School & District Management

Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 02, 2021 6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
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The pandemic has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, even as it’s offered many of them valuable lessons in school leadership.

Presiding over this lengthy and ever-evolving crisis has left many school leaders questioning their ability or desire to continue leading. In a May 2020 survey, 42 percent of principals polled indicated that they were considering quitting their jobs, a 110 percent increase over past years.

But despite the threats, many educators stayed put—more than in pre-pandemic times. An estimated 470,000 public-education employees quit their jobs between April and August of 2019, compared to approximately 300,000 in 2021 during the same months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And those who stayed often are determined to apply what they’ve learned from the experience. Principals who Education Week interviewed talked about how they managed through the crisis, and how their responses could serve as important lessons long after the pandemic ends.

Don’t assume too much, listen more, and ask what parents and students need

Daman Harris, principal at Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., thought he knew what his community members needed when schools closed their doors in March 2020.

Wheaton Woods has a high concentration of poverty among its families, many of whom are recent immigrants. Harris, assuming that food insecurity was a top priority, partnered with a community resource to provide dry goods to families once a week. While some families welcomed the assistance, the need wasn’t as widespread as he anticipated.

“We were doing things based on what we believed folks needed, based on stereotypes and what we took for historical knowledge,” he said. “But we didn’t ask.”

That strategy, Harris said, was a carryover from a pre-pandemic decision model that he has since reevaluated.

Recently, Harris began to make a more concerted effort to listen to his school’s families. He conducts virtual parent coffees over Zoom where he asks participants directly what they need. The school also employs community liaisons available to students’ caregivers during arrival and dismissal throughout the week.

Through these multiple efforts, Harris learned that families’ top needs included “wraparound supports” like physical access to medical services and opportunities for students beyond what the school day provided. Armed with this knowledge, the school helped families organize around these needs and shared their wish list with local politicians. They listened, and now the school has a county-sponsored after-school program that focuses on academic help, group games, and sporting activities.

“We need to make sure we are plugged in a way that honors the needs of the community we serve,” Harris said.

Get to know the people in your community, and meet them where they are

Understanding the nuances of a school community can make an enormous difference in effective communication. The pandemic offered countless opportunities for school leaders to act on this critical lesson.

Some were more successful than others, as revealed by one of several research briefs based on an analysis derived from interviews with 120 principals’ responses to the pandemic. For instance, one principal surveyed recounted how, early in the pandemic, the school district wanted to learn which families were in need of computers. It sent an electronic message to gauge the need, failing to recognize that families without computers would be unable to respond to the inquiry.

Another principal surveyed demonstrated a better understanding of her audience. She displayed signs with school announcements at local businesses frequented by families, knowing they’d be more likely to see them there than on a school website, as many didn’t have access to computers.

Principal Jennifer Halter has served at two different schools in Clay County, Fla., during the pandemic, and learned quickly that she needed to respond differently to each. While the schools themselves were just a few miles from each other, their community members were far apart in their response to pandemic safety protocols.

In the school that Halter led during in the first part of the pandemic, students and faculty unequivocally followed the district’s mask mandate, which was in effect through the 2020-21 school year.

She then became principal at another school in the same district, less than two miles away.

Halter describes her new school community as very rural and conservative. She estimates that about one-third of her staff and students choose to wear masks. In July 2021, the Clay County School Board approved a plan that recommends but does not mandate masks in school buildings for the current school year.

“It’s a different belief system,” said Halter of her new school community, adding, “I model what I expect. But I’m building trust, so I don’t broach the topic [of vaccines or masks].”

Lean on your teachers’ and staff members’ passions to maintain your priorities

As school leaders confronted a host of new challenges during the pandemic, such as revised and ever-evolving student schedules and health and safety protocols, it could be easy to let go of priorities considered nonessential. Harris, in Montgomery County, Md., found a way to hang on to initiatives that he cared deeply about.

“In the flurry of [pandemic-related] activity, George Floyd was no longer in the headlines. It would have been easy to let anti-racism slide,” he said, referring to the Minneapolis man whose murder generated nationwide activism over the issue of police-related killings.

Harris leaned on the passions of his staff to stay the course.

“I said to our staff: Hey, anti-racism is still a focus. How can we make it fit into what you’re already excited about?” Already, Harris says, a few staff members have stepped forward as early adopters of these efforts.

Harris sees his role in developing an “anti-racist infrastructure” within his school building as multi-pronged: establishing a vision for the work, finding any available funding for materials or payment, carving out time in the school schedule and promoting the efforts, and supporting staff members who take on the work. Recently, Harris has set aside some Title I funding toward these efforts and extended the duration of staff meetings by 15 minutes to allow time for content that connects to the school’s anti-racism outcomes in some way.

Having a supportive district makes it easier for Harris to champion these efforts. “It publicly promotes a culture of collaboration, equity, and cultural proficiency. Therefore, I had no concern about articulating a vision, allocating funds, or allowing my staff to partner with high school students [on anti-racism initiatives],” Harris said.

Recognize your ‘sphere of control’

The pandemic’s unpredictability and its impact on how to plan and what to do was a common source of frustration among both school leaders and their staff.

“My staff is used to me talking about our sphere of control,” said Halter. “We can’t control a lot of things, like students doing their work. But we can call students and check up on them.”

She also recognized that personally thanking staff members for their commitment was something within her control that she could do to help alleviate their anxiety and discontent.

“You need to support your staff; that’s what the job’s all about,” Halter said. “One thing we have learned, as educators, is grace.”

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