School & District Management

Principals Went Through a Lot in the Last Two Years. Here’s What They Want to Hang Onto

By Denisa R. Superville — November 05, 2021 4 min read
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Expanded technology. New staffing options. More community partnerships. A new window into students’ lives outside of school walls.

Those are some of the developments elementary school principals saw over the last two tumultuous years, a new research brief finds—and they’re among the changes these school leaders would like to hang onto going forward.

The findings from the American Institutes for Research and the National Association of Elementary School Principals are drawn from 36 focus groups of elementary principals in 43 states in April through June of this year about what they learned along the way, and what they hope will stay once some degree of normalcy returns.

Among the things that elementary school leaders anticipate will stick around:

  • Continued use of remote technology for use during snow days or natural disasters; in meeting with students and teachers; for remediation and enrichment opportunities for students; and for professional development.
  • New staffing models that may include contracting for specialized employees, such as school nurses and counselors, or having a centralized district staffer teach a class across multiple schools.
  • New schedules and changes to daily routines prompted by COVID-19 safety measures and mitigation strategies, but broadly applicable. For example: reduced time in hallways and increased time in the classroom for students, and more attention to student attendance.
  • Continued partnerships with government agencies and community organizations. Principals, for example, worked closely with health departments on contact tracing and many hosted forums on politics, race, the economy and how to be better advocates for students and families, according to the brief.

“As school-level leaders, principals have to handle the challenges that come their way, but they showed this degree of optimism that I think helped to move schools,” said Matthew Clifford, the research and technical assistance director in education leadership at WestEd, who co-authored the brief with Jane G. Coggshall, a principal researcher at AIR.

[My school] picked up students from other schools that are doing remote [learning] . . . So my classrooms have gotten larger since the beginning of the year, and that's not always the best for the staff morale.

Clifford’s team started trying to get principals’ perspectives on the challenges and takeaways due to the pandemic, but soon realized they couldn’t separate the impacts of the pandemic disruptions from the social, political, and other events that were washing over the country.

Learning from adversity

The principals said they found new opportunities amid the challenges they faced in the past two years.

For example, while COVID-19 mitigation strategies like contact tracing and social distancing were often difficult and time- and staff-intensive, they had some positive spillover effects. For example, disciplinary incidents dropped because students were not as close to each other, class sizes sometimes were smaller and recess was much more organized, according to the brief.

Expanding technology use came with its own hurdles. Principals felt the way technology was deployed didn’t quite serve young students and those with special needs. Some principals struggled getting enough technology specialists to help staff and students. And despite efforts to deploy laptops and iPad to students, cell phone and broadband service remained a challenge in some areas. Still, principals reported that they spent less time in in-person meetings, improved student management systems, and that some students thrived with remote instruction.

When you have to social distance, you lose the natural connections that happen between students and teachers, and we know that connections and trust are the basis for best practices in education. So we had to use technology.

But while the partnerships between the community and schools generally led to greater mutual understanding, that was not always the case. One principal reported that the principal’s role in contact tracing led to being seen as “an arm” of the state health agency.

While principals would like some of these innovations to stay, that’s not always in their control, Clifford said. Expanding the use of technology, for example, depends heavily on whether districts provide school leaders, staff, and students with specialists to troubleshoot and improve professional development for teachers. It also relies to a large degree on improving broadband access, especially to rural areas, a task that would fall on federal policymakers, Clifford said. And districts and labor unions have a big say in how staff is deployed in schools.

The focus group results also revealed that principals who had built a strong school culture and had shared leadership models before the disruptions were better able to pivot and weather the challenges.

“How do you distribute school leadership in a way that will make the school more resilient if, for example, a principal leaves, or if ... we have to move to online learning and people are more geographically distributed?” Clifford said.

The brief, Leaders in the Tumult: Schooling Innovations and New Perspectives From a Year Interrupted”, is the first of three coming from AIR about school leadership during 2020 and 2021. The two remaining briefs will look at how the principalship changed during that period and policy implications and solutions.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Principals Went Through a Lot In the Last Two Years. Here’s What They Want to Hang Onto


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