School & District Management Opinion

Pandemic Isolation Damaged School Culture. Here’s How Principals Can Reset

After returning to in-person learning, schools had 3 important difficulties to overcome
By Darin A. Thompson — October 04, 2022 4 min read
conceptual image of teacher remembering why they became a teacher
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Since the return to in-person learning, school leaders throughout the nation have experienced a return that was not so normal. We found ourselves needing to support staff members who had grown accustomed to operating in isolation, were losing their sense of creativity, and were frustrated with the profession.

To mitigate these concerns as a school principal, I centered my focus on helping my staff reconnect to their “why” and recommit to our school concept of one family. I will share how I did this and what other school leaders can do to assuage the ongoing aftershocks of COVID-19 school closures.

As a school principal, I have observed three ways that the return to in-person learning after our long isolation has damaged school culture. I witnessed some teachers operate in isolation, despite coming back with great intentions and excitement. I witnessed many teachers return with a decreased sense of autonomy and creativity in their approach to practice. And I witnessed teachers become extremely frustrated with the persistent uncertainty and increasing demands to minimize the spread of the virus during the return.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

The dilemma of teachers not all moving in the same direction collaboratively was a consequence of the professional isolation during the height of the pandemic. As we know, the pandemic forced many of us to retreat, confined to our homes for almost an entire year. Many educators could only engage with their colleagues and students virtually during the 2020-21 school year. This compromised our human connections and ability to operate collaboratively.

Upon the return to in-person learning, a great portion of teachers’ job functions became prescribed. District leaders and administrators across the nation attempted to make the return more palatable by scripting protocols and prescribing plug-and-play instructional routines. This approach had the unfortunate side effect of stifling the creativity that teachers bring with them, giving teachers less autonomy over their work in many school divisions.

Moreover, teachers’ roles shifted tremendously with the return to in-person learning, which often caused them to lose hope in being able to keep up with the evolving demands and sustain themselves emotionally. Layered with an uptick in student disciplinary problems upon the return, many teachers also felt frustrated to the point of considering leaving the profession.

To overcome these specific challenges during this past school year, I made it my mission to help my staff reconnect and recommit. Reconnecting was simply a call to realign our behaviors and practices with our collective “why.” Recommitting is about realigning our efforts as one family and team. This approach served to reset, rejuvenate, and reorient everyone around the fundamental elements of our school’s vision, mission, and purpose.

This approach allowed everyone in our school to avoid resorting to operating in isolation.

To implement this goal of reconnecting and recommitting, I first considered the fact that the need to reorient staff to interacting and collaborating with each other was critical upon the return to in-person learning. I placed a heavy emphasis on consistency and being stronger together in my messaging in staff meetings, in routine communications, and through daily interactions. I also intentionally built opportunities for departmental and interdepartmental teamwork into our day-to-day work and decisionmaking.

This approach allowed everyone in our school to avoid resorting to operating in isolation. In addition to addressing this disconnect, this focus on collaboration and teamwork helped curb frustration and made everyone’s workload more manageable.

Next, I nurtured my teachers’ creativity by ensuring that my leadership was not unidirectional. Unidirectional leadership or authority is hierarchical in nature—all decisionmaking and problem-solving rests with administrators exclusively. I opted instead to use a transformational leadership approach, welcoming the ideas and solutions of those I serve. This transformational approach helped to empower teachers by encouraging innovation and independent problem-solving.

Finally, to curb frustration, I emphasized that staff must exert more energy on solutions rather than becoming engulfed in the existing problems. As a school, we fostered a culture of encouraging courageous dialogue about staff concerns to avoid the proverbial toxic break-room discussions.

I encouraged everyone to speak up directly in a professional manner rather than let concerns fester. We then addressed those concerns together with a deliberate mindset of seeking solutions or understanding. Ultimately, this strategy to curb dissatisfaction made the workplace feel more tolerable and sustainable for teachers.

Fully embracing a theme of reconnecting to the school’s collective “why” and recommitting to each other as a team can help address what many school leaders have witnessed in the aftermath of pandemic school building closures. These efforts have certainly resulted in a necessary transformation at my school.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Principals Can Reset From Pandemic Isolation


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