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Administration & Leadership

Reflections From a Principal’s Semester of Teaching

Direct, regular interaction with students can support a principal’s understanding of the nuances of their needs. 

June 16, 2021
Wavebreakmedia Ltd IP-200911 / Alamy

At the start of the 2021–22 school year, when school leaders like me were overwhelmed with the challenge of managing hybrid, in-person, and distance learning, this suggestion in my Twitter feed from another principal stopped me cold: “This year the majority of school admin in our country will be trying to lead in a form of education we’ve never taught... through obstacles the likes of which we’ve never faced. If administrators want to have a real impact, we should teach a class this year.”

Teach a class while leading a school during a pandemic? And in my third year of leadership at this school?

No way.

But my peer’s words lingered in my mind while we were finishing our hybrid master schedule, which required an additional teacher in a course called Academic Coach. It focused on developing skills to support students’ learning in the hybrid model, while also developing coping skills and an awareness of postsecondary opportunities. I took a deep breath and joined the building’s instructional coach to co-teach for a semester; together, we learned alongside some amazing students.

Teachers Can Model Confidence and Flexibility in Learning

Hybrid is hard. Flipping lessons, trying to build relationships with students you’ve never seen in person, and guiding middle school students who are at home alone through assignments is incredibly challenging. Early in the first quarter, I’d find myself confused: What had I taught to whom? It took time for me to know which cohort I’d had when, as well as what I’d already covered and had yet to cover.

However, the struggle of keeping it all straight gave me an opportunity to reflect, tweak, and adjust lessons as I went. I was transparent with my students about that adjustment process, and doing so made it clear to them that I was by no means a perfect principal who created and delivered perfect lessons. Rather, they saw me as a human who learned from their mistakes. They could see someone operating with a growth mindset right in front of them.

Honest Feedback From the Front Lines

Teaching a group of 20 students—a relatively small one by public school standards—made me a better leader because the students felt very comfortable speaking up about things that didn’t make sense to them. They were blunt and made me see things in a new way. For example, one day they piped up with criticism about my communication methods in my role as principal: “Mrs. Cabeen, why do you send schoolwide announcements and updates through email? They are long and confusing.”

It hadn’t occurred to me before that there was any problem with that channel of communication, and when I asked them what they’d prefer, they said they’d like announcements to be more transparent and viral. When I did a little more probing, it became clear that morning announcements might do better if I sent them as live Instagram videos.

I quickly pivoted and posted announcements (“Tune in at 8 AM for morning announcements!”) on Instagram five minutes before I went live with the video. Before long, students were on Instagram, actually waiting for my announcements and the day’s news. There I covered how to navigate the distance learning schedule, gave school tours, and answered questions about registration for the upcoming school year. Our Instagram feed began to grow, and parents started to comment as well on the posts. During one event, former students even joined the event to wish our current students a great summer.

This pivot wound up making our communications system more efficient and more fun—and it never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been in close, daily contact with students.

In-Depth Knowledge About Students’ Families Matters

As school leaders, we know the importance of relationships, yet often our interactions with students amount to snapshots. During my time as an online teacher, I saw more of my students’ lives than I had ever imagined. I saw their cats on the screen, parents saying goodbye before they went to work, younger siblings racing around behind them. I learned more about each student’s interests and passions from the posters on their walls, pets, parents, siblings. During one particularly cold Minnesota week, one student who was learning remotely from his grandmother’s home in Mexico shared the view and buoyed our spirits.

But that in-depth knowledge didn’t just come from seeing—it came from talking, too. After the formal lesson finished, many students stayed online to chat or just have some company while they worked on homework in other classes. We talked about pandemic-related topics like how they were holding up with the hybrid model of learning and how their families were faring, but we also chatted about what books they were reading and what they wanted to do once they finished high school. Each conversation left me with a far deeper understanding and appreciation for the complications, distractions, and challenges of learning online full-time.

I moved from the 30,000-foot view to boots on the ground—and had to learn how to balance the new intimacy I had with students with professional distance. I had to recalibrate the difference between knowing when I could help and when I was helping too much and risking burnout. Dropping off a computer charger on a family’s front steps or holding office hours outside of contracted school time initially seemed harmless, but those sorts of things accumulated. I had to learn how to say yes and how to say no so I could protect my own time and space with my family.

Going forward, building relationships will be much more front and center at my school, but I’ll also be far more seasoned when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries.

Administrators Need to Prioritize Listening

Administrators: If you didn’t teach this year... take a seat. Having taught just one course this past year, I say that with the tiniest fraction of street cred compared with that of the dedicated, compassionate, and exhausted educators who showed up, logged in, and adjusted lessons every day for around 180 school days. Empathy is core to leadership, and you can’t have genuine empathy without slowing down and actively listening.

In the closing weeks of this school year, I sat back and listened to students, families, teachers, administrative assistants, cafeteria staff, and other frontline workers to hear from them what worked and what didn’t work, and what needs to change as we return to normal, whether that’s a new morning drop-off routine or offering virtual parent conferences in addition to in-person ones. And I’m not going to stop listening now that summer is here; rather, I’m grateful for still more time to gather feedback through one-on-one conversations, group discussions, and surveys. 

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