School & District Management Opinion

Advice for Principals: Remote Teaching, Competitive Colleagues, and Lots of Uncertainty

By Sharif El-Mekki — July 22, 2020 6 min read
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The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki—take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to AskAPrincipal@educationweek.org and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

I was just promoted to an assistant principal over another colleague who I know was vying for the same job. She now wants to join me in several school leader professional-development opportunities that I had planned, even though there are no other open leadership positions at our (small) school. Should I be worried that she will try to undermine my new authority? How do I make sure she’s still an ally and a friend, even though I know my becoming administrator will change our co-working dynamic?


Sharif El-Mekki: I would encourage channeling your colleague’s desire to grow and lead in a very specific, focused area. Is there a specific initiative or component of the work that this colleague can own, lead, and take pride in? Are there projects and initiatives that you both can collaborate on and learn from each other, develop trust in the process?

Professional-development trainings, program development, and staff management for this colleague can be tailored to only focus on a specific initiative or component of the work. This will allow for that colleague to still remain fully engaged, continue to develop, and feel valued, while keeping the channels of leadership clear and contained.

The main thing is building trust, leading with a sense of humility, and demonstrating curiosity. Establishing trust is always the responsibility of the leader and is absolutely vital to a healthy organization. I have always enjoyed rereading books and articles by the business-management expert Patrick Lencioni when I encounter opportunities to double down on establishing trust and other critical aspects of organizational culture in our committees and schools.

It seems that we will be required to rely on remote learning again this school year for part, if not most, of the year. One of the struggles for the teachers in my elementary and middle school has been attempting to gauge student learning in their new learning environment. Some that typically struggled in the classroom performed much better than expected, probably due to a parent or caregiver providing more one-to-one instructional support. Others that typically struggled at school performed worse largely because they have no support from a parent or caregiver at home. The teachers became creative with assessments, but it was still difficult to assess authentic learning. How can we provide equitable instruction when home situations vary so greatly?

El-Mekki: You raise great points that are consistent with what I have heard from across the country. Some students who were struggling in brick-and-mortar schools fared better with remote learning; other students had a more difficult time without the routines, relationships, and support of a physical school. It is also important to remember that some of the students who are doing well with virtual learning feel that the flexibility at home, the familial relationships, and routines might be optimal for them.

Establishing trust is always the responsibility of the leader and is absolutely vital to a healthy organization."

Before assessing authentic learning, we have to ensure that all children have access to technology and reliable internet service. Some children and families may need help achieving basic technical proficiency—logging onto websites, accessing instructional tools, submitting assignments, and more.

This summer will be crucial to looking backwards and forwards to solidify the training, supports, and professional development for everyone who is invested in our students’ learning this fall and beyond. Helping students identify where they are stuck or struggling and how to mitigate it when and if it happens.

At the organization I lead, the Center for Black Educator Development, we moved our annual summer programming for young Black and brown students online this year. We are using Zoom to assess our students’ literacy rates by sharing our screens then asking the students to read the letters or respond to comprehension questions. With numeracy, students may be asked to look at the shared screen and walk us through how they would solve the problem or use whiteboards or sheets of paper to show us their work in the moment. And we are working to incentivize student engagement through virtual celebrations, certificates, and random drawings for home-delivered gifts.

Be sure to provide a range of ways to disseminate content, receive student input, and offer support. For example, instruction can be delivered by both synchronous and asynchronous learning methods. Teachers can offer virtual office hours for additional support or invite students to breakout rooms or office hours for targeted assistance. Content should be as accessible and as varied as possible, including visual media, recorded content, translated content.

Students should also have a variety of ways to share their learning, including through audio recordings, video presentations, written form, and graphics.

Be mindful of students who need specialized service. What specific supports would help them? What professional development does their case manager or teacher need to support their caseloads in there reimagined ways?

Lastly, communication and outreach with families must be consistent and purposeful. Families are eager for clear, transparent feedback to support their children. Ask families for their feedback, as well, about how they are experiencing your school’s teaching, assessments, and overall virtual experience.

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How do we make sure there is equity, when so much feels out of our control? I want to communicate to my school’s staff that our students must be at the center of each decision we make, but I’m at a loss when we can’t even reach every student right now.

El-Mekki: Mobilize efforts to try to reach every single child. It is an all-hands-on-deck situation. We must never forget how many different people within and outside of schools support students. Often what may appear to be transactional interactions can be quite meaningful. Think of the support staff and cafeteria workers, for instance. Think about whose smile or encouraging word students looked forward to every day. What if these workers received stipends for checking in on “caseloads” of students with whom they have great relationships?
Are there stakeholders who can support fundraising for technology, call banks to connect with families, or support virtual trainings to access technology or offer support?

Be very thoughtful about the penalty measures imposed on families and students who have not engaged during this time of closure: Will kids fail the course? Will they be retained? Will parents receive unfavorable notices? Sensitivity to how we hold our students and families accountable during this time is within our realm of control. We should also be very open and transparent about our willingness to be held accountable by the families we profess to serve.

We have the ability to balance accountability with support and sensitivity. This is equity. This is the path toward educational justice. Let us not squander the opportunity.


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