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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Let’s Not Forget the Effect the Pandemic Has Had on Our Teachers and School Leaders

By Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher — May 23, 2021 | Corrected: May 24, 2021 5 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this post misstated the authors of Design Thinking for School Leaders (ASCD, 2018) and Design Thinking in Play (ASCD, 2020).

As we focus our attention on coming out of this turbulent year—the social distancing, the learning loss, and especially the mental health and well-being of our students—let’s not forget the effect that the pandemic has had on our teachers and school leaders.

A year ago, schools pivoted dramatically to adjust to the COVID-19 reality, closing their physical presence and reopening within days online. The education profession turned an aircraft carrier of a sector on a proverbial dime and maintained a needed educational presence in all our lives. Then come August, schools upgraded, up-skilled, and adjusted, to start the year online, hybrid, accommodating wavering or ambiguous direction from officials, to ensure continuity for their students and our children and youth. Terms like “synchronous” and “asynchronous” have become the norm, as learning and adjustments continued. Over the past few months, it’s become apparent, even via the blogosphere, that the last year has also had a big impact on our teachers and school leaders.

Peter highlighted the impact that this past year is having on school leaders. 42% of Principals Want to Leave Their Position. Will We Let Them? (April, 18, 2021). He also highlighted the recent findings from a National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) report that “42 percent of surveyed principals indicated they were considering leaving their position. The percentage of principals planning to move to a different school was higher for those in high-poverty schools and rural communities.” Forty-two percent represents a 110 percent increase from a previous national average of 1 in 5 principals who leave the role every year. Principals indicated working conditions, including lack of decision making, support, and well-being, across their schools as some of the reasons that impacts their decisions to leave their school. This report reflects a similar tone in recent months where the well-being, mental health, stress, and anxiety of our educators and school leaders have been an unsettling but growing trend.

There is growing concern inside and across our teaching profession. Teachers need support. But school leaders also need support. As one moves up the educational career pyramid, one’s peers and colleagues often become fewer and fewer. Teachers have colleagues across a grade level, subject area, or a school. Principals, unless they are part of a district or professional network, tend to have fewer colleagues to turn to, connect with, and learn from. Often school leaders stand at the top of their school community pyramid taking care of others they lead and the schools they nurture.

Organizations have tried over this year to pivot and adjust to these concerns starting professional learning communities or piloting support networks for both teachers and school leaders. But what has been a remarkable observation during these efforts has been the untapped need for such support, especially with our school leaders. Many school leaders have admitted that they were flying solo with little or no support systems. School leaders are giving support to others, but they are too frequently left to their own devices for their own well-being.

Reopening schools next fall in a post-COVID world will require an increased focus on trauma, mental health, and well-being across the entire school and its community. Many schools are already putting in place programs and processes for dealing with increased anxiety and uncertainty. Schools are also focusing attention on learning loss—though as many have already outlined quite succinctly, the latter won’t occur until the former is addressed.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding that is now being sent to states and eventually on to districts will undoubtedly help. But if we are sage, we will understand that student mental health will be impacted by staff and school leader mental health and well-being. Often the best-intentioned plans and programs are curtailed by not taking care of our caregivers, or worse, assuming that they can just take care of themselves.

Education is very much an upstream industry. What occurs upstream flows or trickles down to impact everything else. School climate is dependent upon the attitude and actions of the principal more than anything else. Classroom culture is reflective of what and how the teacher teaches. If we want to see improvements in student growth, learning, and well-being, we need to focus attention not only on the students but also on their teachers. If we want to see growth, learning, and well-being improve amongst our teachers, we need to focus attention on our principals and school leaders.
This falls directly into the hands of district leadership and superintendents (who themselves need support). Why superintendents and not the principals? Because education is an upstream industry.

Teachers look after and care for their students. When a teacher receives a gift of money, what do they do? They spend it on the students. Principals look after their teachers. When they receive funding or resources, they spend it on their staff. Who supports the school leaders? Superintendents.

Most educators won’t tap into available funds to support themselves, and they need their supervisors, their caregivers, to support them.

Well-being is a prerequisite for learning. Well-being is a prerequisite for teaching, and it’s a prerequisite for leading. If we want to come out of this year strong, if not stronger. If we want to create thriving schools. If we want to grow flourishing communities, then we need to support well-being of all our students, staff, and perhaps particularly our school leaders.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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