Words of Wisdom From Leaders Leading Through Adversity

Gain insights from school leaders who led through past national crises as you continue to navigate the demands of leading schools in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.
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As the news and stories continue to unfold from Uvalde, we struggle to find the right words. In truth, there are no right words. What we know is that 19 children and 2 teachers were killed in an elementary school, a place that is meant to be safe, to allow children to grow into the leaders, artists, scientists and innovators they are destined to become. That did not happen in Texas last week.

All across the nation, leaders like you, have had to grapple with how to respond, how to tell your students, your school community, your district, that they are safe. That this will not happen on your watch. It is a heavy burden to bear. And one that we don’t want you to bear alone. 

We’ve compiled a few stories of other leaders who have also led through times of immense adversity and who persisted in their vision for what is possible for our schools. We hope their insights will affirm your leadership and bolster you for another week ahead.

“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was the second day of the second week of my first year as a principal. On that same day, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, bringing both towers to the ground and changing the way we saw the world. 

It was the catalyst to a crash course in leadership that forever changed the way I saw the role of the principal and reinforced the delicate and deliberate dance between the “person” and the “position” of being a school leader.

Although my school was located over 60 miles from ground zero in a suburb of New York City, the profound shock, hysteria, and fear were immediate. Shortly after learning that both towers had been hit by planes, a series of events began to unfold in rapid succession; none of which the “in-box” activity in my principal training programs came close to preparing me for.”

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Flashback to August 2005: Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, decimating 110 of the city’s 126 public schools. Students were displaced across the country. Most students did not enter a school building again until a full school year later. For some, it was as long as two years.

Then, like now, pundits focused on learning loss, on how far children had fallen behind, on the irreparable damage. This deficit-lens led to an overriding focus on remediation that assumed post-Katrina students could not handle challenging or enriching material. Schools that used this approach discovered that it actually widened gaps and undermined student motivation.

Yet bold leaders, like New Leaders alum and principal trainer Karen Bryan-Chambers, rejected that deficit lens and her leadership changed her students’ trajectories. … We asked her how she led her post-Katrina school community to greater success year after year.

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To read more about how New Leaders alum and principal Ayanna Mitchell responded to the Uvalde shooting at her school, read This Could Be Our School: Educators Grapple with Anger and Loss After Uvalde Shooting (EdWeek, May 25, 2022)

And if you need inspiration and words of wisdom from other education leaders about why we do this work, visit: Dear School Leader, Please Hang On: Part 1 and Part 2. 

At New Leaders, we stand with education leaders who are committed to keeping schools safe places for students, staff, and families. 

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