With the fall semester just weeks away, what are the biggest challenges that America’s K-12 school leaders face? What should be the top priorities for superintendents and principals? How can they take care of themselves? And what lessons can they extract from perhaps the worst crisis ever confronted by American schooling?
In the following “roundtable in print,” four Teachers College experts in the field of education leadership grapple with these and other questions:
You’ve all either been school leaders and/or worked closely with them to provide them with instruction, support and coaching. What are they going through right now?
Barbara McKeon: There needs to be greater awareness and recognition of the role that principals play and the stress and anxiety of this job. What I hear from principals, every single day, is that they are holding on to a thread; this thick rope has just shredded. They’re exhausted. They’re in the trenches 24-7. They’re trying to take care of their families, trying to take care of their teachers and trying not to get sick themselves. In one way, I can imagine what they’re going through, because I have had that job — but I did not have it in this pandemic.
[Read profiles of three principals currently enrolled in TC's Cahn Fellows for Distinguished Principals, which McKeon directs. The stories are on Crystal Jones, Principal of Atlanta's Beecher Hills Elementary School; Joshua Long, Principal of Chicago's Southside Occupational Academy High School; and Brett Schneider, Principal of New York City's Bronx Collaborative High School.]
Ellie Drago-Severson: I coach a lot of superintendents and principals, and many confide that they are under overwhelming amounts of stress every day — they have no downtime or breaks. They may have experienced that at other points, but this is truly the ultimate adaptive challenge, because no one knows what’s going to happen, and because the sense of responsibility for other people is so heavy. One New York City principal told me recently that she sees her job as making things safe for students, parents and especially teachers who want to be warriors. Listen to that language, it’s like a battleground! So it’s really time to feel and express even more gratitude for these people.
Jeffrey Young: I have so much respect and admiration for everyone in this pressure cooker who has to make potential life-and-death decisions beyond their area of expertise. Superintendents and principals aren’t public health experts. There are so many competing interests and stakeholders, and while we’re used to working with that — that’s what this job is — it’s so intensified right now and so much more emotional. The school board members who must act on a superintendent’s recommendation are not a body of public health or education experts. They’re citizens who care about kids and are trying to give back to their communities. And then there are the educators, who are the most dedicated professionals in the world. You know how sometimes when kids are little, they bump into their teacher in a supermarket and their reaction is, Oh, my God — I thought you lived in the school? But of course, in reality, teachers are just people. They’re just trying to figure this all out, and they have the same fears, hopes and dreams and aspirations as everyone else. It’s terribly unfair for some people to say that teachers don’t want to go back to work — of course they do, it’s what they love; they just want to feel safe, the same as everyone else.
You’ve all seen the news reports and statistics. Do you feel it’s safe for schools to reopen — even in a state like New York, where the numbers are down?
Brian Perkins: There are conditions for reopening that are not being equally met. Consider the amount of space per child. There are some schools out there that might have the resources to accommodate no more than 10 kids per classroom, each with six feet of space around them, but those are mostly private schools. Your typical public high school, especially in a poor neighborhood, has too many kids and not enough space. So principals in those schools have to come to grips with that decision.
It’s the same with ventilation. Throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, for example, there are school buildings that were built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration that don’t meet today’s standards. Many are in poor shape, with no air conditioning.
And there are also many cases where kids take public transportation, where they’ll be packed in like sardines.
So this crisis has really spotlighted, in much the way that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath did, the issue of high-income versus low-income schools.
Jeffrey Young: There’s a balance that’s needed between gathering the rational information to make safety plans, and dealing with the emotional domain of people’s fears. The testing, cleaning, the setting up of buses, and desks, the staggering of schedules — it’s all critically important. But you’ve also got to think about safety in a bigger sense. Safety is a feeling, not a policy. We don’t feel safe because a policy or set of practices tells us to, but because we have a gut-level sense that it is okay to be somewhere. Parents and caregivers send their kids off in the morning, put them in someone else’s care and expect to see them again at the end of the day. And 99 percent of the time, that’s what happens, but sometimes it doesn’t — I dealt once with a terrible bus accident where I learned that lesson. And if the fear of something like that takes hold — well, it’s really hard to talk someone out of their feelings. Likewise, it’s hard for students to learn math or English if they are not feeling safe and secure; that’s why we pay so much attention to school culture and climate and why we focus on more common safety threats such as bullying. There are actual conditions that are conducive to effective teaching and learning; it’s not just about putting educators and children in the same space and hoping for the best.
Ultimately, it’s like Maslow’s pyramid [the hierarchy of human needs proposed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow]: \Without safety and security at the bottom, you can’t get to the top. And I believe that reassurance is a highly oversold commodity in the U.S. It’s what we do when we don’t know what else to do.
What about in rural schools? Are they by definition safer?
Brian Perkins: Generally, up to this point, there have been few to no coronavirus cases in rural schools. That is because during the shutdown, no people were going out of those areas, and no people were coming in. But that’s not the case now. Even in fairly isolated areas, there are no longer many places where people are not crossing boundaries, so we really don’t have any bubbles anymore.
This crisis has really spotlighted, in much the way that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath did, the issue of high-income versus low-income schools.
— Brian Perkins
For example, in the Summer Principals Academy in New Orleans we have principals from Hidalgo County, Texas, which is a very rural area. But they have a large number of students who are from Rio Grande Valley, which is major point of migration from southeast Texas into Mexico. So you would overestimate your safety if you think you’re protected by being in a rural environment.
If you were a school superintendent or principal, what would you be most focused on as the fall semester begins?
Brian Perkins: I’m very concerned about the psychological resiliency of children. A lot of people are being very optimistic, and I’m for being positive, but we have to be realistic [about the] the psychological and emotional effect this will have on these kids — their sense of hope, aspiration and motivation, and the feelings of wellbeing that come from feeling that adults around you have got it covered. I told my 20-year-old and 17-year-old, I said, “we failed you guys… we allowed something to happen that could have been avoided. The things you’re having to worry about are life-and-death issues, which are not the same things I was worried about when I was your age. And with younger children — how do we provide for their development and growth? Those children are not going to get, say age six, back again.
We have to be realistic [about the] the psychological and emotional effect this will have on these kids — their sense of hope, aspiration and motivation, and the feelings of wellbeing that come from feeling that adults around you have got it covered. I told my 20-year-old and 17-year-old, I said, “we failed you guys… we allowed something to happen that could have been avoided.
— Brian Perkins
Jeffrey Young: There’s a tremendous need around psychological well-being, and a lot of it goes to equity issues of race and class.
Often, we hear a lot from families who have access to the political system, and less from families who don’t have those privileges. We can’t just wait to hear from people. We’ve got to push out of our comfort zones and initiate conversations with people who for one reason or another have been historically marginalized by society.
We need to pay extra attention to the academic, emotional and social needs of disadvantaged kids. The really pressing needs are among the children who aren’t eating at home or not getting support or are alone or can’t adjust to the technology needs. You can’t separate out the social and emotional from the academic. They reside together, within each human being.
What about instruction and learning, and the issues that moving online have created?
Barbara McKeon: Many parents have not been satisfied with the quality of online instruction thus far, and it’s not clear what kind of support students will have this fall if, for example, they opt to stay home and do online learning only. As we’ve seen from stories in the media, one way that parents are responding is by creating “learning pods,” in which families group students together in a home for private instruction either by a teacher or a tutor. I think we’ve only just pulled the pin on the grenade on that one. I think we’re going to see it across the country. And I think it’s going to create an equity tension that we certainly don’t need right now.
Brian Perkins: Again, I think the results have varied enormously by region and the resources of different schools. It’s one thing to argue about the quality of remote instruction — but across the South, large numbers of children haven't been able to benefit from digital remote learning because, in many instances, it simply hasn't happened.
What I hear from principals, every single day, is that they are holding on to a thread; this thick rope has just shredded. They’re exhausted. They’re in the trenches 24-7. They’re trying to take care of their families, trying to take care of their teachers and trying not to get sick themselves.
— Barbara McKeon
What do you think the long-term impact is going to be?
Brian Perkins: I don’t know that we are going to understand that for at least a few years. And some people take that to mean that teachers are not good, but that’s not really it. Teachers are making a tremendous effort, but working online, often without guidance is incredibly challenging. A teacher in Florida invited me into her online sixth-grade classroom, and the kids you could see were looking around, doing something else, while others just had their cameras off. She said, ‘I do the best I can.’”
What is the most important skill for a school leader right now?
Ellie Drago-Severson: We all have different internal capacities for managing ambiguity and complexity, and that’s true for leaders of all kinds. A lot of my work centers around what I call leaders’ “ways of knowing.”
Some are instrumental knowers. They are very concrete in their orientation to the world and don’t yet have the capacity to stand in others’ shoes, which feels very important given the diverse and uneven effects of the current moment on students and families across the country. Others are more socialized in their knowing – meaning more interpersonal and relational in their approach. They’re more concerned about caring for your needs — and it can be harder for them to take a strong stand or to make unpopular decisions.
Then there are other leaders who are more self-authoring. They have an internal bench of judgment that guides their decisions and actions, and while this feels so needed today amidst all the uncertainty, remaining open to change and different ideas feels more important than ever before.
And then there are self-transforming adults who realize that their way isn’t necessarily the best. They seek to grow themselves and others. They want to explore the paradoxes and inconsistencies. This kind of listening and interconnection may be essential to the path forward.
One way of knowing isn’t necessarily better than another — though leadership does demand certain internal capacities. There’s so much hopefulness in understanding development and how to support each other’s growth—on the inside. Who we are today doesn’t limit who we can become with proper supports and challenges. We can grow bigger selves. So I think that, especially right now, we need to have compassion for all leaders and try to understand their different needs. While leaders with all ways of knowing bring strengths to their work, we need to build leaders’ capacity for change by creating brave spaces for critical conversations about the things that guide their assumptions. What runs you as a person? What runs your thinking and feelings? Is it a rule? Is it yourself? Who do you go to, what do you need to reach outside of yourself, what’s your emergency brake when you bump up against your own limitations?
We need to build leaders’ capacity for change by creating brave spaces for critical conversations about the things that guide their assumptions. What runs you as a person? What runs your thinking and feelings? Is it a rule? Is it yourself? Who do you go to, what do you need to reach outside of yourself, what’s your emergency brake when you bump up against your own limitations?
— Ellie Drago-Severson
Jeffrey Young: Districts are going to have to develop the capacity to pivot because everything could change on the second day of school.
The key thing is to let go of the hope for some lightning bolt of clarity. That’s a delusion. We can’t conceive one plan that we think is perfect and stick with it no matter what happens. We can only build our capacity to adapt. We don’t have the ability to change the virus, so it’s really about developing the agility and flexibility to adjust to changing conditions.
Districts are going to have to develop the capacity to pivot because everything could change on the second day of school. The key thing is to let go of the hope for some lightning bolt of clarity. That’s a delusion. We can’t conceive one plan that we think is perfect and stick with it no matter what happens. We can only build our capacity to adapt.
— Jeffrey Young
What is the pandemic teaching us about leadership?
Barbara McKeon: In the Cahn Fellows program, the principals in our cohorts typically identify a real-world project focused on something they want to change in their schools — say, math performance. They’ll introduce a new strategy, but they’ll also link it to the impact of their own leadership development on the outcome. They gather data — perhaps a survey of their staff, conduct an action inquiry, and measure results.
But since March, the whole world has, in essence, become a real-world project. We also made a decision to move online, and that shifted the kind of work our principals have been doing with us. Their original projects have changed, and during this time we’ve provided them with a lot of information about leading during the pandemic, as well as with virtual forums for support from their Cahn alumni mentors and from each other.
The focus is really “leading in a crisis.” What leadership skills do I need to get my community safely and smartly through this crisis?” The lens shifted, and in essence this cohort became the COVID cohort for us. They are going to be our research base, and we’re going to be working with TC Professor Carolyn Riehl and two of her students on a study of the changes in leadership and best practices that have emerged, along with ways that systems reform is being enacted.
We have a fertile ground here right now. If we can make lemonade out of these lemons to make systemic changes, starting at the leadership level, then we have a really great opportunity.