This Summer has followed in the chaotic footsteps of the preceding Spring. Today, all of us in education find ourselves in the middle of a political firestorm about whether and how students should return to school buildings this Fall. As the debate rages on whether districts can adequately provide for PPE, social distancing, and safe staff-to-student ratios, it’s easy to lose sight of the many other measures crucial to student success coming year. Based on our conversations with hundreds of districts across the West over the last couple of months, we see four mistakes coming down the pike. Here they are, and our advice on how you can avoid them.
Not Making A Decision When “The Plan” Breaks
Good administrators have traditionally made thoughtful decisions based on stakeholder input, recognizing their role in viewing the entire landscape and seeing the pros and cons of different choices. That is not a fast process. Unfortunately, some of their best qualities — thoughtfulness, process-oriented thinking, and constant communication with all stakeholders — will work against the need to make quick, “good enough” decisions this Fall, Winter, and Spring.
Last Spring, the school year’s end was an educational, organizational, and leadership trainwreck regardless of everyone’s best intentions. Everyone failed because a crashing biological pandemic does not lend itself to the thoughtful planning that has historically served school districts well. The community did an excellent job, not blaming teachers, kids, or school systems when the schools had to close overnight. Everyone understood that it was an impossible situation with no reasonable solutions. This Fall, school districts are once again asked to do the impossible, so if the last six months have taught us anything, it’s not if administrators’ plans will break, but when they’ll break.
How to Avoid This Mistake: Accept now that you will need to pivot quickly for whatever may come at you, and that may mean abandoning a plan you previously worked hard to come up with. Plan to make fast decisions without knowing every variable, and own that it may not work so plan to pivot again. The worst thing administrators could be doing for kids or their staff this year is to be paralyzed by indecision under the guise of waiting for better answers, comparable examples, or full stakeholder buy-in. None of those will exist.
Expecting this Year to be Similar to Any Other
Good administrators recognize that kids and adults like predictability and rely on patterns to feel secure and make thoughtful decisions. There’s a reason Back-To-School Night looks the same each year, that science teachers teach the same experiments in the lab, and Mrs. Nelson always holds Show & Tell after lunch. School predictability helps teachers plan, drives parent expectations, and validates educational outcomes for kids.
Many in the community are looking to school districts to bring continuity back to their lives. Some administrators are going to push to get things back to normal, even if the schedule looks a bit different. Some administrators will hyperfocus on student schedules and push staff to recreate a traditional year in an atypical setting (while juggling cleaning protocols and who is responsible for cleaning what and when, of course.) But holding on to any semblance of the “way we’ve always done it” and basing decisions on what’s happened in the past is sure to result in poor outcomes and lots of disappointment for everyone. The only constant in life is change, and this year will be chock full of it.
How to Avoid This Mistake: Be upfront with staff, parents, and students. Be honest that we do expect kids to learn and hope to have some fun along the way, but other than that, the year will look and feel very different than any previous year. Acknowledge that we may not like the experience, but importantly, it’s not going to look like this forever. Focus on lifting people’s best efforts and embracing opportunities to do things in an entirely new way.
Underestimating The Needs of Staff
Good administrators know that protecting and educating students requires nurturing and encouraging staff. After an isolated spring and Summer for everyone and a community of frustrated parents trying to problem-solve their own work experience, there will be an overwhelming expectation to get busy helping kids. But even our most motivated and gifted teachers will struggle to bring their A-game this year. Some administrators will be ready to encourage teachers with compassion for the inevitable modified curriculum and planning time. And in most years, that might be sufficient. This year, it will be totally inadequate.
Teachers will continuously be juggling daily fears about their health, family members’ health, general anxiety about the state of the world today, and a million “What ifs” lining up in their heads — What if my lesson plan doesn’t work online? What if parents are unable to work with students at home? What if some of my class races far ahead and others are not even attending? What if my student isn’t safe in their home? What if someone in my class or school tests positive? What if my out-of-state mom’s health fails? What if my own kids need me during the day? What if my spouse loses their job? And so on, ad infinitum.
How to Avoid This Mistake: Be aware that you won’t know everything your staff is emotionally and mentally juggling in a pandemic, and there’s no way to leave it all home or at school. Set this tone early and repeat it often: There is no expectation that everything will go perfectly on any day. Their best effort every day is enough, even if that means on some days, it’s not very good at all. You all are part of a team and will get through this together.
Not Preparing for Traumatized Students
Good administrators always want to see all kids thrive. They move mountains to meet kids where they are, get them what they need, and propel them onwards and upwards. They understand the impact that trauma has on education and work to mitigate it in their buildings. But the trauma of COVID-19 is new to all of us, and while we’re all living through it, every person’s experience is unique.
It will be years, if not decades before we fully understand the trauma that COVID-19 visited upon kids. Even so, we know that the possibilities of out-of-work parents, food insecurity at home, sick relatives, exacerbated mental health challenges in the family, fears of getting sick, social isolation, the loss of the safety net of teachers and staff in a school building, as well as concerns about academically falling behind are sure to impact student success in the physical and virtual classroom.
How to Avoid This Mistake: Re-visit or provide new training about trauma-informed practices for staff. Encourage teacher practices that protect the thinking and feelings of students. It may be tempting to focus on strict academics in a shortened school day. However, teachers may be more effective with kids if given the space to help kids develop relationships, nurture self-care ideas, and establish flexible classroom routines targeted at caring for each other. No one will learn to read or think critically if they can’t first feel safe in their virtual or physical classroom.
At the end of this school year, the benchmark for success isn’t going to look like any other. This year will be unique for every educator and every student attending school. The best administrators will be judged not by student test scores but rather kids feeling successful and wanting to return to school the following year. That’s not an easy goal. To get there, good administrators will embrace the certainty of uncertainty, acknowledge the possibility of mistakes, and push themselves to think differently.