Opinion
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
Illustration of woman looking through keyhole.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

    See Also

    Illustration of leaders planning a course of action
    Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Rudzhan Nagiev/iStock
    School & District Management Opinion School Cannot Go on This Way. Education Leaders Need to Step Up
    Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia, November 10, 2021
    5 min read
  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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management 'It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can't Ignore the Climate Crisis
Schools have a part to play in combating climate change, but they don't always know how.
16 min read
Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
School & District Management Some Districts Return to Mask Mandates as COVID Cases Spike
Mask requirements remain the exception nationally and still sensitive in places that have reimposed them.
4 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Chalk drawings from last August remind students to wear masks as they arrive at school.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
Three female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You Can't Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First
Education leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to make the sweeping changes schools really need.
Renee Owen
5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
wildpixel/iStock/Getty