In 2020, We Are All First-Year Principals

As we celebrate National Principals Month during this unusual school year, there’s one thing all 90,000-plus of us have in common: Given the continuing challenges our schools and communities face, we often feel like first-year principals. And that’s okay! Even the most seasoned among us are learning at an incredible pace about the best ways to support our students and staff through any combination of remote, in-person, and hybrid learning scenarios.

As 2020 National Principal of the Year, I’ve had fewer in-person conversations with my peers than I would have liked since this spring, but we’re still virtually connected. In discussions with other school leaders, we keep circling back to the same handful of challenges we’re all working to address in order to support our students and staff during this school year that is like no other before it. Among them:

Social Justice and Cultural Awareness

We simply can’t ignore what our students, their families, and our staff have experienced during these last six months, including the renewed emphasis on social justice sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The discussion in my building is centered around helping teachers understand how to structure constructive dialogue in our classrooms so that students can have open, empathetic, and supportive conversations that allow for student voice on all sides. We’re focusing on culturally relevant practices as they connect to social and emotional learning, starting with self-awareness and reflection. The Ohio State University has a great online training module focusing on implicit bias, and there are many additional sources of information and resources available to help us lead these important conversations.

As administrators, we’re taking the time to make sure we’re not handing off this vital work on equity, but are truly vested. I’m on an equity review team for my district that looks at board policies and procedures to remove barriers where they exist; at my own school, we’re having the student council, local school council, and teachers conduct an equity audit to include their own perspectives.

Self-Care for Staff—and Ourselves

As leaders, it is essential that we lead this charge. I have 160 teachers in my building, and many feel like first-year teachers even if they’ve been teaching in the same classroom for 30 years. In my school, we’re teaching concurrently online and in person, and managing all the moving parts is difficult—and exhausting. We never had to learn how to handle a discussion with both students in classrooms and their peers at home on devices. It can make it hard to feel like we’re doing a good job.

I’ve tried to handle this by modeling how to learn from mistakes. I’ve messed up breakout rooms in the middle of staff meetings and stressed that we’re all learning at the same time. You’ve got to give yourself grace, and from there, it carries over to the staff.

Engaging Students and Parents

Like many school districts, our system gave students and their families a choice of in-person or online learning this fall, but even our digital learners are facing a new learning environment. Since the spring was really self-paced, this is the first time digital learners have to manage themselves in a real-time virtual school setting. Many are either home alone or caring for younger siblings who are also learning online. These are frontiers they’ve never crossed before. We have an advisory teacher who is checking in with students on their academic progress and well-being and discussing supports, organization, and resources for those who are struggling with our current setting.

A question I am consistently asking is, what kind of guidance are we giving parents to support their new digital learners? In many cases, we know they’re already overwhelmed. We’re calling parents to check in and provide guidance about how to see if students are actually doing their work versus just logging into the learning platform to be counted present for the day. We are also providing virtual parent education nights and in-person appointments for individual help with the portal. They’re capable, but they don’t know exactly what to ask their student or how to access the platform to check on their student’s progress.

Seeking Support From Peers

Finally, remember that you’re not alone. Every school leader has been dealing with similar challenges and the same rate of change. That’s why it’s so important to build and sustain your professional support networks.

Whether in your district or across the country, seek the counsel of principals who lead similar schools. Find an accountability partner to bounce ideas off of and get honest feedback. My accountability partner is an assistant principal at another school—our kids went to school together, so she’s a longtime friend. We’re taking the time and being intentional about how we’re working through the year.

And, remember we’re all learning as we continue to find ways to support our students, staff, and school communities. In this way, we as school leaders can be that beacon of hope in providing what they need to ensure our students’ continued growth and development this year, and in all the years to come.

Kerensa Wing is principal of Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, GA. She is the 2020 NASSP National Principal of the Year.

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