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Michael Sonbert on Strategies for Leading During Coronavirus

The coronavirus has forced school and system leaders to figure out how to educate, feed, and support kids who aren't in classrooms; become instant experts in distance education; and plan for what's next—all while coping with the now-familiar litany of personal frustrations. I reached out to RHSU favorite Michael Sonbert—founder of Skyrocket Educator Training and successful author of dystopian fiction—for suggestions on how leaders can, as he puts it, "win the shutdown." Here's what he had to say.

The current school shutdown has forced school leaders around the country to face unprecedented challenges. Those include everything from ensuring all students have access to technology, to launching online learning, to lunch distribution, to managing staff remotely, and to effectively communicating with students, families, and staff as information at the federal, state, and local level is often changing, contradictory, and provided late. We've seen heroic leadership from schools across the nation, but those that really stand out are looking beyond the fires that need to be put out right in front of them and planning for a future of schooling that might look very different than it did before.

This is by no means a small task. Many educators navigating these challenges are also trying to home school their own children. Personally, I have a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old at home. My 4-year-old has autism as well. While I work virtually all day, my wife, who's not an educator, has been running two separate curricula (one for the 6-year-old and the same one for the two younger ones) while also providing my 4-year-old with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Our story is not unique.

Then there's the economy and the virus itself. Both of which are wholly uncertain. Both of which are anxiety-producing. Both of which have already taken a tremendous toll on us collectively. Both of which could lead, long-term, to life being very different than it is now. 

Despite all this uncertainty and newness (and in some cases, tragedy), I've seen many leaders persevere to provide their students and teachers with what they need to be successful in the immediate term through the shutdown. Their work has been both inspiring and essential during this time.

And, I've also seen school leaders who are taking a different approach. These school leaders are doing what I call "winning the shutdown." They are forward looking and focused on training teachers, setting and tracking goals, high-level execution, and ultimately, returning from the shutdown, not months behind or even not having lost anything, but ahead of the game.

These leaders are using the relative quiet of the current situation—quiet meaning, despite the challenges, there's no arrival, dismissal, lunch duty, transitions, school discipline, substitute teachers, and so on to manage—to get better at their jobs. To make teachers better at their jobs. And to support students in being better writers or readers or mathematicians when this is over.

One leader, whose school was shut down on a Thursday, ran online professional development for her staff on engaging students virtually on the Monday after this. Other leaders are holding morning huddles every day for all staff to provide academic updates, to proactively problem-solve, and to ensure staff is connected to each other. Another leader has set goals around completeness and the use of academic language in student responses and is training her teachers to provide precise and meaningful feedback on that work. What I love about this is that many of her teachers, even at this point in the year, unfortunately weren't able to spend much time really digging into student work as they were still focused on routines, directions, and building classroom culture. The quiet of the shutdown is now allowing them to provide students feedback in a way they haven't all year.

One of our mindsets at Skyrocket is that Execution is Everything. It's not about the thing, it's about how well you do the thing. The shutdown has proven this to be the case. The school leaders who set goals for distance learning, student responses, and communicating with families; track progress to those goals; use their school vision and values to drive their decisions; delegate responsibilities; hold everyone accountable to meeting expectations; coach teachers and set agendas and outcomes for meetings; and who send the message that, despite the fact that no one wanted this, this is an opportunity to improve and to be great, are winning the shutdown. For these leaders, their what may have changed but their how hasn't.

While being stuck in our homes may be a short-term event, online learning may not be. It's possible that the virus spikes again next winter, and we'll be right back here. It's also possible that when it's time to come back to school, thousands of families will insist that online learning continues, either because they've become very accustomed to it or because they're afraid to send their children back to an environment where they're surrounded by hundreds of people. Schools may not have a choice but to support distance learning in the longer term if this is the case. Either way, the schools and school leaders who win the shutdown will be more set up to serve both their students who are back in schools and those who continue learning from a distance.

One of the things I like about Sonbert is his ability to be brutally frank and also optimistic. That's no easy feat, but we need it. As Renee Zellwegger put it so pithily in "Jerry Maguire," "I think in this age, optimism is a revolutionary act." Optimism is so powerful because it is a statement of belief in possibility. I'm moved by those leaders and educators who have risen to this challenge, finding new ways to teach and support their kids. And now we need to bring that same energy to planning for tomorrow.

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