This past week an episode from the Innovator’s Mindset podcast came out that I was privileged to be a part of. The interview was from the very beginning of Illinois’ Stay at Home order that resulted in our school buildings shutting down and switching to remote learning. Listening to it has been a wonderful reflection tool for leading and learning during a crisis. Although almost six weeks later the themes we discussed still ring true, there is definitely more that I have learned in this journey.
Below are my greatest takeaways thus far.
1. Continue to Focus on Relationships
This is truly the most important thing that we can do at any time, as leaders and as human beings. Whether by email, text, phone call, virtual meeting or letter in the mail, find a way to regularly check on your staff and families solely for the purpose of seeing how they are doing. Like George said in the podcast, this includes everyone. People who you may think are completely fine may not be. See if they need anything and just have a friendly conversation. I have sincerely appreciated staff members who have reached out to me as well. One of my teachers sends me funny memes and pictures on a regular basis. I look forward to them so much! They’ve helped really bad days when there’s a lot going on turn into manageable ones. Social distancing may mean that we can’t be physically close, but shouldn’t mean that we distance ourselves from continuing meaningful relationships.
2. Take Care of Yourself
You’ve probably heard this many times, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. I know it’s hard. I’m in 8 million virtual meetings on a daily basis myself while trying to balance with family responsibilities it can feel impossible to find the time, but you’ll be better if you do.
At the beginning of this I thought I could do it all. I went about two weeks at full throttle and almost completely lost it by day 15. My usual positivity was really forced. It was hard to think and I don’t know that I was making the best judgment calls. I had to change something fast.
For me, the taking care of myself ended up being a change in routine. Monotony is my worst nightmare and I was trapped in a cycle of just that. I started walking outside during some of my meetings. I picked up coffee at a local coffee shop a few days a week for a treat. I gave myself permission to not be busy every minute of every day and to sometimes just sit. I started working on things outside of school that fed my creative soul. It all made a huge difference and I am sincerely a better leader and human because of it. Please, please, please take time for yourself each day. You’ll actually get more done in the end and be happier doing it.
3. Continue to Connect with the Community
Connecting with families is such an important part of leadership in any time, but when we don’t have the four walls of daily interaction to keep us all connected, it’s imperative that we find new ways to do so. As an anchor of the community, supporting teachers, students and families will only make us stronger in a time of crisis. Because there isn’t physical connection, regular facetime is imperative. Look for ways to provide structure and routine that mirror what was happening before while also bringing in new and innovative ways that capitalize being at home.
At Jefferson, this connection has included:
- A daily morning message that is a hybrid of home and school. I start the announcements celebrating birthdays each day, acting as the host. The rest of the announcements is run by student contributions such as leading the pledge, sharing a talent, a challenge for other students, a wondering or even an example of some family fun. It has been wonderful getting to see students show off talents that we might not have seen at school like acrobatics on a trampoline or cooking demos. Today’s announcements included our PTA president and his two sons playing a rock version of the Star Wars Thrown Room Song. I always close it with some encouraging words of positivity for the kids and/or parents.
- Both staff and student bedtime story read-alouds that come out at 3:00 p.m. on our YouTube Channel.
- Opportunities to connect virtually both synchronously and asynchronously through GoogleMeet, Zoom, FlipGrid Challenges, Instagram and Seesaw posts. Every Friday in May I meet with groups of 5th graders to catch up and talk about their thoughts about going to Middle School.
- Spirit Week and last week of school activities developed by our Student Council that include a whole school virtual picnic and Field Day.
- Social Media posts about what our students have been up to while they have been at home as well as individual daily posts celebrating our graduating class of 5th graders.
- Staff collaboration videos sent to our families sharing how much we appreciate and miss them as well as what we’ve been up to at home.
Make sure that the sharing is not just one way. Look for ways to incorporate families as well as staff in the community connection.
4. Consistent Focus & Messaging
Since the beginning of this crisis, we have focused on two major things: Connecting with kids and consistent communication. Although there have been some shifts as to what this looks like as we continue to gain experience in the virtual world of learning, our focus continues to be the same. I continue to reinforce this during team meetings, emails, 1:1 conversations as well as in my weekly Friday newsletter to staff and to families. Feedback from our families has been incredibly positive in the area of both communication and connection as a result.
We have had some shifts from our district office throughout the time we have been at home related to various aspects of operations, grading and planning. When these occur, I’ve found that significant changes are best communicated in a whole group virtual meeting (actually recommended to me by one of my awesome 5th-grade teachers). This makes sure everyone hears a consistent message as well as gives opportunities for feedback which leads me to my next tip…
5. Create Feedback Loops
Giving and receiving feedback is critical at any time, but especially when we are remote and not seeing on another on a regular basis. Throughout this process, I meet with teams weekly to find out their needs as well as to receive feedback on processes and information being shared. Our teachers have been asking both the parents and students for their feedback on our eLearning plans as they have progressed. During the first month, I also hosted a “Town Hall” at our April PTA meeting to share with parents our plan as well as receive feedback on how we were doing in meeting Jefferson students’ needs remotely. At the end of this month, I will also be sending out a final survey to families for positive feedback as well as suggestions for the future. All of these things combined contribute to the regular improvement of our processes and helps to keep everyone connected as well. It also will help to bridge a shared vision of education when we return in the fall or if we have to continue remote learning at any time in the future.
6. Trust the People Closest to the Kids
This message is critical to the success of our students learning and feeling cared for at home. Our teachers have been working with students since the beginning of the year and know them best. They were rocking it when we were in school, but I have been blown away by the ways my teachers have been shifting their teaching practices to meet the needs of the students at home. Trying out new technology, new ways to present lessons, and new ways to connect with kids have all come from my amazing staff. This was rooted in a foundation of trust in staff expertise. When we empower others, as opposed to limit their abilities based on a singular interpretation, great things happen for kids.
The same applies to trusting our parents who know our students better than anyone on the planet. Including parents’ ideas and feedback as well as supporting them when they need help is all an important part of the learning process, inside of school and out. One of my greatest hopes after this is all over is that the collaborative and trusting relationships that we have continued to build during this time will continue when we return to our brick and mortar buildings. The level of trust we give to our parents is a large factor in the success of this. We can’t just ask for feedback, we need to act on the suggestions given. If the idea is not feasible, it is important to explain why.
7. Keep Meetings (& Messages) Short & Flexible
I don’t care if you are the funniest, most charismatic person ever, no one, and I mean no one wants to sit in a 3-hour virtual meeting. People are trying to manage working remotely with taking care of family and 8 million other objectives of the day. Prioritize your agenda to what is most essential. The other items will still be there when we return to brick & mortar education and will be heard in a much more meaningful way when they actually apply to the work being done. The same holds true for emails. Keep your messages short and to the point. When in doubt, default to what is reasonable.
8. Professional Learning Should Match Teacher & Student Need
Just like when we are in the four walls of a school, professional learning should include choice and be directly connected to the work teachers are doing. Instructional coaches are making a huge difference during this time. Our instructional coach at Jefferson attends virtual team meetings weekly and looks for ways she can support teachers to take things off of their plate. She has created instructional tutorials for parents & students, modeled how to use tech tools to aide in synchronous and asynchronous teaching, offered office hours for families if a teacher is introducing a new way of learning to students and more. She is thoughtful in the ways she shares new ideas or resources by communicating one new idea once a week at a scheduled time. The things she shares are connected to conversations she has heard in team meetings or build upon the prior week. Teachers can also reach out to her for coaching on any topic of their choosing. For more information for how she is supporting our staff in new and innovative ways, check out my post, Coaching During a Crisis.
Avoid assigning articles on theory or required learning like scheduled webinars. Assigning blanket learning for all, especially when it is disconnected to the work currently being done is a major misstep that shows a lack of empathy as well as creates a perfect breeding ground for mistrust and resentment. The most meaningful learning that will happen at this time will come directly from your staff. We need to value their time and knowledge base as well as educator’s natural inclination and gifts in seeking out information and new ideas. When we do, their teaching will far surpass anything we could have possibly imagined.
9. Celebrate & Share the Good
There is so much good happening right now, but it may be hard to see because we’re all teaching in our own virtual classrooms. My instructional coach and I have been attending team meetings once a week virtually for the purpose of seeing how we can support teams, but also to be able to share what other teams are up to. This has been great for sparking new ideas as well as trying new things with students. I continue to send emails to staff about the great work they are doing as well as share on social media learning happening as a result of my teachers. When parents share something positive with me about a staff member I make sure I share it with them. One of my colleagues highlights in her weekly newsletter something wonderful she’s seen in each of her team’s plans. I plan to start doing this as well. Good ideas need to be shared!
10. Continually Learn & Plan for the Future
In any situation, the best thing we can do is reflect on our experiences to plan for the future. As a staff, we are already thinking about next year, considering what teaching strategies and tools we want to make sure we continue to utilize. A strategic plan for teaching students at the beginning of the year how to use various technological tools has been a large part of this conversation. To start the year, my staff has asked that we focus our professional learning on various aspects of technology to better prepare ourselves if this were to happen again. Teams have also been brainstorming ways they will use what they have learned in their classrooms in the fall. If this happens again, (please no!) I am confident that we will be prepared because of our thoughtful reflection and planning.
At the beginning of this, I felt like my greatest role was supporting my staff and families to stay connected as a community. Six weeks later I continue to stand by this conviction. Without our regular routines and interaction, it can be easy for anyone to start to feel disconnected and alone. As leaders, our actions can either fuel that isolation, or be the antidote, bringing everyone closer. When in doubt, air on the side of empathy.
“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.” – Brene Brown