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Coronavirus Boot Camp: 4 Distance-Learning Leadership Lessons

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"The best principals are not heroes—they are hero-makers."

-Roland Barth

Today's guest blog is written by Kelley King, who has served as a school principal for 21 years in both public and private schools. Currently, Kelley is associate head of school for teaching and learning and the lower school principal at San Diego Jewish Academy.

As a result of the COVID-19 school closures, brick-and-mortar principals across the United States have been thrown into the deep end of distance learning, with little to no time or training. This learn-as-we-go approach to flipping schools overnight, in a climate of national uncertainty and fear, tests even the most experienced school leaders. Having come through the first two weeks of moving my school's K-5 teaching and learning online, I've seen four valuable lessons emerge for leading through the early days of the transition.

Increase executive decisionmaking
I have always prided myself on my collaborative approach. As my teachers and I planned for a possible school closure (a week before we actually closed and when I still thought that a school closure was unlikely), I asked teachers at each grade level to create a distance-learning plan, within a set of parameters, that they felt would be responsive to the needs of each age group. I resisted imposing a set schedule or mandates, instead favoring autonomy and flexibility, especially given that the range of needs, from ages 5 to 11, is vast. 

As we launched, I realized that many teachers preferred the certainty of directives and expectations, when everything else in their lives was anything but certain. For leaders, that means making more top-down decisions based on incomplete and imperfect information. Even as you lack clarity and confidence, be prepared to need to call more of the shots on schedules, expectations, and more.

Ban perfectionism
Teachers and principals are notoriously perfectionist people. Nothing could be truer about my current faculty. And while constantly striving to be better is a great quality for a teacher on a normal day, it can be a recipe for disaster during a crisis. About five days in, with teachers stretched to the limit, I realized that my foot needed to come off the gas. 

My sense of urgency to survey parents for their feedback on day three, to start tweaking plans based on their feedback, and to drop into every Zoom class possible was well-intentioned but should have been dialed back a bit. As teachers tried to do something they had never done before, they needed my permission to be nothing more than, well ... adequate. Give teachers your blessing to worry less about the parents and to focus more on setting reasonable and compassionate expectations for themselves.

Face the fears
As we all know, it's absolutely heartbreaking to pack up the students and close school in the face of fear and uncertainty. Worried about their students, teachers'mad dash to distance learning was all-consuming. As the world around us was falling apart, we had to get this one thing right. More than ever, our kids, our community needed us. In the midst of all of the frenzy—the lesson planning, the tech training, the parent emails, the Zooms, and the rapid-fire iterations—there wasn't time to stop and acknowledge our own enormous fears. 

The fears about elderly parents, job loss, the stock market, possible exposure, groceries, the future. Fears manifested as sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety, crying, and dark thoughts. I realized that I needed to switch my focus and create more space for empathy and compassion for the human side of this upheaval. Carve out time to meet with every teacher individually to ask, "And how are YOU doing?"

Acknowledge vulnerabilities
Picture your very first day of teaching. Except on this day, all of your students' parents are sitting in the back of the room to observe you teach. Welcome to this altered reality we call Zoom. During most lessons, there is at least one child's parent sitting "in class" or lurking just outside of frame, listening in on the teacher's most vulnerable moment. Of course, it's those early lessons when the audio is breaking up, the kids keep unmuting themselves, and someone's little sister is screaming in the background. 

Many once-confident teachers became filled with self-doubt, insecurity, and dread. Acknowledge the intense vulnerability that this creates for your teachers and talk to them openly about it. Be patient and allow teachers to ease into teaching in this new way over the first few weeks. Let parents know, too, of the teachers' daunting task and ask that they be patient and compassionate.

As Rahm Emanuel said, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do things you thought you could not do before." Today, school leaders find themselves confronted with perhaps the greatest leadership challenge of their careers. What will we learn about ourselves as leaders? What will we wish we would have known? And how, in this critical moment, can school leaders help our teachers become the heroes that they want to be?

Kelley King is also an educational consultant and author of Writing the Playbook: Creating a Boy-Friendly School, Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls: Elementary, and Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls: Secondary. Kelley can be reached at [email protected] or connect with her on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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