The conclusion of this past school year due to COVID-19 virus and now the uncertainty for the 2020-21 school year is unlike anything educators have seen before. Things change daily, maybe even hourly, so planning is challenging to say the least. The impact this has upon educators is significant as they recognize the trust that society puts upon schools. Educators not only care for children but help them learn skills and life lessons to prepare for their future. As this summer has started and progressed, I did the only thing I knew how to do – learn, listen and get ready to apply concepts to the school community that I serve. My key learnings came from various books, blogs, podcasts and twitter chats. Each has shared different perspectives. While all are valuable , there are differences but they also come back to a common theme – the CULTURE of the organization is the most important thing. As a result, here is my perspective on what to focus on for 2020-21. Specifically, I share how a leader can develop culture within their school community to set the foundation for a successful year.
It is all about people
I believe schools can do amazing things this year despite not having enough resources, being asked to change on a moment’s notice and dealing with many society impacts. It is important for leaders to remember that growing as a school community is not about “changing someone” but focusing on the “growth” of the staff member. This simply means that instead of focusing on what someone “cannot do or what they lack”, I strive to focus on “what skills they do have” and help them to excel in those areas. This puts a focus on finding value in each staff member and then empowering them in ways they can contribute to the school community. When staff feel valued, they will be their best version of themself that can positively impact students and our families. I believe the single greatest indicator about the health of a school is the quality of the relationships of the people within it. If the students, staff and parents feel an investment or purpose for the school, then they are willing to overcome any obstacle and stay together. It is even more important this year to still focus on how can we move forward as a school and that includes all stakeholders.
Create and sustain strong relationships
It is a true challenge to find the time to get around to every staff member and create strong relationships at the beginning of a year. It is important but challenging due to so many time constraints. The same can be said of the importance of connecting with students and families. This is always important but even more important since everyone has been away since March. This seems insurmountable when I think about the number of people I should strive to connect with. But I have learned that it is not the quantity of interactions that create the relationship, but rather the quality of those interactions and how authentic or real I am in the conversation. As Susan Scott wrote in her book “Fierce Conversations”, “The conversation is the relationship”. I admit when I first read that idea I was unsure of how relatable that would be to leading a school. However, there are many topics that we will be visiting with staff, students and families about this year that will provide opportunities to reconnect and sustain the relationships. This includes the continuing impact of COVID, how our school continues to work on equity and creating an inclusive culture and then supporting teaching/learning during COVID. This will not be easy conversations but important ones. To help ensure that I am listening and developing the relationship through the conversations, I will strive to:
- Be present in the conversation (ex. do not look at the clock) and keep my eye and attention on that person and topic.
- See the topic from their perspective and check for understanding.
- Provide praise (if appropriate) to the person in an authentic way with specific examples.
- Seek ideas on how they can help our school community and their level of investment moving forward.
These conversations cannot happen all the first week back, but it will start there. They will continue throughout the year. I have reminded myself that when we are talking about building relationships, “It is better to go slow and build relationships built on trust.” This helps a leader during the critical conversations or ones that may be uneasy. If everyone knows that all involved have the same common purpose, then we can work through the challenges together. It takes time to get to know people, but we must “know people to grow people” as it relates to our culture.
Leaders set the tone
I do believe that leaders include everyone within an organization, not just the administrators or teachers, but students and families too. However, it is also true that it’s human nature for people to notice what the “leaders” are doing and typically people will turn to the administrators first. As a result, I remind myself I need to:
- Model the behaviors that we want from everyone.
- Show that it is okay to make mistakes and admit when I am wrong.
- “Be the thermostat not the thermometer” – in other words it is important to be consistent, calm and purposeful with our work.
- Empower others to lead and give them chances to grow within our culture.
- Take care of the staff and show how much I appreciate their efforts. As Simon Sinek points out that “Yes, we want to develop leaders and from that we know that someday they may leave for greater leadership opportunities but it is also true that you should treat them so well that they do not want to leave”. Very well said!
Create learner centered learning environments
To help create our schools that are future focused and developing students with skills so they can be successful in any career, then as leaders we must Develop capacity within others to lead our schools (shared leadership). Our schools will be their best when all stakeholders take pride in creating inclusive learning environments and have opportunities to share, lead and create change. We use the approach of “fail forward” and give teachers permission to try new strategies or lessons that create higher engagement and skill development. During COVID, no matter the format of our school, we must give our teachers support for thinking outside the box and try new ways to connect with students to personalize learning. It is also important to get parents involved in our work so they have a better understanding of our purpose. Most importantly, leaders must “be a merchant of hope” for students, staff and families. To me, this simply means to create meaningful ways for staff to remember the “why” they went into teaching and how they do influence kids on a daily basis. This will be needed to help our staff overcome the obstacles and challenges that will occur during this unprecedented time.
Communication is the key
This may be the most important part of uniting the school community during the upcoming year. As I have learned from mistakes in previous years, every action I take (ex. every interaction, every decision and every expression on my face, tone in my voice and body language) conveys my thoughts/emotions to a person. I will strive to be a good listener and set the tone with positivity. Furthermore, these interactions either earn trust or erodes trust and it is up to me to communicate effectively. For the challenge for the upcoming year, the communication must be:
- Real and authentic
- Connect to the people
- Relate back to our school’s purpose
- Build culture
In summary, each summer I strive to think about how to best move our school forward for the upcoming year. This year is true like other years. However, this year is unlike no other due to so many external factors and the constant unknowns. As a result, as a leader I must adapt and understand what I must do differently to be the most effective leader for our school community. True leadership occurs by intentional efforts when you work extremely hard to improve your own learning and that leads to an improved school. I encourage all leaders to reflect upon your prior experiences as you planned for the coming school year. When you can self-analyze your past and what you learned from those experiences, it allows you to focus on spending the right efforts towards the important work of leading others. It is never too late to change or adapt to create something better. We owe that to our students and staff that we serve. Comment below or reach out to me at email@example.com