By Tracey Smith (@tbsmith01) and Jeff Waller (@jeffmwaller)
When we interviewed successful educators for our book (Ridiculously Amazing Schools), we had one final question. We would ask, “What one piece of wisdom would you like to leave us with?” It was always our favorite and most enlightening part of the discussion. The response from Dr. Jeff Bearden, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, embodied much of what we learned.
He let us know this year would mark the start of his 5th decade in education. In his words, “what made schools great in 1989 is the same thing that will make them great in 2020.” Everything has changed, but the fundamentals of education have never changed and never will. As Dr. Bearden put it, “in real estate it is all about location, in education it is all about relationships.”
COVID-19 has taught us the same lesson history has always taught us, “together we stand and divided we fall.” As we all look to the school year ahead of us, our best strategy is to lean on and trust those around us. We must know that we will be required to innovate and adapt continuously. This will require everyone throughout the school system to be energized, empowered, and creative.
As districts and school systems around the country begin to mobilize, success and student impact will hinge on their ability to empower their principals, challenge them to be better than they have ever been, and trust that they will ultimately succeed in the end. We want to offer six approaches we have learned from exceptional districts as we approach the new world.
Promote Adult SEL. Social and Emotional learning has come to the forefront during the pandemic, but we need to focus on the SEL of our staff. An empty teacher can’t pour into their students what they do not have. How do we help principals, who may be working 12 to 14 hours a day, have enough to fill their teachers’ cups so those teachers can fill their students’ needs? Implement programs and services that support adults in the schools in your district. Promote processes that connect educators, foster a sense of belonging, and celebrate the heroic work that teachers are doing each day.
Establish an environment of collaboration among administrators. Perhaps the best solution to the new challenges we face will come from within. Our experience tells us that the innovative capacity of school leaders is tremendous. We have learned their experiences and lessons should be the catalyst for positive growth and change system-wide. Create a space where the administrators from multiple schools can collaborate.
Additionally, build a culture of support and nurture among school leaders. Whether it be virtual or live, allow your team to discuss challenges and experiences. Make these meetings a priority. It will be in these formal and informal discussions where many will find the courage they need to innovate, overcome, and impact the students they teach.
Empower them to think differently. It is said that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Now imagine you throw a pandemic on top of that, the results could be disastrous. This year is unlike any other and they need to think about it like no year ever. We call it freedom with guardrails. As school leadership navigates the new health guidelines, allow them to get creative in how they will keep kids safe, educate them, and have fun doing it. Recognize that our educations will be under more scrutiny and will likely make more mistakes, but that new thinking will be required as we enter the new world.
Support them every step of the way. Our administrators are courageous and do a lot simply to benefit their teachers and students. However, to sustain that courage, they will need a cheerleader. It takes a lot to walk the halls and be present and powerful every day for 180 days. They are the boots on the ground who will pour into their teachers, but they also need someone to pour into them. Do they have someone they can call for guidance before they make the decision? Do they know they are supported and that you have their backs? Develop processes and systems that are responsive to your leaders and provide the critical support they need.
Foster a playful spirit. Play is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships exciting. It brings vitality and resilience to relationships and it can heal resentments and divisiveness. It allows your teams to feel comfortable and safe with one another. These relationships will enable educators to be vulnerable and maximize the meaning and productivity derived from their connections. These relationships will be the difference in our ability to navigate the current challenges. Motivate leaders to foster a playful spirit to do whatever is possible to make each day memorable, positive, and fun. Have them create sub-committees within their school with the simple objective of allowing educators to lower their guards and play a little.
Incorporate principal voice. In times like these, there are no sages on the stage. The best we can all be is a guide by their side. Constantly seek the input of principals. Utilize grassroots data gathering to formulate responses and make critical decisions. This type of decision making will allow leadership to find common ground district-wide and move forward together with clarity.
Great coaches have known for a long time that when times get tough, the most assured strategy is to get back to the basics. In education, the basics revolve around relationships and start at the top and permeate throughout the very complex ecosystem of education. In school, a thousand things are happening continuously, and every day and moment is different than the next. The solution is through our school leadership teams. The best thing we can do is everything we can to make sure they are their very best.
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