The Principal Is In: A New Advice Column for Principals

—Vanessa Solis/Education Week Source Images: Getty

Taking on trauma in the fall, grading during remote instruction, and non-tech-savvy teachers

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to the new principal-advice column, “The Principal Is In.” The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever. In a new, recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals will share their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Twice a month, Sharif El-Mekki and Tamara McWilliams will alternate by answering questions about the complex ins-and-outs of running a school during these uncertain times.

Sharif El-Mekki has served as a teacher and administrator in three schools serving in west Philadelphia across his 27-year career. He has also helped to launch efforts like The Fellowship—Black Male Educators for Social Justice, Philly's 7th Ward blog, 8 Black Hands podcast, and the Center for Black Educator Development.

Tamara McWilliams is a 28-year veteran in education. She has taught English in middle school and high school and has served her district as a principal on the elementary, middle, and high school campuses. She is now the assistant superintendent of curriculum and testing in Ozona, Texas.

This week, McWilliams kicks off the series with the first set of questions.

Have a question? Send it in to the [email protected], and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

I am expecting that my students are going to be dealing with a lot of trauma from the quarantine experience and a summer full of stilted plans. What should trauma-informed teaching look like when schools reopen, especially if we have to continue with remote instruction in the fall?

—Courtesy of Tamara McWilliams

Tamara McWilliams: Your question addresses the true spirit of educators as we realize that we cannot begin to address content without first supporting the social-emotional needs of our students. Our experiences around the country during the quarantine have been as diverse as our school systems. As educators, our best starting place is communicating with our parents and community leaders.

Some of our school communities have experienced trauma from families affected through sickness and death, some have had a greater impact from income and job loss rather than illness itself, and others have experienced trauma from racial violence, political upheaval, and natural disasters.

A clear focus on communication gives educators a place to start to support students and families as we prepare for the upcoming school year in whatever form it takes. As a principal, I would tell my students many times a day that my first job is to do my best to keep them safe. This is another good starting place for our staff to have conversations with students and parents as we return to the classroom: Explain the protocols we have in place to keep them safe, and, in turn, ask for their concerns and input.

As we look ahead to the possibility of providing continued support during remote instruction, the first few weeks once schools resume will be a critical time to contact families and develop a strong line of communication.

During the spring quarantine, my school wanted to be in touch with families two to three times a week, so we divided the student body up among our teaching staff, and everyone was assigned the same 30 families for the duration. This gave each family the same contact person at the school to be in touch with each week, and it allowed us to know what was going on with our students and their families during that difficult time.

"People will ask for help, and they will accept help from people they trust. But it takes work to build that trust."

Looking ahead to next year, I think we will do this again so that each child has not only their teacher communicating with them about instruction but a staff member checking on the family for support as well.

How do you best encourage risk taking and redesign in an uncertain time? Our school would benefit greatly from being inventive, but it’s hard to ask teachers to invest when they do not know what the payoff will be. Should I be teaming my teachers up to encourage collaboration? I’ve considered, for instance, pairing a teacher who is strong with tech tools and online teaching with a teacher who is weaker but can contribute in the planning, grading, contacting families, etc., but I worry that could lead to hurt feelings.

Tamara McWilliams: Teachers are innovative and hard-working professionals who try to improve their craft with each passing year. In the face of our uncertain instructional future, your commitment to balancing this innovation with a respect for the diversity of your staff demonstrates the inclusive nature of our profession.

As you are moving ahead, however, you may need to first look back to reflect on the positive and negative lessons of last spring.

One of the things my staff will do when we return to prepare for next year is to reflect on what went well and the obstacles teachers faced during remote instruction. This time of self-reflection would be a good starting point for staff conversations as a whole and in small teams for redesign and innovation moving forward.

About This Series

Welcome to the new principal-advice column, "The Principal Is In." The job of a school leader can be an isolating one. In a new, recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Sharif El-Mekki and Tamara McWilliams—will share their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to the [email protected], and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

Read the full series here.

Gaps in technology skills were certainly evident in our staff last spring, but I was heartened to see teachers immediately begin networking at warp speeds with colleagues who had those skills. Tech-savvy staff members put together “how to” videos in record time, and staff members sent out SOS signals to solicit help uploading activities or creating student links in their online platforms.

People will ask for help, and they will accept help from people they trust. But it takes work to build that trust. We took several hours during the first few days of our current summer professional development to build relationships among staff members. As the year progresses, we can draw on those relationships, and I can feel comfortable pairing staff members together that have strengths that complement each other.

The challenge of transitioning in and out of remote instruction in the coming year or creating a hybrid model to meet the needs of family and community can work to make us better teachers and stronger learning communities. Students will learn by our example of modeling innovation and teamwork in the face of adversity, and those life lessons are certainly as important as algebra.

More for principals

Our district chose to use a one-size-fits-all approach, which gave students passing grades even if they didn’t do the work. Is there a way to help the students who have minimal internet or parental support to get the help they need, while still holding the other students accountable? What about the student who can only access the internet through their mom’s phone (and mom takes her phone with her to work)? I feel like we’ve opened a Pandora’s box of grading.

Tamara McWilliams: Your question echoes conversations of educators from all over the country about how to move forward with grading and remote instruction as we balance logistics, compassion, and expectations. There are so many variables involved in our remote-instruction decisions. Some districts have 1:1 technology capabilities. Some districts have devices for students to check out. And some districts depend on students having their own device for online learning.

But before we start back to school—however that looks—we should recognize that all of our students are going to be behind. We should be making decisions about promotion or retention by looking at the whole year, especially the data that were most reflective of the learning that took place during face-to-face instruction. In our district, for instance, we have several data sources that we use with students at the beginning and middle of the year, as well as formative assessments week in and week out. We have already had several data meetings about student progress to identify student deficits before we began remote instruction. These will be our tools to use to assess how we will move forward with students.

We should also be taking time now as a staff to make decisions about remote- instruction grading moving forward. We should be prepared to communicate those standards to parents and students as soon as the school year begins, so that we all have a clear plan for remote instruction instead of the reactive decisions that had to be made during the spring semester.

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