Educators collaborating.

Mark Linton May 14, 2020

Distance Learning: Educational Leadership Means Putting People First

Mark Linton

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

The coronavirus crisis has created a great deal of ambiguity for educators. As a BetterLesson coach, I have the opportunity to work with and learn from school leaders, teachers, and instructional coaches who have reinforced the value of effective educational leadership during the current school closures. As I reflect on the life-changing events that have occurred over the course of my career, I am reminded of how important it is for school leaders to support others during challenging and changing times. I would like to share a few touchstones I have learned along the way that I believe can help leaders as they work alongside their school communities.

1) As Leaders, We Can Be Lighthouses

We are the lights that ships look to for guidance. The boatmen are weathering the storm, but we’re providing direction. Especially in moments of rapid change like this one, we must provide a common perspective from which to lead, through a clear and concise message that describes how expectations for employees support the school vision. The map for expectations can likely be found in your school or district mission statement. In the school where I serve as interim principal, the district’s vision has three core themes: Be Safe. Be Respectful. Be Responsible. These themes serve as the points of light for all that we do.

Lighthouses are also symbols of hope. They shine a light into the darkness, illuminating places we may not have previously seen. This moment is an opportunity. We get to re-imagine how we “do school” and address topics of equity within our student populations. For example, we have an opportunity to:

  • Rethink the role of assessment: The elimination of grade-specific state exams in many states has allowed teachers to plan with students in mind and focus more deeply on how formative assessments can communicate progress and build student ownership over their own growth.
  • Diversify learning and assessment options: Offering student choice in accessing and demonstrating learning and providing learning materials in hard copy and online formats have become more important due to disparities in family resources.
  • Improve digital equity: Many rural schools have created wifi accessibility on the exterior of their buildings so families and students who do not have internet services can readily access online resources.
  • Deepen connections with families: Like many schools, the rural school where I am working delivers meals to students on a daily basis. While delivering meals, we have established relationships with families that we may have never met before. Faculty and staff members have been working tirelessly to support students within their unique home contexts. Bus drivers have continued to participate (safely) in the essential work of the district, shining a spotlight on their contributions.
  • Experiment with new forms of communication: The PK-6 and 7-12 deans of students do the morning announcements on Zoom and post them to Facebook and the school website. This new form of announcements has created a positive connection with families and community members!

These examples highlight the increased attention being given to inequities that exist within school communities and how schools are attempting to support students in less advantaged home environments. This is a complex, fast-moving moment. We know there is sadness associated with what’s happened. We miss our students and feel bad for our graduating seniors. We must demonstrate empathy for others and serve as beacons of possibilities.

2) As Leaders, We Can Provide Perspective 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on families. Isolation, job losses, forced separation from friends and extended family, and absence from school environments can be scary, sad, and painful. As leaders, we can attempt to put these current hardships into perspective by relating them to other events we may have encountered before. The goal is not to minimize the current crisis but to reframe it and offer hope based on the recovery we have seen.

Like other veteran educators, I have encountered many life-changing events in my career. Visiting students in the hospital, comforting students who have lost a parent, or even attending a former student’s funeral have all been devastating, and reminded me that education is a people business. These experiences also remind me that the changes being asked of educators who are used to being in front of students within brick and mortar buildings have relative importance. As leaders, we can use past experiences to remind ourselves of our community’s inherent resilience. We can persevere and demonstrate the same qualities that proved successful in overcoming past challenges. Reframing and persevering allow us to model the social-emotional skills and strategies that we try and instill in our students.

3) Relationships Are What Matter

I am human. I am tired. I wish I had more answers than questions. Sometimes I feel inadequate as a leader. But do you know what feeds my passion? Seeing the amazing work of my colleagues and the appreciation they are receiving from families. Educators are conscientious and caring and attentive. They are tireless. As leaders, we must take the time to recognize the positive efforts that our stakeholders are making. In the school district where I work, we have tried the following:

  • Show appreciation: The leadership team recognizes the efforts of families on morning announcements, in Facebook posts, and in written correspondence. In addition, we partnered with local businesses to provide desserts and ice cream coupons to faculty members during Teacher Appreciation Week. These gestures were appreciated by business owners who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Spark joy: We invited faculty members to submit a short video of them dancing to an assigned song, which we shared on social media to bring smiles to our students’ faces.
  • Share the burden: We made a list of faculty members and shared the responsibility of calling each person to see how they were doing and if they needed any support.
  • Learn from each other: We conducted an online “thought exchange” with families and community members so they could share their challenges and celebrations pertaining to remote learning. We used this information to create a bulleted reply that was posted online and mailed to all families. Similar to BetterLesson’s Creating and Implementing a Family Partnership Plan strategy, we were also able to use the feedback to adapt our processes and tools to better meet the needs of families.

The community has rallied around the direction being provided by our team of education leaders. Parents, students, and teachers have appreciated an approach that is inclusive, considerate, and that keeps things in perspective. Our leadership team has embraced the collective efforts of the school community, and we seek ways to highlight these efforts.

Leadership is an interesting thing. It requires us to be genuine, but we often have to be guarded. It requires us to be honest, but we can’t always tell the whole truth. It’s lonely even though we are often surrounded by many people. It requires us to take the high road, even during times we are feeling defeated. Educational leadership requires us to shine a light during turbulent times so our school and community can rise above and be better off after they’ve weathered the storm.