Leading effectively through a pandemic is no doubt a daunting task. As I write these words, we are currently in Month 10 of the COVID-19 crisis, and although rates are mildly improving since their spike over the holiday season, we are by no means in the clear. Educators in particular are weary. We, like most global citizens, are experiencing COVID fatigue. This happens whether or not we have personally experienced the virus. COVID fatigue happens just by merely living through this pandemic.
This past weekend I was on a coaching call with an assistant principal who was very much describing COVID fatigue at her school. Her principal is in a form of pandemic paralysis. Staff is tired and he doesn't want to do much of anything to drive the work forward of the school. As a younger assistant principal, this is uninspiring at best and detrimental to the overall health and well-being of the school at worst. While intentions might be good (that's a key pandemic survival strategy - believe that everyone is operating with the best of intentions), the school ends up surviving rather than thriving. So, what does it take to get back on track? How do you continue to principal in a pandemic without overwhelming your staff?
Here, we will explore three steps for principaling in a pandemic that will help school leaders navigate this sensitive territory through a lens of love. By clarifying the vision and the identifying priorities, the end result will be more intentional and thoughtful decision-making and protected boundaries for staff.
Clarify the vision
The first step that any leader should take when they feel overwhelmed or fatigued is to get in touch with their purpose. During times of trial, we all need to refocus on our "why." For school leaders, this is often intentionally revisiting the vision of the school. At Paradise Honors High School where I am currently a principal, our vision statement is "every child, every day, prepared to meet life's challenges." I have been very intentional to reconnect staff with our vision statement within our Friday Focus each week. In a brief email, we rehash the week's events from a culture and climate standpoint in connection with our core purpose as a school. We keep our vision at the forefront of all we do, grounding and uniting us in the good work that needs to be done.
Pro tip: Before you clarify the vision for your staff, make sure you have spent some time refocusing on the vision yourself. Find ways to reinforce your why when you get up each morning, You need this clarity of focus to help drive the decisions you will make each day. Recite your vision as you brush your teeth or fix your hair. Mentally walk through your schedule. Are your plans and appointments in alignment with the vision you wish to achieve?
After you have clarified your focus by refocusing on the "why," it is time to identify 1-2 priorities that align with your vision. As a school leader, you will be tempted to make a long list of foci - don't do that! Remember, if everything is important, nothing is important. What are 1-2 areas of influence you have control over despite whatever crisis surrounds you at the time? These should be your priorities.
In short, we mentioned that the vision of Paradise Honors High School is "every child, every day." Thus, we developed two priorities for this school year that we will focus on regardless (and perhaps, because of) what is happening around us. 1.) We will focus on high levels of learning for all students. 2.) We will ensure equitable learning experiences for all students. Those two priorities encompass a lot of elements at our school, and apply to decisions we make both inside and outside of the classroom. If something doesn't fall into one of those two categories, we simply don't prioritize it on our list of to-dos.
This works well in our personal lives as well. Remember, there is no such thing as true work-life balance, but we can identify priorities so that we are better stewards of our time. What is the vision you have for your life? What are 1-2 priorities that will help you work towards that vision? Schedule them into your weekly routine. What gets scheduled gets done and you will find yourself making positive strides forward in both your professional and personal life as you hone in on what's truly important in your life.
Intentional Decision-Making & Protected Boundaries
What is the outcome of clarifying the vision and identifying your priorities? You now have a litmus test for decision-making. Schools in particular can be really guilty of jumping on new initiatives only to have them quickly peter out in time. They could save thousands of dollars (not to mention a lot of teacher time and energy) if they would first clarify their why and then identify their priorities. This facilitates strategic decision-making and helps everyone maintain boundaries which are critical in times of crisis. Time and energy must be preserved! This year, for example, although the amounts of topics for professional development as we transitioned to online learning could have been multitudinous, we opted for two routes: reinforcing our multi-tiered model of student support (priorities 1 and 2) and equity training (priorities 1 and 2). We safe guarded the time and energy of our staff by getting laser focused on what was important and discarding the rest.
In a pandemic, even just one or two priorities can seem overwhelming. Remember, it is wise to halve our expectations of ourselves (and of others) in a crisis. When making critical decisions around your priorities, identify 1-2 next right things you can do as the next step forward. This will build positive momentum as you choose to fall forward strategically together, one foot in front of the other in a manageable and meaningful way.
Linger a Little Longer:
1. What is your vision, both personally and professionally? Make two columns and write them down.
2. Identify one or two priorities that align to each vision. Jot them into your chart.
3. What decisions you will make differently today based on this information? How will you create new boundaries in closer alignment with the vision for your life and work?