Leading during Covid-19 is hard. We have categorically changed the way we’ve done school, and we are putting out new fires daily while traversing not only a global pandemic but a reckoning surrounding racism and polarized politics. None of that is easy.
In challenging circumstances, building and district leaders often tend toward cheerleading—a commendable and appropriate response. But we cannot lose sight of the entirety of that word: The leading matters as much as the cheering.
Here’s how I’ve kept myself accountable to the leadership aspect of my role as principal.
Setting a Vision
The amazing thing about educators is that they can quite literally do anything; I’ve seen this over and over again as they try to retrofit traditional in-person learning to remote learning and perfect direct virtual instruction in a matter of weeks.
But educators are human, which means they cannot do everything, including doing everything exactly the way they did before the pandemic. They’re exhausted by trying to replicate classrooms and instruction in the face of an entirely new paradigm; everything winds up having equal importance when the disruption is that extreme.
This is where good leaders, irrespective of the level of leadership, step in: They make sure that teachers know what the priorities are and that they remain inspired and guided by a single vision—and that takes leading, not cheering.
Cheering alone subtly and unintentionally communicates that teachers should try to do everything—that doing so is a valuable and even noble endeavor—and it can encourage educators who already feel overwhelmed to take on even more. Cheering alone provides no direction forward; it simply encourages the same behavior.
Leading, however, directs. It involves expressing the fact that while you believe teachers can do anything, they can’t do everything. With your direction, teachers can keep a laser-like focus on the big picture—the vision—and prioritize the tangible short-term “anything.”
This year at Highland Elementary in Northern Illinois, where I am principal, our vision is that all students make growth on their local formative assessment scores over the first quarter. To move in that direction, we set small, incremental goals to get baseline data, establish classroom relationships and norms, and structure our scope and sequence to meet students’ needs.
This prioritization means that some things have been dropped. By implementing morning meetings to build relationships, we have lost instructional time in other areas. Lessons get pushed off here and there to make sure that we meet students where they are and get baseline data on each of them.
The vision, however, is what keeps us aligned, and our job as school leaders is to keep teachers focused on that vision. If we don’t, there’s a risk that teachers will become even more overwhelmed and perhaps even demoralized.
Keep the Target Consistent
While a vision clearly defines where we are going, a target defines what success looks like at each step along the way.
We’re often predisposed to raising our expectations—to raising the bar and shifting the target—when things feel good or get easier. We’re also predisposed to lowering our expectations and even lowering the bar when we feel people struggling, just as they are now. But we have to resist that temptation and set and maintain targets.
When the target keeps moving and we cheer rather than lead, we’re unintentionally communicating the impossibility of hitting that target and how little it means to actually hit it. It happens all the time: Leaders cheer for staff who are missing the agreed-upon target but are doing other stuff above and beyond. They get an A for effort. But what does that communicate about our belief in the target and our dedication to our vision?
At my school, we set a target of establishing classroom relationships and norms, and I send direct messages to teachers, cheering for them when I see that happening. But their success in this regard doesn’t mean it’s time to change the target; rather, relationship building remains the target as we continue to move the curriculum forward.
Lead by setting a clear target that defines what is most important—and then cheer when it is hit.
Focus on Relationships With Teachers to Help Them Move Forward
One of the toughest parts about leading during the pandemic is that people are in so many different places mentally and emotionally. In the face of this flux, we must differentiate the strengths and challenges that face each staff member in much the same way that they differentiate their students’ strengths and challenges.
That’s why building relationships is one of a leader’s most important jobs. When you truly engage with teachers and know where they are, you have the information you need to coach them on how to move forward.
A couple of years ago, we did an activity at my school where each staff member identified their three primary core values and levers (trust, integrity, creativity, equity, etc.). Since then, I have cheered for each of them and their individual values and levers when I see them in action. If, for example, a teacher’s core value is equity, I watch for that and cheer for them when they go out of their way to ensure that students have what they need to access learning, whether that means a home visit or a hot spot or a different computer. When I can encourage each teacher based on their core values, the encouragement means more—and it shows that I am in their corner.
One of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever received is “Seek to build capacity no matter the moment.” Despite the challenges we are facing right now, we have an opportunity to create an entirely new way forward—to forge a future that is framed by what we are learning now, including about our responsibility to both lead and cheer for our staff.