Friday, March 20, 2020

The First Year Principal in the Age of the Coronavirus

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post entitled, The Coronavirus and the First Year Teacher, which spoke to the challenges of not only being a first year teacher, but being a first year teacher in the age of the Corona Virus.  While writing the blog post, I couldn’t help but think of the first year principals out there and the added challenges to leading a staff and students in the age of the Corona Virus. Because of my passion for the principalship, I decided that I would follow up my teacher essay with this 2nd essay specifically written for first year principals and to first year principals. I have therefore chosen to write the remainder of this essay in the 2nd person.

Hey new first year principal out there, think back on those years as a classroom teacher when it hit you that you wanted to one day be a principal. You subsequently enrolled in grad school and worked diligently toward your administrator’s degree while simultaneously continuing to teach at a high level in your classroom. Eventually, you became an assistant principal and you served in that capacity effectively for as many years that you did, while keeping your eye on your ultimate goal – the principalship. You yearned for this opportunity for several years. You desired the opportunity to one day lead your own school. You knew that given the opportunity, your school would ultimately achieve at high levels if you were just given an opportunity to lead. Now you are in your leadership position – the principalship – and you have been in your new capacity since the school year began. And now, in the month of March, 2020, something called the Corona Virus has unexpectedly become a part of your leadership reality.

Before I go further, let me say that I was a 4th year administrator (principal) on September 11, 2001. What a day, week, month and remainder of the year that was for me. Graduate school had not prepared me for leading a school in the midst and aftermath of a terrorist attack in the next state over (I was in northeastern New Jersey) that created a school and community-wide panic. I had to figure this out while on the job and in real time. In other words, in school leadership, you must always anticipate the unexpected. It’s simply a part of being an effective school leader.

As you read this essay, you are a first year principal of an empty school building. Your students and staff are at home and social distancing is the order of the day….but you still have to lead. In fact, your school community is counting on your leadership…they need your leadership more than ever. Although your school is closed for an indefinite period of time, school is in session via the various forms of distance learning. As the leader of your school, you must demonstrate leadership from afar…remotely while simultaneously holding everything together. Again, nothing could have prepared you for this as nothing could have prepared me for 9/11, but at the end of the day, leaders must lead. To that end, I would like to offer the following five suggestions:

1.  Your home has essentially become the main office / principal’s office of your school
Said differently, the leadership of your school is coming from your home. As challenging as leadership is within the school, it’s certainly a greater challenge when you are leading from home. To that end, if you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest that you guide your staff via the utilization of  ZOOM meetings or some other webcam platform so that you can communicate with them regularly beyond emailing them. Because your staff is working with your students daily, it is my contention that you schedule ZOOM meetings with your staff daily or every other day. They don’t have to be long meetings but that face-to-face time is vital toward enabling you to communicate with your staff from afar with everyone hearing the same message while they simultaneously hear from one another and communicate with you. Of course, your meetings with staff do not need to be confined to whole staff meetings. You may want to meet with departments or grade levels or whatever works best toward leading your school remotely. I might add before moving on, that communication with parents during these challenging times is vital as well. This must be encouraged of your staff but just as you and your staff are using ZOOM to communicate with each other, you and your staff can do the same with communicating with parents. It is doable and it speaks to the way that the Corona Virus is going to significantly change the way that schools utilize technology to communicate.

2.  Compliment, encourage, praise and support your staff as often as possible
Remember, you have staff members who are “all in” with meeting the needs of your students but at the same time, like most people, they are dealing with their own anxiety. They have their own families to contend with. Some of them have young children while others are caretakers for elderly parents. When they have a principal who’s knowledgeable and understanding of their various realities in the wake of the Corona Virus, it makes the work that much easier to endure. They can have the confidence that you have their back.

3.  Get as much feedback from staff about your students as possible
Like your staff, your students have their own anxieties. This experience is new to them as well. There has been a complete disruption to life as they previously knew it and it is affecting them in a variety of different ways. Moreover, you can never lose sight of the fact that so many students in schools were “dealt some of the most difficult hands imaginable” at birth. Home life is a challenge for so many students and now it is compounded by the uncertainty of the Corona Virus. Through your staff and as best you can, you need to be able to learn of the current emotional well-being of your students.

4.  You’ve got to maintain personal balance
Despite the challenges, obstacles, pressures and demands of leading a staff and students in the age of the Corona Virus, it is incumbent upon you that you maintain personal balance. Yes, your students and staff need you to lead effectively from afar, but they also need you to be stable and strong throughout the process. In other words, your teachers have you to lean on and your students have their teachers to lean on, but who do you have to lean on? While you are working through your own anxiety relative to the virus while simultaneously leading your staff, balance must always be a priority. Your emotional and physical stability matter. You can never lose sight of your own self-care which includes how you manage and utilize your time.

5.  You are not in this alone
As a first year principal, never lose sight of the fact that you are not alone. You may feel alone from time to time but the reality is that you are not. You have principal colleagues that you can and should lean on in your district. Reach out to them and ask them what they are doing and how they are coping. Perhaps you know principals in other districts. Again, reach out to them as well. Social media and particularly Twitter are an asset that I didn’t have when I was a principal. There are thousands of principals on Twitter and they are definitely talking about coping with the Corona Virus. If you are not on Twitter, I strongly suggest you get yourself a Twitter account and start the process of having access to principals nationally and worldwide via becoming a part of various professional learning networks (PLN’s). Also, don't forget your assistant principals. They are your foot soldiers and you must strive to get maximum productivity out of them as well during this challenging time. Your communication and collaboration with your administrative team must be ongoing. In addition to your administrative team, you have various support staff; both certificated and non-certificated...utilize them. You are not in this alone.

There’s so much more that I could say and would like to say, but then that would become a book. Just know first year principal…you are not alone. Every principal in the U.S. is grappling with the Corona Virus. Incorporate the suggestions I made above and seek out information from others and in the end, you, your students and your staff will get through this and it will ultimately be a thing of the past.

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