Something that brings me great joy as a principal is being in classrooms to watch teaching and learning in action. There is a certain thrill to seeing all the instructional planning, peer collaboration, and teacher coaching come together in a successful learning experience.
There is also a sense of accomplishment when I can see and feel teacher efficacy growing during high-quality instruction.
All of this stopped during the pandemic. Teachers worked diligently to revise curriculum to fit into new remote or hybrid schedules. Department leaders and principals worked to support teachers to salvage the instructional time we had with our students.
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When we were not doing this work, principals and assistant principals were busy with managing COVID-19—contact tracing; testing; communicating with faculty, students, and parents; writing new policies for mask-wearing; and, in general, trying to maintain a healthy community so that school could continue in some way in service of our students and our families.
At our school, we implemented a hybrid schedule as soon as it was safe to allow us to focus on student well-being in person. It also allowed us as adults to retain a semblance of teamwork as we confronted new challenges every day. And, for the most part, we were successful.
Now, we are halfway through our second year “back,” and a lot has changed. Since the beginning of the pandemic, my school has experienced a 50 percent increase in faculty (from 60 teachers to 90) and a 97 percent increase in our student body (549 to 1079). So, in addition to the shifts the pandemic imposed on us, we have also been contending with significant shifts in school operations, staffing, and rebuilding a once strong sense of community and connection. That’s not to mention regaining our academic focus and preparing students for their lives beyond high school.
But as we continue to learn how to put the pieces of our community back together, I finally have time to take stock of the leadership lessons those tumultuous past few years have taught me. Chief among them was the importance of prioritizing professional development and collaboration, even in the busiest of times.
In January 2022, after allowing the first semester to be devoted to adjusting back to in-person instruction, we returned from the holiday break to a COVID surge in our city of Chicago. We had planned to begin the semester with a teacher professional-development day focused on collaboration, but we had to pivot fast to address this surge.
The professional-development day was quickly adjusted to include our administrative team running voluntary COVID testing, a local pharmacy holding a booster clinic in our conference room, and another testing organization providing additional COVID testing in another part of the building.
All of this while proctoring makeup final exams for the many students who hadn’t been able to come to school for finals while sick with COVID.
It would have been easy to shelve our professional-development focus on collaboration until things slowed down, but we knew that the sense of community and ability to work closely with colleagues have been essential to our school’s success. So, instead, we added a second day for professional development.
We used that extra time to explore how we could work together to reengage our COVID-fogged students who, for good reason, were happy just to be in the physical presence of their friends all day. We began that professional-development day with whole departments and then transitioned to course teams. We asked teachers to use their student-achievement data to consider how aligned instruction was across course sections.
We also asked ourselves this critical question: Given the data examined, what are the implications for the second semester instruction across the course team? In response, instructional teams revisited their curriculum units and assessment plans with each other and discussed how they could further collaboration to strengthen both. We then set aside time a month later to continue this work.
It was during this follow-up professional-development time in February that a group of teachers identified a need for revisiting backward-design curriculum planning. We decided together to engage with an outside consultant to offer voluntary end-of-year curriculum training and then offered a paid opportunity to continue curriculum work after our teacher contracts ended. Eighty-two percent of our faculty joined this training.
That curriculum work, paired with strong teacher leadership and administrative support, is what allowed us to start the 2022-23 school year strong. We have continued to prioritize professional-development time and days to give teachers more collaboration time.
With any luck, pandemic school closures are in the rearview mirror, and we can continue to put more of our efforts into reconnecting with one another and developing deeper levels of trust and connection across our growing faculty and staff. This is the real work of schools that helps us engage students to become the caring, intelligent individuals our society needs.
It is up to principals to prioritize this work and rebuild so much of what was interrupted by the pandemic. Together, with intentional effort and focus, the pieces will fit back together.