools will most likely agree on the following statement: We would have gladly welcomed a much different “learning experience” than the one COVID-19 gave us.
All the same, the pandemic revealed the tiniest of silver linings. The challenges it presented—the lightning-fast shift to remote learning, the development of never-before-needed procedures and policies around health and safety protocols, the deft navigations of school closure/school reopening and teacher/staff shortages—have all led to plenty of lessons that school leaders will be able to take into the next school year and beyond.
We’ve uncovered four key lessons your fellow school leaders learned during the pandemic and why they’re important to consider for the next school year and beyond.
Leaning on your team through distributed leadership
School leadership is challenging under regular circumstances, but the leaders we’ve talked to and learned from over the course of the last two years have agreed unanimously: the pandemic created a complex and demanding environment unlike any other.
Seeing very quickly that the road ahead would require an additional layer of care, attention, and diligence to best support their school communities, many leaders we talked to leaned into the idea of distributed leadership—a shared approach where decision-making is the responsibility of a collective group rather than a singular person. Distributed leadership not only fuels collective efficacy, it leverages the diverse perspectives and insights of your teachers and staff, helping to elevate voices that may not otherwise be heard when making leadership decisions.
The pandemic solidified that leaders exist at every level of a school and that sharing leadership responsibilities can hold the key to teachers and staff feeling seen, appreciated, and valued.
In the early days of the pandemic, New Leaders alum and principal Felipe Jackson had days where he wanted to “give up,” especially because he thought he had to do everything on his own. He quickly realized that when he distributed the leadership efforts, that wasn’t the case. “When it felt like every road was closed, I learned to lean on my team and let my vulnerability come out. What I realized is that the more I gave my team opportunities to lead and be part of the process, the more I knew we were going to be okay.”
The pandemic solidified that leaders exist at every level of a school (and school district too). When leadership is shared, everyone feels seen, appreciated, and valued. And when teachers and staff are engaged and professionally respected, they’re more likely to stay.
Listen—and invest in—your staff
Teacher shortage and overall staffing deficits have always been a challenge in K-12 education—and they’ve further been exacerbated by the pandemic, learning loss, and online teaching. According to a February 2022 NEA survey, 55% of teachers in a nationwide survey said the stress and overwhelm of the pandemic are pushing them to leave the profession much sooner than planned.
Both recognizing and empathizing with this, many school leaders are more cognizant than ever that they hold the key to retaining teachers at their schools, and it starts with, as New Leaders alum and Head of School Daniele Anello says, “listening, noticing, and understanding” what staff need. Listening, and then acting, on what her teachers and staff have shared with her has helped Anello’s school, DC Bilingual, retain nearly 100% of its teachers.
Many school leaders are more cognizant than ever that they hold the key to retaining teachers at their schools, and it starts with, as New Leaders alum and Head of School Daniela Anello says, “listening, noticing, and understanding” what staff need.
DC Bilingual made the decision to prioritize wellness as an overall school community initiative and rolled out a robust fundraising effort to support it. Multiple committees were formed to determine the right way to allocate the funds. “When I listen to staff, they tell me they feel heard and valued because the funds go where they want the funds to go,” she says.
Also located in DC, New Leaders alum and current Deputy Chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Dr. Melissa Kim also prioritized listening to her staff—and thinking outside the box when it came to meeting their needs. She and her team are exploring options beyond the traditional workday, including flexible schedules, sabbaticals, and support for staff with young families or aging parents. The goal is to have them be able to continue to stay in the profession and take care of their families. “We haven’t cracked the nut yet, but we need to make the variety of options wide enough…everyone needs something different.”
Clear, consistent, and equitable communication with families
Many school leaders reported communication between parents and educators improved during the pandemic. The unpredictability of COVID-19 meant school leaders spent a considerable amount of time regularly communicating with families and their broader school communities.
The improvement in communication can also be attributed to the fact that many classrooms became students’ homes, which meant their families had a front-row seat to their child’s learning for the first time. These “close quarters” provided ways for educators and families to work together and collaborate with each other in ways that hadn’t been possible before, increasing student engagement and accelerating student learning.
School leaders were able to see that while clear communication was important, it was equally crucial to make sure they were choosing platforms and solutions that focused on meeting families where they are with regard to internet access, device accessibility, and technology literacy. New Leaders alum and principal John Gravier found a way to optimize the personal connections they’d developed with families during the early weeks of the pandemic. Instead of asking teachers to connect with all the students on their rosters, the school linked siblings together and each staff member was tasked with reaching out regularly to a small group of families. “We have more intimate relationships with our families now,” he says.
While the increase in pandemic-related communication is something that many leaders didn’t likely anticipate, the result—increased trust and a sense of belonging felt by their families—is a welcome byproduct, and many school leaders plan to continue that in the future.
Connect with and take care of your school community — and yourself
New Leaders alum and principal Maisha Riddlesprigger learned to focus on connectedness and social-emotional support. Her goal was to bring a sense of ease and grace to teachers and parents alike. “If your educators are not well, your school is not well. If your families are feeling anxiety and not feeling supported, they’re not going to be at their very best,” she says.
School leader self-care indicates so much more than simply paying attention to your own physical and mental health. It can set the tone for your school environment, too.
Following Riddlesprigger’s lead, it’s worth repeating that as important as it is to take care of your school community during a crisis, leaders have also started to realize the importance of taking care of themselves. It’s so easy for us to overlook our own well-being and mental health in times of stress, but during the pandemic, it became essential.
School leader self-care can also set the tone for your school environment. When school leaders take time for self-reflection—or a day off—it signals others should and can do the same.
Reflect on your own lessons learned
The summer months are a perfect time to take stock of the “pandemic lessons” you and your team have learned. After all, these lessons have made you an even more resilient leader.