Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

What It Takes to Be a ‘Crisis Principal’ in a Hurricane

During a disaster, school leaders often double as first responders
By William Sterrett — November 27, 2018 4 min read
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Wilmington, N.C., was ground zero during Hurricane Florence—the late summer storm that crippled much of the East Coast and whose effects are still being felt in its schools and communities. As someone who works to develop the next generation of education leaders in Wilmington (and across the state), and a former principal myself, the impact of the storm and its aftermath reminded me and my colleagues that we are not just preparing educators to become principals, we are preparing them to become crisis principals, even shelter principals. We are mentoring school leaders not just to be instructional leaders, but also first responders who will oversee cleanup efforts, comfort traumatized community members, and help rebuild communities.

Before the arrival of the hurricane, local schools closed in anticipation of the storm’s impact. Some became designated evacuation shelters in order to serve the needs of those displaced by the severe weather. At the north end of Wilmington, our middle school principal Maggie Rollison welcomed residents and their pets to her building before the storm landed. As people sheltered and the storm intensified, a roof drain broke, causing significant flooding. As water streamed down the hallways, Rollison and her team evacuated several hundred residents and first responders from her school to another shelter.

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A few miles away at Codington Elementary School, Principal Graham Elmore was responsible for transforming his school into a medical evacuation center. Weeks after the storm, his office still housed a cot for a rotation of school administrators who were coordinating relief efforts and overseeing long-term shelter residents. And elementary school principal Maria Madison had to send her students to two other schools; Principals Sam Highsmith and Jayne Kiker were at the ready to receive Madison’s students at their schools. These are just some of our school community’s stories.

VIDEO: Sterrett sat down with Principals Elmore, Highsmith, and Madison to talk about their experiences and the road ahead for their facilities, teachers, and students.

Whether it’s a violent storm or another unexpected crisis, school leaders—be they veteran or first-year—play a critical role in managing their school communities and helping them heal. Rebuilding isn’t just about getting the campus running again, it’s about acknowledging the difficulties and providing opportunities to process what’s happened.

In my work, I have found that school leaders can help their teams weather a storm by considering this guidance:

Listen to the stories. When staff and students experience a crisis, everyone will have a story to tell. In the aftermath of Florence, school superintendent Tim Markley encouraged principals to listen to their communities upon their return to school. Carving out time to listen can be challenging for busy principals, but this exercise builds community support and empathy.

Share the successes. From sharing alerts to highlighting the work of principals in shelter schools, principals should leverage social media by sending encouraging tweets and updates. This is exactly what Markley and his district-level staff did during Florence to keep the community informed of the real-time efforts. Schools are often the focal point of a community. School leaders should embrace that reality.

About This Package

In this special Commentary package, current and former school leaders share insights from how they managed and recovered from some of the most difficult—and often unexpected—circumstances of their careers.

This special section is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.

Read more from the package.

Focus on rebuilding the learning community. It is not just the roofing and physical structures that will need repair. After a prolonged absence, you will need to work with your teachers to rebuild a sense of classroom culture, take time to re-introduce expectations, re-establish routines, and find time to interact with the learning community. This will help to strengthen the school culture.

Work together as leaders. In times of crisis, principals need to rely on each other for encouragement and help. By checking in on each other, offering resources and advice, and simply being available, principals can support each other during stressful and uncertain times. Rollison described how she learned practical ideas from colleagues, such as a post-trauma family roll call that helped track families and identify their needs. First-year principal Elmore felt supported by other school leaders who shared their updates and encouragement. Kiker saw her middle school’s welcoming of another school’s students as a real opportunity to work on vertical planning, a conversation she had long wanted to facilitate.

Support the teachers and staff. In my role as an educational leadership professor, I like to remind our aspiring leaders that the best principals never forget that they are also teachers. Principals must be action-oriented, model lifelong learning, and have a listening ear. After the storm, Rollison shared with me that in times of crisis principals “have to put on our classroom teacher hats” and keep the focus on what’s best for kids. And while the focus is understandably on students, teachers and staff also carry burdens and must cope with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

School districts across our region, state, and the nation regularly face major weather events, raging fires, school shootings, and more. We must be mindful of the many challenges principals confront and support their leadership every way we can.

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Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as In Times of Crisis, Principals Lead the Way

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