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 have to self-quarantine for the next two weeks, which means trying to run a whole school from a tiny room in my house. I’ve worked hard to be a source of strength for my teachers these last few months so that they can be strong for their students, but where can I turn to for strength myself? I want to know how other principals are staying sane right now!
Tamara McWilliams: How do we stay sane? How do we stay centered? First of all, thank you for your dedication and focus on providing for your staff needs and for their strength. I didn’t know when I became a principal how much responsibility I would feel for not just the safety and the daily logistical needs of the staff and students but also for meeting their social-emotional needs.
So how do we have enough left over for ourselves? Self-care is a huge topic, but I’ll narrow it down to a few suggestions that have worked for me: daily quiet time, connection with other administrators, and a tiny bit of exercise. Several years ago, I began to wake up 30 minutes early so that I could spend time every morning with my own thoughts and concerns before the world interrupted me. Our world as a school administrator is very loud with many details, not to mention the unexpected twists and turns that each day brings. I wake up early so I have time to check in with my concerns, be master of my thoughts, and take time to sort out my concerns for my family, my community, and my job.
I have a daily journal that has mediations to guide my writing. It amazes me how often I am able to put into words my concerns. When I realize how much concern I am carrying on my shoulders each day, I can set those burdens down for a bit to put them in perspective. If your faith tradition encourages prayer or if you practice meditation, this gives you time to engage in those activities before the demands of the day steal self-care time away from you.
As you quarantine and work in your tiny room, take time for you."
Another tool that I have for keeping my balance is to be in touch with other administrators each day through a group text or email. We check in with each other often and can share concerns. Keeping our balance is key for educators. It’s like the oxygen mask on the plane: Yours has to be in place before you can help others.
As you quarantine and work in your tiny room, take time for you. Remember that the school will continue to run, and people can feel supported through a text, a phone call, and an email. Find the self-care practice that gives you your center each day and give yourself the gift of that time.
As my school district is establishing lessons for teachers to address the civil unrest and trauma around the country, it seems like protecting the feelings of our (almost all-white) staff remains the priority. But I’ve been meeting with young people this summer and know that they are not going to wait for teachers to be ready. I’ve heard a real sense of urgency among students for their schools and classrooms to actively be anti-racist. How can I prepare my staff?
Thank you for asking us to discuss a difficult topic. Educators love children, and we want them to be respected and affirmed by our schools; acknowledging that they do not feel respected and affirmed is a difficult reality. Culturally responsive classrooms cannot be created in a single professional-development session or even a long faculty meeting. They are the result of a process and continuous work by staff, students, and school communities—but we will never get there if we do not start.
Begin at the beginning. We ask students to do things outside of their comfort zone in education quite often, including speaking in front of their peers, competing in an event, or reading out loud in class. Culturally responsive teaching may be outside of the comfort zone of your staff, so that’s where to begin the conversation and the work to build a school that honors students of color: Acknowledge that the process is difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary.
Work to put a plan in place that is focused, intentional, and has a clear timeline. There are many resources to help you work with your staff and students to put your plan together. The end-result transformation will not be evident instantly, but the evidence that the work has begun will be.
Do you have any advice on communicating with my staff during what’s looking like remote instruction for the long haul in my district? Staff meetings over video chat don’t have the same collaborative feel as in-person meetings, and I don’t want to feel like communication only flows one way.
Educators are in the people business! We are educators because we know that relationships come before rigor. Most of us are not experts at remote working yet, but growth mindset will prevail in the 2020-21 school year.
How can we get better at remote staff meetings and collaborations? How can we make them not a one-way flow of communication? We can begin to think differently about the structure and agenda of our meetings. Perhaps some of our meetings can occur in smaller breakout groups so that there is the ability to have more engagement among staff. We may need to pull heavily on our professional-learning-community practices to get our teachers working in virtual collaborative groups, so that the professional learning and relationships continue to grow.
As a principal, I would often have staff members present a teacher tip at faculty meetings to share professional practices. We could do this in virtual meetings as well. Principals know the amazing, innovative things that are happening in our virtual classrooms. Let your meetings reflect that knowledge by having teachers contribute to the learning community. Ask your teachers what they need from your staff meetings.
Structure your agendas to meet their needs in this new environment. Let them know that you are working to meet their needs and that, as we get better at operating virtually, we will continue to adjust our meeting practices.
We can’t be afraid to think creatively about all aspects of our world. Education doesn’t look like it did a year ago, and we are in a learning curve like the world has never seen. The virtual environment will not stop educators from collaborating, building relationships, and sharing ideas in the effort to give our students the very best we have to offer.