Time and Grace: What Schools Need Most Right Now

A district superintendent reflects on leading and adapting to the demands of the ongoing pandemic and the need for more time to care for teachers, students, and principals.
Dr. Zipporah HightowerDr. Zipporah Hightower
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I’ve been in education since 1996, first as a middle school math teacher, then as a principal, a principal coach for New Leaders, and the Director of Principal Quality for Chicago Public Schools. This is my first year as a superintendent.  

It can feel lonely at times in my new role, the same as it does for a principal. Everyone is looking to you for outcomes. But being a superintendent is also a lot of fun: I get to spend my whole day thinking about how to make sure others are successful—from my principals to their teachers to all our students. That is a good feeling.  

The one thing that seems consistent this school year is the need for more time. More time to support our teachers. More time to support the social-emotional needs of our students. And more time to care for and support ourselves as leaders.  

“I know that stress of wanting to teach your curriculum so students learn at a high rate of proficiency. But we have to figure out how to do that in this season — with understanding and flexibility.”

It’s clear, nationally, that there are more issues coming out of this pandemic than we expected. When our district opened in August, we jumped back in, thinking that school was going to be the same now that we had our students back in our classrooms. But this is a different season. A different experience.

We weren’t thinking about how long it takes for kindergarten teachers, for example, to readjust their lessons when their students have never been to preschool before or in school at all. And, this is true across all the grades.

So while I am pushing to accelerate learning, I am also paying attention to the social-emotional needs of our students and the impacts of being out of school for a year and a half or more. Our principals and teachers are learning how to restructure the school day, to be flexible around the need for movement, to create spaces for students to share emotions and support them through those emotions so learning happens.

I know that stress of wanting to teach your curriculum so students learn at a high rate of proficiency. But we have to figure out how to do that in this season—with understanding and flexibility. We know we need to address academic and social-emotional learning needs at the same time. So we are telling our teachers to take time to stop and teach expectations in the classroom, or what it means to be in a safe learning space. We are giving them that grace.

“Our principals need more time too … to take care of themselves.”

The same is true with my principals. They are saying to me: I want more time to support my teachers. So we adjusted our meeting times this month. Every Tuesday, we have an early release day, and teachers and principals can now use that as self-directed time. They also have the flexibility to choose their location of work, which has been well-received given the pandemic.

Our principals need more time too. Principals can easily spend their weekends dealing with contact tracing. They can spend their weekends just trying to catch up. Or thinking about what else they can do to support their staff and parents. They need time to care for themselves too. To take that yoga class. Or do some self-reflection about who they are and why they do this work.

When you are in the middle of trying to “keep going and carry on,” like we are, it can get in the way of stopping and reflecting. So that is the role I’m playing with my staff, trying to find ways to help them help themselves. How can I be the ear that listens, sits back, and then says: Have you thought about this? Remember as a collective we are doing that. Or what if you collaborate with this team so you don’t feel like you’re going it alone.

I was recently reminded of how good it felt to know that we are all in this together. I decided to require every staff member, even though they are vaccinated, to use the SHIED Illinois testing protocol for COVID-19. We have two elementary schools and one middle school, so the majority of our students are not vaccinated. When I shared my decision, all of our staff supported it. They care so much about the children.

“At New Leaders, I understood that I was being developed as a leader in a way that I had not been before. I knew I’d be ready to lead a school when I was done.”

That intentional focus on children is what drew me to New Leaders in 2006. I had a master’s degree in school leadership, but I didn’t feel like I was ready to lead a school which is why I applied to New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program. My traditional graduate training had focused on reporting requirements and compliance and what I would be expected to do to operate a school. But I knew it wasn’t enough.

With New Leaders, I learned how to observe the interaction between my staff and figure out how I was going to develop them as teachers and leaders. How to get them to work together to create a positive learning environment. How I could view a teacher’s performance through the lens of instruction. I understood that I was being developed in a manner in which I had not been developed before. And I knew I’d be ready to lead a school when I was done.

My time with New Leaders really built my understanding of the importance of self-reflection and thoughtful leadership. My advice to leaders across the country is to take time for yourself.

It’s a really hard statement to say, given everything right now. But you can become so overwhelmed with the amount of work and the need to care for all the members of your district that you forget about yourself. The time we take for ourselves enables us to lead with grace.

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Zipporah Hightower

Zipporah Hightower

Dr. Zipporah Hightower is the newly selected superintendent of Skokie School District 73.5. Prior to her appointment to Superintendent, she served as the Executive Director of the Department of Principal Quality for Chicago Public Schools. During her 25 years in education, Dr. Hightower has served as math teacher and principal as well as executive director at New Leaders. She is a proud member of New Leaders Cohort 6.

Zipporah Hightower

Zipporah Hightower

Zipporah Hightower

Zipporah Hightower

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