Leading in 2021 - Thinking and Working Differently

For months district and school leaders have come to know and experience the word "pivot" in multiple contexts. With the Delta variant causing new worries coupled with the politicization of public health guidance, superintendents and other leaders are bracing for another challenging school opening. Knowing that a "normal" start to the school year may not happen, creates both disappointment and anxiety.  Short of using super-powers to stop the virus in its tracks, release a vaccine for kids under 12, and avoid arguments at angry board meetings, leaders can be confident that we do know more than last year, and we can think and work differently. Here are a few reminders to help stay the course:

Stick to your principles. 
Remind yourself why you took this job. Most have a passion to make a difference for kids and families, want to fulfill education's greatest promise for equity and fairness, and serve as a voice for those who may not be in the position to share their own.  If you are a superintendent, it is your principals who are the "arms and legs" to improve your district. If you are a principal, it is your teachers and support staff who garner the will and skill to do better for the kids before them.  Good leaders show and say in many ways: I believe in you. We will support and help one another.  We will get through this together.

Hold on to the big picture and keep the long game in mind. 
We are learning that Covid is not going away any time soon. Accept it and work with it.  As Maya Angelou said, "Every storm runs out of rain." This pandemic will end.  Reinforce optimism, keep pessimism in check, review safety protocols, and revisit your district and school mission and how it lives through student learning. Lead honest discussions around the big concerns of the last two years. These may include:  

  • Attendance Data. Who are the kids we lost track of? How were we successful and not so successful in connecting students back into school? How can we best re-engage them to feel protected, safe, and ready to learn?
  • Early Grades. How are we going to work with our youngest learners? How do we transform the real worries of K, Grade 1, and 2 teachers who valiantly zoomed with little ones but now need a concrete action plan to assess and build foundational literacy and math skills?
  • Trauma and Mental Health. How do we address the trauma and emotional issues that this pandemic exposed? How can we adopt common language and use tools to spot and address mental health issues? How do we tier supports: from all staff (including teachers, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers etc.) to exude a welcoming sense of security and from designated staff who offer specialized support? 
  • Relationships. As a leader, how do I respond to the myriad of concerns such as resentment toward colleagues, who, for a variety of reasons, were not on the frontline during the past year?  How do I set boundaries regarding conversations about vaccine status, mask-wearing, and political stances? How do I keep student needs in the forefront while still balancing the needs of the adults?
  • Team Productivity. How do we review what worked, what did not work, and what we could do better?  Is it time to review team structures, membership, and their effectiveness so that we can stick to our mission for teaching and learning while remaining safe and healthy? 

Focus on important things above the urgency of the day.
With Covid, the culture of districts and schools has understandably leaned toward the urgencies such as reacting to positive Covid infections, non-compliance with mask wearing, or dealing with the aftermath of a weekend party involving students who may transmit the virus. Yet, to forge ahead on district and school goals, leaders should limit direct involvement in these urgent issues and build oversight systems and processes so they can continue to lead others to do their jobs effectively. 

Take a hard look at how you are spending your time.
There is no doubt that the 24/7 nature of this pandemic has caused burnout, exhaustion, and cynicism. A wise mentor once told me that you have to want to come to work, three out of four Mondays.  It's OK to be less than enthusiastic on one Monday a month. More than that should trigger an honest assessment of how we are meeting our responsibilities. Reach for remedies that can manage negative forces and revisit how you are spending your time. Think about time management using (3) lenses:

  1. What can you, as a district (or school leader) only do?  
  2. What can you delegate to others, but still oversee?  
  3. What may need your presence, but can easily be done by others?              

For example, a "must do" for superintendents and central office leaders (#1) is working with principals. Scheduling school visits to jointly observe classroom instruction, sit in on faculty and team meetings, discuss professional development, and review teacher evaluations are key priorities with other areas assuming secondary status.    

Connect with others to manage the weight that isolation and loneliness add to your job.  
Leaders serve as the chief receiver and solver of problems, often finding it easier to simply "fix" the issue rather than help others do so. We often become part of what is known as the "drama triangle" where someone comes to you with an issue about another employee and looks to you to solve it rather than go to the person directly.  Leaders get dragged into conflicts that takes them away from leading. Yes, this goes with the territory but Brené Brown, well-known author-researcher, advises that leaders need to "embrace the suck" and take on those people issues without getting consumed by them. 

RBT offers opportunities to grow your own practice, and without judgement, discuss strengths and weaknesses with colleagues who are in similar positions to share the same everyday issues. 

For superintendents, principal supervisors, and central office leaders:

For school principals and teacher superivsors:

  • Register for Analyzing Teaching for Student Results beginning on November 10.  Leaders build their skills to see more, analyze with insight, and communicate better during observations and evalutions.

For teachers:

  • Register for Studying Skillful Teaching beginning on October 2. Teachers of all experience levels build their repertoire of teaching skills to better match the needs of their students.

In Summary:
The hallmark of an effective leader is knowing the difference between what you can and cannot control. As this somewhat-uncertain school year begins, use these five reminders as anchors to guide you through the things you can control, change, and influence: 

  • Stick to your principles.
  • Hold on to the big picture and keep the long game in mind. 
  • Focus on important things above the urgency of the day.
  • Take a hard look at how you are spending your time.
  • Connect with others to manage the weight that isolation and loneliness add to your job.  

Here's to a safe and productive school year!

I look forward to hearing from you.

Pia Durkin


Pia Durkin is an RBT Consultant specializing in leadership development.
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