Strong Leadership in Uncertain Times: 5 Tips for Running the Leadership Roads Ahead

This entry is the sixth in a blog series called Pandemic Response and Educational Practices (PREP), which aims to highlight and further the important work educators are doing amid the worldwide COVID-19 crisis.

Based on Messaging Matters.

One recent morning, I was running a three-mile track around my neighborhood. As I passed the houses and occasional drivers, I felt a sudden kinship to my neighbors that I’m not sure I’ve felt before. 

We don’t just share the same ZIP code; we now share a common experience. And this experience spreads beyond our cities and states. We share a common bond across the entire world.

If you think about it, we have only been in this distance-learning journey for a relatively short time. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world’s first cases of COVID-19 were documented in January, in China. But none of us had any idea what would happen in the ensuing weeks. 

By early March, US cases had been reported. Washington State was the first to close schools. And as the virus spread into a pandemic, schools across the nation responded with closures and implementation of distance learning

In my own state of Oklahoma, March 25 marked the announcement from our Oklahoma State Department of Education that schools would close the rest of the year, with distance learning plans beginning April 6. By April 10, my family and I had entered our fourth week of safer-at-home activity, and my children had finished their first week of full-time distance-learning lessons from their school.

Just as we all share a common bond with one another worldwide, as leaders, we also share common lessons during these times.

When schools began closing and making plans for distance learning, my calendar quickly filled up with Zoom meetings and phone calls from other leaders. As executive director for the Oklahoma Association of Secondary School Principals (an affiliate of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration), I have had a front-row seat with leaders across my state. 

I also coordinate with other state leaders through NASSP, the National Association of Secondary School Principals. And as a Solution Tree author and speaker, I also have colleagues across the nation and internationally with whom I collaborate.

What kinds of lessons am I seeing from leaders during these uncertain times? Here are five.

1. Relationships still matter now, as much as ever

For principals with small and large school populations, I’m hearing the same feedback: Reach out to your people. Make sure they know you care about them and their safety and well-being. Above all else, assure your teachers, staff, and students that you care and want to be available to help however you can. 

Chris Legleiter, principal of Leawood Middle School, Blue Valley Schools, just outside Kansas City, Missouri, talked to me by Zoom and said, “I’ll be honest, that is the hardest thing, I think, for most educators. We are all about relationships, and it took me a few days to really understand those relationships are still there. Now it is all about understanding How do I adjust to still connect with people?

He explained more, “As the building leader, I have used videos as one way to connect. I spent some time calling families one-on-one by phone. You can still write a note and mail it to someone’s residence. I think connecting relationships are still important, but I think that looks so different now in the virtual world. That’s what I’m trying to stay focused on: what I can do, not what I can’t do.”

2. It still takes a team

Don’t carry the burden alone. Just like how a great school functions during normal times, you cannot accomplish your goals without a strong team. Ask for help, and reach out to others when you need feedback. Utilize your teachers and staff for reaching students.

Many elementary leaders I talk to are reaching students by using classroom teachers to connect and support students at home. At the secondary level, many principals I know are dividing up their students among PLC teams or Teacher Advisory Teams so that every student is being regularly contacted and supported. 

Principal Chris LeGrande of Guthrie High School, outside of Oklahoma City, told me that when closures were first announced, he and his two assistant principals divided up the phone numbers of every teacher and staff member in the building. They reached out to them by phone to hear their concerns and assure them of their support. Now that they have transitioned to distance learning, the same conversations happen among teachers and the more than 1,000 high school students in his building.  

“I would say the best thing or the most exciting thing to me is the fact that we have required our teachers to reach out to their students to make contact and communicate with all of them,” Mr. LeGrande explained. “I think the overall theme is the fact that the kids just miss school and being around their friends.”

Terrence Simmons, an assistant principal at Floyd Elementary in Nye County, Nevada, told me how they responded as a team. They launched distance learning for their students in three days, and the district website became a resource for parents wanting guidance and digital tools.  

Mr. Simmons explained one of their strategies for reaching families: “We are actually having our teachers call six students per day to check in with the students. Teachers have also set up work hours to be accessible to our parents by phone, just to make sure that there’s good communication happening.”

Nye County educators reached out to every parent to determine their distance-learning options, which include both online services for those with digital access and lesson packets for those without digital access.

3. Be creative and innovative in reaching goals

Whether it is keeping up with others through shared Google Docs or managing your own day by sharing calendars with your team, set a schedule for yourself and others that makes sense. 

At Glenpool High School, outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Principal Kim Coody batches all Zoom team meetings into one day each week. That way she commits an entire day to touching base with all her teachers and teams. The rest of the week, she can focus on the individual outreach and additional planning needed.

At the same time, Ms. Coody and her staff have found creative ways to stay connected with students by publishing school announcements to social media with a traditional moment of silence, a flag salute, and updates to students. 

Schools are also finding creative ways to honor seniors with virtual meet-ups and live-streamed celebrations. 

Although graduation ceremonies have been postponed at her school, LaDonna Chancellor, principal of Bartlesville High School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is still finding ways to highlight seniors. On April 10, the high school stadium lights were turned on throughout the evening as a beacon for the small town, serving as a reminder that the school recognizes and celebrates their senior class. 

Whether you use social media, phone calls, drive-by visits for distance waving, or group Zoom or Google meet-ups with your school community, be creative in the ways you are reaching and staying connected with others.

4. Think ahead and plan for what may be next

Dr. Don Parker, principal of Posen Intermediate School in Posen-Robbins School District, outside of Chicago, Illinois, described how his school already had plans in place in case of closures for bad weather. 

“We were fortunate enough that we are in Chicago, where we get a lot of snow and, you know, terrible weather conditions, so we were ahead of the curve in that we have e-learning plans,” he explained. “When we have snow days, we were prepared for students to learn from home by already having these plans in place. We also have what we call ‘blizzard folders,’ where we have paper copies of lessons that students can do at home. If they are set up for e-learning, they can follow links on our website. Our teachers can also go online to update the lessons there.”

For many principals, these closures may also mean planning for next year already. This may involve modifying enrollment plans online. Others are already anticipating what school may look like if closures continue for parts of the country through the end of summer or the start of next school year. 

Eric Harrison, principal of A+ Arts Academy elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, explained to me how his school is already training their teachers in the use of online application platforms and content sharing. He is wishing for the best with the start of a new school year, but he doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed if closures happen for a longer duration.

Leaders don’t only respond decisively during a crisis; they also think ahead. 

5. Give yourself and others plenty of grace

Every new opportunity comes with challenges, and many leaders I spoke to were working more and putting in longer hours than they had during a normal school year. That means teachers, students, and families are also adjusting to new norms. For some of them in difficult situations, the new norm is overwhelming and stressful. For those in more stable conditions, the inconvenience and changes can still cause anxiety.

This is a good time to remember that your optimism, empathy, and decisiveness will help others remain positive. Someday your school community will look back at this time. And how you made them feel during this time will be even more important than what policies or procedures they followed during distance learning.

Giving grace also applies to yourself. Take time to rest, rejuvenate, and unplug when you can. Teachers and students don’t need you rattled and exhausted. They need you to remain strong. Give yourself grace in the process of leading during uncertain times.

Let’s wrap this up

As I finished that morning run, I looked at the empty streets. No buses were running. No lines of cars heading to the local schools. There is an eerie emptiness in this new era of distance learning. But as I reach out to my school friends, and my kids are logging in to connect with teachers, I feel so encouraged by the positivity I see in education leaders and their obvious love for students.

Leaders still set the tone. And as you lead in uncertain times, remember when you remain calm, gracious, and patient, you influence the emotions of your students, teachers, and community members as well. 

Remember that timeless principles still apply, even when timely practices are changing. 

Relationships still matter. Teamwork is still required to accomplish goals. Creativity and innovation are needed to reach others. Planning ahead is still important. And throughout it all, giving yourself and others plenty of grace will help as you run the roads ahead.

References:

Bartlesville Public Schools Twitter Page (@bhsbruin). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://twitter.com/bhsbruin/status/1248416464949760002

Coody, Kimberly. Personal interview. April 8, 2020.

Glenpool High School Facebook Page. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/GlenpoolHighSchool/videos/238300313988643/UzpfSTEwNDcxNjM1NzU0ODc1OToyMjg1NzA2NDE4Mjk5OTY/

Harrison, Eric. Personal interview. April 6, 2020.

Legleiter Chris. Podcast interview. April 1, 2020. https://williamdparker.com/2020/04/01/pmp188-covid-19-update-principal-reboot-finding-balance-continued/

LeGrande, Chris. Personal interview. April 8, 2020.

Parker, Don. Podcast Interview. April 6, 2020. https://williamdparker.com/2020/04/08/pmp189-building-bridges-to-reach-students-with-dr-don-parker/

Simmons, Terrence. Podcast guest interview. March 25, 2020. https://williamdparker.com/2020/03/25/pmp187-reboot-for-principals-part-2/

World Health Organization. Timeline on Covid-19. Retrieved April 10, 2020 from https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/08-04-2020-who-timeline—covid-19

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