Reflecting on lessons learned from first semester heading into the next.

How are you starting off this semester?  Is it a reset, relaunch, reboot or redux from the fall?  I wrote a short piece for my state association this fall that talked about how we were all first-year educators in the age of this pandemic at the beginning of this year (see “Leading Virtual Learning” at https://issuu.com/dawnccosa.org/docs/9.20_issue_better_schools).  Although we had some experiences with distance learning when the pandemic first hit, the expectations for the fall were different even if the context from Covid-19 was still very novel.  As educators, we have now completed a first semester that may have included in-person learning on campus at reduced capacity, remote or distance learning or even a hybrid of those approaches.  Whatever structures were in place first semester, we already know more than we did before about how to engage students and families, how to support staff, how to work towards the social-emotional needs of all stakeholders and even how to practice self-care as leaders on our campuses.  So what are we doing to capture the lessons we’ve learned, make any needed adjustments, keep our focus centered on student-needs and move ahead during the spring of 2021? 

In Robert Marzano’s School Leadership That Works (2005), he describes 21 different responsibilities of school leadership including items such as Outreach, Culture, Focus, Communication, Optimizer and Affirmation to name a few.  Beyond his discussion, he also uses meta-analysis to correlate those responsibilities with student achievement.  They range from Situational Awareness (.33) and Flexibility (.28) to Relationships (.18).  Situational Awareness is defined as “is aware of the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and uses this information to address current and potential problems.”  Flexibility is defined as “adapts his or her leadership behavior to the needs of the current situation and is comfortable with dissent.” 

So how are you becoming aware of the undercurrents, adapting to needs and showing comfort with dissent?  Do you have listening mechanisms in place to capture sentiments and ideas?  Do you have a sounding board or a leadership group that provides insight or shares information?  If you have these structures in place, are they present for all stakeholders or just from your faculty or even a subset of faculty?  Are you hearing from both certified and non-certified or instructional and non-instructional staff? 

I like to send out a short survey on a routine basis.  Sometimes it’s a check on the effectiveness of a collaboration meeting or asking for input for upcoming professional development needs or even feedback on my own performance in interactions with staff.  It’s quick and easy to see the information, but I always try to share the results of the survey.  Low survey responses can indicate levels of mistrust or feelings that findings won’t be used for improvements, so if you use surveys, you need to be willing to share the findings both good and bad and then you can share any insights you gained from what is expressed.  I also try to set the surveys up for anonymity and I’ve had some very pointed criticism that way, but at least I’ve asked and I bring to the surface what most likely is already discussed behind my back.   

Besides gathering input from surveys, I try to have multiple conversations or check-ins.  It can be as simple as a text or email asking how things are going, but it has to be authentic and not a generic pleasantry.  I also try to make several classroom visits throughout the week and during planning periods just to be visible and present.  We long for authenticity and transparency and in those moments, I try to also be vulnerable and share if there are concerns I have as well.  I try to model “real talk” with colleagues.  It isn’t always heavy, but it should always be honest.  If someone is frustrated or upset with a practice, I have to turn off my “persuading brain” and turn on my “listening ears.”  I try to practice the Stephen Covey principle of “Seek first to understand then to be understood” and I don’t have to rationalize my actions at that moment.  For me, I have to take the feedback and let it roll around a bit in my head to sort through it all and watch for common themes.   

I also try to be present with students and sometimes we’re surrounded by them but aren’t truly with them.  In the dining hall, at a concert or sporting event, out in the community, I want to be approachable.  As I walk across campus, I try to greet each student I can to just say something as simple as “good morning” or “have a good day” or “your concert last night was great.”  We all want to be seen and noticed and students aren’t different.  I have to remind myself when I’m walking to a meeting and thinking about the agenda or I’m preoccupied with an earlier challenge.  If I walk by a student without acknowledging them, they don’t know what’s going on in my head.  They just know an adult at school walked by without saying anything.  If you open yourself up to intentional, purposeful interactions with students, they will be great providers of insight into your school.  They know what staff members truly demonstrate care and concern for them on a regular basis.  They know what is working and what isn’t working with remote learning.  They can be very blunt in their assessments, but they are the reason we are there, so we have to capture their insights.  Again, you can use surveys, step into classrooms and ask their opinions or just ask a group sitting in a common area or waiting for a bus.   

Marzano’s meta-analysis listed Relationships last with an effect size of .18 on student achievement, but he defines it as “demonstrates an awareness of the personal aspects of teachers and staff.”  In my practice, building and maintaining relationships is the “tool” I continually pick up to practice responsibilities like situational awareness or flexibility or affirmation or communication.  I try to be intentional in seeing each stakeholder, staff member, student, parent or community member, as an individual with aspirations and anxieties and hopes and fears and all sorts of emotions in between as we work through this second semester.  As we embark on this new semester, let’s lean on those in our building to give us good feedback and insight, as well as those educational leaders we are networking with in our state and around the country who are giving their best for the students in their schools this spring.  Our students and communities have great needs but together, as educational leaders, we have a wealth of compassion, resources, and insight to meet these challenges head on.  Thanks for taking on that job for kids! 

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