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School & District Management Opinion

I Teach Aspiring School Leaders. It’s Not Business as Usual

My goal: preparing leaders who are humans first
By Mariama Smith Gray — February 17, 2022 5 min read
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When I asked my school leadership students how they were doing, I realized just how difficult times are for teachers during this latest pandemic surge. I teach a yearlong introductory leadership class to teachers who are aspiring school leaders. At the university, our first day of the spring semester, in January, was the third week of class for local public K-12 schools, and many teachers were already exhausted and overwhelmed.

One student shared that their district closed for a long weekend because of high rates of COVID-19. When parents learned of the shutdown, they took to the internet to criticize teachers for taking a weekend off. “I feel so unappreciated,” the student explained.

Others reported that district homework policies were causing undue burdens. In some districts, a student quarantine triggers a 10-day independent-study contract, a list of assignments for 10 days. With so many students in and out of quarantine, managing the work for absent and returning students has become yet another task on top of teachers’ already-long list of regular duties. While many teachers post their assignments online for easy remote access, some materials aren’t available online. When that happens, teachers have to manually put together individual packets of assignments for each student.

Other teachers said they are rattled by the constant COVID-exposure notifications.

Looking at the sea of stressed faces and hearing their challenging stories—“I’m in IEPs all day until late into the evening,” “I come home and fall asleep from exhaustion,” “I’m quarantining with my child”—I recognized that my role as a university professor is to provide support, clarity, reassurance, and the tools they’ll need to enter leadership well-equipped for this challenging time.

After listening to my students, I shared how I planned to support them. “I’m grateful to be in this program with you,” one student responded while their peers nodded in affirmation. They were temporarily relieved, but I know they’re worried about how to get through the semester with so much already on their plates.

My students’ heightened anxiety isn’t unusual. The pandemic has increased teachers’ stress and decreased their commitment to remaining in the classroom. And many of their leaders are at the point of burnout.

School leadership students need to have a humanizing educational experience so they’ll know how to provide it for others.

My students are watching the educational landscape closely and deciding what kind of leader they want to be. That’s why I’m modeling an abolitionist approach to their leadership preparation. An abolitionist approach takes stock of the current and historical context when making decisions and prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable demographic groups. My leadership students are predominantly white and female educators (teachers, counselors, psychologists, coaches) who serve majority Black and brown communities. They work in districts that have historically underserved those same communities, and with so many demands coming at them, they may be tempted to retreat into old district behaviors—to shrink back and provide less to the vulnerable.

They’ll need to have a humanizing educational experience so they’ll know how to provide it for others. To that end, here is what I’m putting in place this spring:

  1. Essential assignments. Like many other educators, I’m focused on essential learning. All my assignments build on one another and work toward the completion of state and university requirements.
  2. Flexible due dates. I have a generous late-work policy and I email students when their work is missing. Early research into the use of faculty emails to students about missing work or low scores suggest the notifications may increase student grades or retention.

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  3. Connections. I start my class with a 10- to 15-minute check-in about mental health and well-being to model how leaders listen and build community. Taking time to check in and get to know students is associated with increased student retention.
  4. Time for equity work in class and the field. I use in-person class time to deepen students’ understanding of inequity and provide them with the essential tools they’ll need to create equitable schools. I require students to meet biweekly with their coaches and peers to complete fieldwork activities, like facilitating a community-of-practice session addressing an issue of inequity at their site or coaching a teacher in equitable instruction. I hold office hours during this time to support their work.
  5. Diversity of course resources. I use a diversity of resources from theoretical readings and case studies to podcasts and the arts to help students understand the historical and structural factors that reproduce educational inequality. The diversity of resources keeps students engaged and provides flexible ways of learning given the many demands on students’ time.
  6. Local guest speakers. I invite members of the community to develop students’ understanding of the community—its assets, resources, and needs. Because members of dominant groups (such as those who are white or native English speakers) often expect knowledge producers to be like them, it’s important to partner with a diversity of local community members.
  7. Affective learning opportunities. Members of dominant groups often have limited experience with nondominant communities and little understanding about the legal and social institutions that maintain subjugation. I provide affective learning experiences, such as using artistic expression, to reflect on the experiences that have shaped their identities and beliefs. Affective learning has been shown to develop students’ understanding of inequity, ability to reflect on their own circumstances, and empathy.
  8. Reflection. Written reflections are one of the ways students work out their commitment to equity and develop their philosophy of leadership. The writings are a course requirement, and I have developed a reflection rubric that prevents students from parroting back to me what they think I want to hear and pushes them to examine their leadership practices and struggles.
  9. Problem-based learning. I use an array of resources—cases published in leadership journals and books, scenarios based on my own leadership experiences, role plays based on problems that students bring to class—to help students practice and receive critical feedback about their leadership.

A business-as-usual approach to leadership preparation will not serve my students nor their schools. The challenges of both the pandemic and inequity demand nothing less than a fully humanized approach to preparing the next generation of school leaders.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as I Teach Aspiring School Leaders. It’s Not Business as Usual

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