As a school principal, I was fond of telling my staff, “Two of the great things about a school year is that there is a beginning, and there is an end.” During a typical school year, this meant renewal and hope for the next 180 days as the year began, and reflection and closure as we prepared to say goodbye—until we started again the following September.
While the 2019–2020 school year started as most others, its ending is atypical for almost every student, teacher, and leader. How does a principal or superintendent find closure when a global pandemic so drastically changed everything we do in school and life with at least a third of the year’s instruction delivered remotely?
It is not an easy question to answer. The remote learning experience has left many educators exhausted and exasperated at the challenge of teaching screen to screen—if that was even possible. This is further compounded by teachers’ anxieties about what is to come in August and September, when at least some form of at-home learning will continue if we aren’t social distancing in the physical classroom.
When those under our care feel stressed and alone, culture weakens and is in need of fortification. If the feelings of loss in relationships, curriculum, or culture aren’t met with a meaningful response, school climates—at home and at school—will deteriorate, leaving leaders without the professional capital to shepherd their flock through further uncertainty.
We must marshal the courage to close out this most unusual school year—if not on a high note, then at least with some measure of thankfulness and appreciation with an eye toward planning for 2020–2021.
Here are some suggestions for you, as a school or district leader, to positively provide closure for your staff as well as students and their families.
Close Out the School Year with Staff
Acknowledgment: This is a high-reward, low-risk leadership move. Through your words in a virtual meeting or an email to your staff, acknowledge all of the highs and lows of your COVID-19 district response. Reflect on what has gone well and what could have gone better. Place the health crisis into a context those under your care will understand. Mark the victories, no matter how small or insignificant they seem, and note the challenges ahead.
Active Listening: Once you move through your personal reflection, ask your staff for theirs. What did they learn? How would they like to improve? What suggestions or best practices can they share? How are they feeling? You could send the questions out as an online survey, followed by individual or small team meetings (by grade level or content area). Ask questions out of curiosity or concern, allow your staff the time to answer, and take copious notes, as staff responses will reveal common themes in how you can respond this school year and next.
Pragmatism and Optimism: This is a delicate balance, as you need to be grounded in the difficulty and challenges ahead but also point the way toward a brighter future—one that may include budget cuts and new social distancing guidelines. Let your staff know that you are doing everything under your control to create safe and inviting environments of learning. Share the common threads of your survey results or how you plan to do so in the future. Invite staff to participate in creating plans for in-person, remote, or blended learning for the coming school year. Share an online tool or lesson plan that worked during the school closure.
Transparency and Empathy: With anxiety over next year's changes, including the real possibility of a reduction in force, school leaders may be faced with sharing uncertainty or dismissals with staff who are feeling their own levels of worry. In these situations, it's important for school leaders to both receive guidance from their leadership or human resources office and offer staff a level of transparency. What school leaders shouldn't do is provide information they are not sure about. Lead with what you know, offer empathy, and update staff as often as you can.
The Gift of Gratitude: Living in an #AloneTogether world is not easy for any of us. From going to the supermarket, to trying to teach not only a class but also their own children, to creating remote learning plans on the fly, teachers and support staff have suffered during this global pandemic. So, thank them for their efforts to show tenacity and compassion toward their students while managing their own stress, and do so over and over and over again in many different ways.
Say thanks in your individual, team, and/or staff meetings. Share compelling stories of your staff overcoming the obstacles of teaching and learning in a remote world. Provide them with a small token of your appreciation—send a card virtually or through the postal service, create a video tribute through song or sketch, build an online playlist of music selected by you or derived from staff recommendations, and so on. Be creative; have fun. After all, our most valuable gift is our time, and using yours to say thank you will have positive reverberations for years to come.
Wrap Up the School Year with Students' Families
Reflection: I know you must have been communicating with parents and caregivers throughout this crisis. Similar to my suggestion for personal reflection on your communication with staff, you should review how and what you shared with families. When looking back, consider if you created a sense of purpose, provided clarity (on topics ranging from meal distribution to the delivery of lessons), and related a commitment to the care of students and families under the uniquely difficult circumstances.
Sharing Future Plans: Giving families just the facts during a global pandemic was likely not enough and won’t be as you start to transition to school reentry plans for the coming school year. In doing so, you have to share how your schools will consider the health and wellbeing of everyone who may enter your buildings or facilities. What kind of new practices and protocols will you put in place? What will social distancing look like? What models of instructional programming (remote, at school, or blended) will you be utilizing?
Whatever plans you and your leadership teams arrive at, you must articulate them through multiple social media platforms, automated calls, and emails in addition to your schools’ webpages. There is no such thing as over-communication in this case.
Prioritizing Safety: Messaging that begins and ends with safety will be heard by the vast majority of your stakeholders. Fears must be addressed and abated so students and staff can be welcomed back to the best possible environment for learning, and so you can gain or hold the trust of stakeholders when or if plans have to change.
These are only a few suggestions in uncertain times. Please don’t forget to practice self-care for yourself as well—whether it’s doing yoga, writing poetry, critiquing a new movie, completing a puzzle, or cooking a delicious meal. Whatever defines you and brings you joy, you must find time to do you, so you can be there for others.
We can do this!
To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.
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