A Fish Out of Water, Just Learning How to Breathe Again

Does anyone else feel like a fish out of water right now, just trying to learn how to breathe again? I have felt this way for the last two weeks. As a high school principal for nearly 15 years, I thought at this point in my career I had seen it all, but then COVID-19 introduced me to the terms “social distancing” and “remote learning.” Almost overnight, what I knew about being an effective school leader changed drastically, as I am sure it has for you. We all have been thrust “out of our pond” and into a world of uncertainty, but one in which our schools need our courage, creativity, and leadership more than ever before. We have to find a way to learn how to breathe again.

Developing a Plan

I work in a fairly typical American public New Hampshire high school in the suburbs north of Boston called Sanborn Regional High School. My school’s claim to fame for the past decade has been as a leader in the national movement known as competency-based education. It is on this topic that I typically write blog articles for NASSP, such as this one from 2019, or this one from 2018. Little did I know, but the mere fact that my school has embraced such a student-centered philosophy became critical when it was time to develop our remote learning plan. The call to do so in New Hampshire came on Friday, March 13. That day, I was fortunate enough to have a planned, day-long professional development day for staff. We cleared our agenda and set to work making our plan. If you are curious what we came up with, you can read all about it in this MultiBriefs article that I published late last week.

In short, our plan calls for students to continue to attend their classes according to a set schedule, with teachers providing some type of live activity (via Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, or some other means) and then independent work time for students to complete a self-paced activity each class. Because we are competency-based, the teachers in my school already think about their instruction in terms of helping students master skills, so that they can transfer them to other content areas. They know what deeper learning looks like, and they know how to assess it using authentic, performance-based methods. Additionally, they collaborate at a high level with their colleagues on a regular basis. These hallmarks of the competency-education model have become a part of our school culture to the degree that when the call came to move to remote learning, I knew my teachers—wizards at their craft—would find the best ways to make learning happen in this new remote learning reality.

The School Leader’s Role

As the school’s principal, I quickly discovered that the biggest value I could add to the plan was to avoid micromanaging teacher planning or instruction. In those first few weeks, I realized that my role needed to focus on so many other areas. Here are some things for you to consider as you set your priorities as a school leader:

  • Communicate Often: In times of change and uncertainty, no one will ever criticize a leader for overcommunication. Of course, I used all of the typical means to do this that are tried and true (robocalls, email blasts, etc.). My assistant principal, Bob Dawson, made a brilliant suggestion that first day: As leaders, we need to make videos for our school community—serious ones, inspirational ones, and even funny ones. Our kids will miss seeing our faces, and these videos would help them in many ways. He was right. The videos my building leaders made the first week were both informational and informal—recorded from a car, or a backyard deck— and told the school community all about our plan and our expectations, such as this initial video that I made. Then, the videos started to become more inspirational and humorous. Take, for example, this Forest Gump parody that Bob made just yesterday to remind our students that everything was going to be all right.
  • Promote Self-Care. Visualize a flight attendant before takeoff showing everyone how to use their oxygen masks. What does he or she tell parents of young children? They need to put their own mask on before they help their child. Why? For the same reason that we as educators have to practice and promote self-care of both the mind and the body before we can expect to be able to help anyone else. No one does this better than my wife Erica, a second-grade special education teacher in a neighboring school district. As soon as the call came to move to remote learning, she started making daily 3–5 minute mindfulness videos for her colleagues and her students to use to help ready their minds for learning. My school nurse started sending out self-care information to staff and students. Promoting self-care for all has become an ongoing effort now in my school.
  • Invest in School Spirit. The school community provides identity for our students and our staff, many of whom spend the majority of their waking hours in the building interacting with others. With remote learning, they have lost a big part of this identity. As a principal, be mindful of this and look for new and interesting ways to invest in school spirit. I challenged my student council to develop some online spirit activities that we could all participate in. They came up with some great ideas, from themed attire days to door decorating contests. They started a food drive. They are even thinking about hosting a virtual game night. These activities, although small in scale, go a long way towards reminding everyone that they still have an identity within their school, and that is important.
  • Stay Connected with Fellow Principals. Early in our remote learning adventure, a fellow New Hampshire high school principal colleague, Steve Beals of Arvirne High School, reached out to all the area principals to suggest that we start meeting twice a week on Zoom to talk about some of the big issues we are all facing in our schools (such as special education, teacher evaluation, assessment and grading, and graduation). Each time we meet, the number of participants grows, because as principals we realize the value of a professional learning network. Staying connected in times of change provides us all a sense of security, empowerment, and strength. It gives all of us the courage to lead our school communities in these new times.

Fellow principals, we have stakeholders who are looking to us to provide them with the courage to survive in a changing world. Perhaps the most important thing we can offer them right now is a vision of hope—hope that things are going to get better, hope that we will soon return to the lives we once had, and hope that when we do return, we will be better both as individuals and as a school community as a result of all of this. Stay strong and stay healthy. You’ve got this.

Do you have what it takes to lead your school community in these uncertain times? How will you promote hope to those in your school community in the coming days and weeks?

Brian M. Stack is the NASSP 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH and a strong advocate for personalized and competency-based learning. In 2018 he co-authored a book on this topic for Solution Tree entitled Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. He has shared his experiences with this model with educators from coast to coast. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter (@bstackbu) or learn more about him by visiting his blog, Brian Stack’s School Leadership Blog.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.