(This is the first post in a two part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are the key lessons school administrators have learned from the pandemic, and how will going through that crisis inform your work moving forward?
In my last post, teachers shared challenges they anticipated facing this coming school year and how they planned to respond to them.
Today, school administrators Mike Janatovich, Ryan Huels, Elvis Epps, and Amber Teamann share their answers to a similar question.
Mike Janatovich is the principal of Cuyahoga Heights High School and Middle School, a 6-12 school just outside Cleveland. He is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader and passionately advocates middle-level education:
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of relationships in our schools. Specifically, to be effective throughout the pandemic, administrators needed to work on their ability to listen.
Over the past year, everyone had different opinions, views, suggestions, and ideas of what needed to be done for our students, each conflicting with the other. For the most part, everyone had the best interest of kids in mind when defending their position. As a principal, I realized that I could not make everyone happy, but I needed to understand where parents, students, and teachers came from. Tough decisions led to some people being upset. Stakeholders who were listened to and were involved in the conversation felt like they were heard and understood the why of the decision.
There were instances when after listening to parents and teachers, I completely changed directions on a decision that I made. The more I heard, the clearer my lens became. After listening, if I could not justify my decision, I knew it was the wrong decision. If I could justify it, I would at least explain my decision in the concern of what the person I was working with was sharing with me. As a leader, you cannot be afraid to alter a decision after you receive more information. These instances have allowed me to create deeper connections with students and parents during this pandemic. These connections will hopefully allow me to build a culture of support and focus on student success.
Moving forward, administrators must continue to listen to stakeholders when making decisions. Parents, teachers, and students were vocal and involved during the pandemic because they had a passion for their kids. As schools, we need to continue to make that passion thrive to best support their students. Whether it is programs, curriculum, grading, assessment, or any other decision, we need to create an environment where teachers, parents, and students feel so passionately about our schools that they engage us in genuine conversations. When they do, we must respond. We must listen. If we continue to do this, we will move our schools and students forward.
Ryan Huels is currently an assistant principal at Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Ill., after an extended tenure as an early-elementary classroom teacher. Ryan is an advocate for creating a more student-focused learning environment centered around the principles of positive relationships, restorative practices, and family engagement:
I learned a few valuable lessons as a school administrator that I hope we do not lose sight of once the pandemic is behind us. First and foremost, we valued the power of building positive relationships and looking after the safety/well-being of each other and our students above all us.
The discipline issues for in-person learners at my school plummeted this year, and I have reason to believe that was a contributing factor. We valued our students as people as were just over the moon to have the opportunity to serve them in person that our staff took time each day to make sure they felt loved and supported as they navigated this challenging year. Pandemic or not, making sure kids feel loved and supported should be our number one priority, and I will strive to ensure that doesn’t go back to the wayside when we return to “normal.”
Another powerful lesson that I had always believed in, but was reaffirmed during this year, was being the first line of support for your staff. The best part of my day is the opportunity I get to be out of my office and interacting with students and staff. There were many (almost all) days where we were short-staffed due to quarantines, illness, etc., so I relished the opportunity to help wherever I could in our building—from recess duty, pickup/dropoff, or even the opportunity to sub in every grade P-6 at one point this year. Administrators can drive a positive culture in their building by ensuring their staff feels supported by being in the trenches with them as much as possible. I look forward to jumping in whenever possible, even on days where we aren’t short-staffed.
Flexibility with scheduling was something all in the field had to adapt to with new health requirements, some/all students learning remotely, and many of the staffing issues I mentioned above. Too often, we get caught up in past practice or rules, some of which may be less flexible than others depending on your agreement with the teachers’ association, but this year, we found ways to break decades-old practices as they relate to scheduling and the work environment. We had a shorter five-hour school day this year, and one could argue our local assessment data weren’t any worse than in years past. What’s more, our discipline referrals plummeted, and our staff felt more refreshed with the extra time to plan and collaborate. Why do all of those things have to go away permanently if the benefits were clear?
Much of the past year and a half was absolutely miserable for all in the field, but I hope we do not take for granted the opportunity to reflect on the positives and continue doing some of the positives that came out of this year.
Elvis Epps is the principal of Lake Worth Community High School in the school district of Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Fla.:
When the pandemic was on the rise across every state in the nation, school leaders were informed that all schools would be closed; we didn’t know what to expect or which way to turn. We know that we had to pivot from the plans we already had in place to plans that took us so far off-course that many of us could not believe where we were going. If there’s one thing I can attest to is that many veteran school leaders found it very hard to adjust to the new remote orders for teachers, students, and administrators had to follow.
Looking back on the past 18 months, I realized that I discovered leadership practices about myself. First, I quickly learned all I could learn about online learning when it came to high school students and their teachers. I knew that I had to take on a different look. Many of the veteran educators on my campus had never taught online and had never explored the many options that Google Meets and Google Classroom had to offer. Another instructional practice that came to light was that most of my staff knew little about the difference between synchronous and asynchronous presentations.
School leaders had to rely heavily on district leaders to provide funds and support with electronic-devices distribution. Once we received the electronic devices, we had to develop a plan to get them in the hands of our students. My school district ordered roughly 70,000 Chromebook laptops to meet the learning needs of students who transitioned to online learning. After a year and a half of teaching online, the district’s technology department had more than 18,000 broken or laptop devices that needed repair. Handing a laptop to a student didn’t necessarily set them on the path to academic success.
Many of my students are new to the country. The school’s Multilingual Department had to personally contact each student to explain in their native language how to turn on the computer, unmute themselves while speaking, how to submit their class assignments, and how to turn on their camera for class participation.
Another area that leaders had to learn quickly was providing effective instructions to students with special needs. Moving forward, there needs to be more professional development for teachers of students in an exceptional education classroom. Helping teachers prepare their lessons with a strong technology foundation was definitely needed.
School districts across the nation had to improvise when direction from the school district was cloudy and uncertain. School leaders had to reach deep inside their hearts and soul to provide the best education for every student. In my 20-plus years in school administration, I have never faced such stress and frustration. Yet, I knew I had to forge ahead because my teachers, students, and parents counted on me and my leadership experience to pull them through this pandemic. Our teachers needed us to provide a safe environment for them and the students. Our students and parents wanted and expected their education to continue without excuses.
I learned how to pivot at a moment’s notice to keep education at the center of the school’s focus. I refused to allow my focus to shift from that. There were several instructional and leadership practices I implemented that will continue throughout the coming year. School leaders should continue to lean on each other in tough times. We never know when we have to rewrite our narrative for achieving student success. I know that I am a better instructional leader because of my outstanding support staff and administrative team on my campus. Together we can do more when we work as one.
Amber Teamann is the director of technology and innovation in Crandall ISD, a fast-growing district outside Dallas:
During the pandemic, the part that I’ll never take for granted again was the flexibility of our campus staff and students when pressed with no other options. I saw teachers, reluctant to be “on,” who were comfortable in their “lane,” who weren’t technology experts become just what our students needed. I saw curriculum streamlined, parents appreciative, and nurses become heroes.
Ultimately, what I’ll be taking forward is a renewed sense that we all are adaptable and more flexible than we give ourselves credit for. Education doesn’t have to look the same way it always has in order to grow our students and connect with our families.
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