• Sarah Hunko

Real Talk Advice For The School Year Ahead

I’ve spent the last several months very fortunate to be able to support school leaders and teacher-leaders through the treasure trove (Pandora's box?) of decisions they’ve had to make during crisis learning. School leaders have had to contort in myriad ways to keep schools working for students, families, and teachers, and one thing is increasingly clear-- everyone is tired. After all, we’re living through a real life pandemic and intense social transformation (with an important election pending), all while trying to ensure our students get an education remotely. I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired and weary of all the uncertainty (I mean, what even is this summer?), I need strong coffee and straight talk. Here are a few bold, but not necessarily brilliant, ideas for you as you plan for a school year that’s going to require more than a little chutzpah.

Focus on relationships (and how to build them remotely), period

A lot of schools are trying to do the trapeze act of connecting their priorities from the before times to the actual needs of starting a school year remotely. Let’s stop trying to do all of that and look at the massive lift ahead of us. Let’s focus on how we’re going to build connections with families (who are partners in new and exciting ways), how teachers will build relationships with students online through meaningful instruction (this is a new skill set), and on how your teams are set up to support each other. Pretty much nothing else matters without this. I recommend modeling your version of a morning meeting (or other key SEL strategies your teachers are familiar with) and recording video messages to keep a strong connection with your team. Keep up with how your teachers are feeling and what they need to feel safe and successful, too. You’ll figure out what works for your school, but start with the relational trust in your community, tune out the other noise, and dig deep.

Don’t sweat the small stuff with your professional development

We start with the big important stuff during our professional development days and then add the zillion other things that we think will make teachers’ lives easier later. Then very little sticks because teachers leave overwhelmed. Have a new curriculum training? Don’t start a new curriculum right now. Mandatory compliance videos? Save those for a rainy day. “Essential” online platform trainings? Nope. Let’s spend our precious time giving teachers ample opportunities to practice, get feedback, and plan for the school year with a focus on building a strong remote learning culture with (yes you guessed it) building strong relationships at the center of that work. Adding more stuff right now is possibly the worst thing you can do for your team, so take Occam’s razor to everything.

Create a buddy/mentor/coach system

Teachers are going to feel like first year teachers again. Build in more safety nets for them, especially ones that don’t overcommit you. One way to do that is to ensure everyone has a “person” who is their go-to for day-to-day support. That partner can be a formal or informal mentor or coach for less experienced teachers (or others who opt in), or they can be a peer. This is one way you can support teachers with all the little (and not so little) stuff that you took out of your professional development time without having to spend energy on those things as a larger group. Resident experts on online programs or curricula can help out teachers who are struggling in those areas. Teachers can pop into each other’s classrooms to learn and give each other feedback. This is also a way you can ensure any non-instructional staff have meaningful and direct roles that support teachers to reach students. You’ll probably go further if the partnerships aren’t accountability focused (this is not the place for any observation look-fors!) and if they can be a space for teachers to model strategies for one another, bring and share fresh ideas, and be an important sounding board when things get stressful.

Bake racial justice and equity into everything you do

This does not mean “doing” equity sessions with the staff and checking off the box. It doesn’t mean a book club that is disconnected from teacher practice. Racial justice and equity work in schools is far more expansive than a task list. Baking it in means creating a common vision for racial justice and equity with your school team, and making space for continuous dialogue, learning, action and reflection to reach that vision. Make enabling that vision one of your primary goals as a leader. Make time for yourself to explore your identity, biases, and prioritize your own learning so you feel equipped to lead with equity in mind always, in all ways. Dig in and expect to learn, get things wrong at times, and grow alongside your team. Don’t cheat your community by making this a moment and not a movement.

Rethink the school day, don’t recreate it

Your school schedule cannot be replicated virtually. We’re going to need to limit time in “live” teaching to sensible chunks of time for students and leverage independent work time. Not all classes can or should go remote. Teacher roles may need to be altered significantly. Everyone will need breaks. Let’s also take care not to institute power dynamics with remote learning where they are unnecessary and unhelpful. For example, making “cameras on” a hard and fast rule for students is not a thoughtful approach. This is an equity issue, a privacy issue, a control issue, and it’s also common sense. Apply healthy skepticism to your team whenever you see that we’re sliding over practices and approaches from in-person school to remote learning without deeper consideration of the complete picture. We have the opportunity to get things right that we’ve gotten wrong before if we’re thoughtful.

I know absolutely none of this is easy. Don’t be too hard on yourself-- you’re leading a school in a pandemic! If you can, try to find the ways that this extremely difficult time gives us the opportunity (or necessity) to focus on what matters most. If we have the courage, we can use this as an opportunity to create the kinds of schools we truly believe in. The time for bold leadership is now. You’ve got this, and I’ll be right here next to you (coffee in hand) cheering you on.

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