For school leaders to adequately support instruction, staff, and students, they also need support from their central offices.
Here are five practical strategies that don’t ignore the reality of our current challenges, but tackle them head-on.
By: Dr. Ben Klompus
Early this school year, Principal Kimberly Grayson — like school leaders around the country — recognized that enthusiasm about returning to in-person learning was giving way to exhaustion at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver. Instead of pressing on, Grayson pressed pause: She designed a retreat where she reforged connections between staff, asked them to identify their own losses during the pandemic, and through videos of student interviews, asked faculty to listen to their students describe their experiences during remote learning.
“I wanted staff to see that we’re adults and we went through trauma, and we’re not the same anymore,” Grayson said earlier this year. “And if we went through it and we’re adults with developed brains, then we need to think about the trauma that our students went through, and what they’re coming to school with every single day.”
What we’ve seen in hundreds of classrooms this fall as part of our work supporting 1,200 school and system leaders across the country mirrors Grayson’s experience: students and staff who are eager to be back in classrooms and ready to work, but facing anxiety and exhaustion caused by staff shortages, continuing COVID disruptions, and, in many cases, ongoing trauma.
Supporting the social and emotional needs of students and staff while providing high-quality education is not a problem that can be solved in a one-time meeting, but a dilemma school leaders must continually navigate.
Through our work, I and other Relay Graduate School of Education coaches have seen examples of how school leaders are successfully leaning back into their role as leaders of learning. Based on our observations and the stories shared by the school leaders we work with as partners, here are five practical strategies that don’t ignore the reality of our current challenges, but tackle them head-on.
1. Sustain a culture of warmth and caring.
While there’s no way to minimize the amount of stress teachers and students are continuing to face, culture can make people want to show up and address these issues head on. “Staff want to be rallied to a cause—not just survive,” says Relay coach Josh Smith.
To that end, Grayson built on the foundation created with staff during her school’s retreat with a series of restorative practices that focused the school community’s collective challenges around an approach of warmth and high expectations for students. Leaders who center their humanity by connecting with teachers and staff as individuals in these ways can “turn their schools into a family that’s confronting a big family problem,” adds Relay coach Kathleen Sullivan. “As a result, they are able to tackle some of the instructional issues.”
2. Set realistic—but meaningful—priorities.
School leaders find it challenging to create attainable plans even in normal circumstances, and this year their priorities have seemingly narrowed to keeping students supervised and safe and ensuring classes are covered. It’s essential to maintain a schoolwide focus on learning that’s meaningful, engaging, and challenging with the appropriate supports.
What we’ve seen work in schools is sustaining the focus on teaching and learning, but keeping it simple. Some principals we work with, including Katie Harshman in Pueblo, Colorado, are setting one instructional focus per week to guide coaching, quick observations, and feedback. Others are identifying one high-leverage area they believe they can make an immediate impact in classrooms and sticking with it for the year, or mapping out a year-long arc that anchors all leadership coaching, progress checks, and professional development around common themes, as IDEA Public Schools’ Christine Diaz has done in Tarrant County, Texas.
3. Double down on supporting teachers as professionals.
Remove unnecessary tasks and busywork whenever possible, but continue to prioritize coaching, feedback, and thought partnership. Principals may be hesitant to provide constructive feedback to teachers when they’re seeing staff leave, but if we want our teachers to be great coaches to students, we have to be great coaches to our teachers.
We’ve seen that it’s possible to drive instruction forward while respecting teacher time. For example, Tihesha Henderson, executive director of the Sankofa School of Success in Indianapolis, focuses weekly professional development time around rotating themes each month: Teachable Thursdays to focus on data and instructional strategies, Team Up Thursdays for teamwork, Tackle It Thursdays to allow teachers to catch up on grading and other administrative tasks, and Time to Win Thursdays to focus on staff social and emotional needs. The latter is critical, she says: “If we’re unhealthy, we can’t bring our best to our students.”
4. Principals need additional support as well.
For school leaders to adequately support instruction, staff, and students, they also need support from their central offices. Districts and CMOs should do whatever it takes to protect principal time and offload as much of the operational challenges caused by the pandemic. Strategies may include hiring additional staff to manage COVID protocols and tap emergency funds to hire substitutes—or pay them more. Doing so can help keep principals and other instructional leaders where they’re needed most—in the classroom, but leading learning instead of addressing staff shortages.
5. Center planning on the student experience.
No one believes that the challenges of the current school year will end this spring. To inform planning for the year to come, I’d encourage principals to block out the time to follow one student over the course of a day or two. As they follow those students into classrooms, they should ask themselves whether what they’re seeing is an important and respectful use of their student’s time—or what they’d want their own children to experience. What they see will likely define the contours of the most important instructional issues to address over the following year.
Our students have lost so much time over the past 20 months. It’s up to us to ensure we make the most of every minute we have with them for the rest of the year—and the years to come.
Dr. Ben Klompus is the Managing Director of Innovation and Impact, Relay GSE.