This fall, the Science Leadership Academy faced its biggest challenge in the 13-year history of the school. After leasing our charming but limited space for many years, we were scheduled to move into a refurbished co-located facility. This was a watershed moment for the district, as it marked the first time in recent memory that two existing schools—one citywide magnet and one neighborhood school—would be co-located in the same facility. The district was committing $23 million to the renovation, and it was seen as a potential roadmap for a district with many severely underutilized facilities. We’d spent the better part of two years preparing—designing the facility, getting to know each other’s faculty, and prepping for the students from both schools to get to know their new neighbors in a way that was powerful and positive.
As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And we got punched. Hard.
The construction schedule had proven far too aggressive, and the school wasn’t ready for opening day. We delayed opening for a few days as crews worked to get enough of the school building ready for occupancy so that 1,000 folks could fit in the finished spaces. Both schools tried for several weeks to make the best of things inside an active construction site. Finally, after asbestos was discovered in multiple new areas, the district made the decision to move both schools to alternative locations and reboot the project. We created the “campus model” for our school, with 80 percent of our classes taking place in the district headquarters and 20 percent taking place in the basement of a synagogue a block and a half away, with the plan that we’d be back in our school building on January 1st.
Suffice to say, it’s been a hard fall.
But the thing is, the kids keep showing up to learn—which means we have to do our best to teach them. That doesn’t change.
Our challenge has been that this is trauma felt by every member of our community. Teachers and students and parents are all frustrated and angry and let down by the situation we find ourselves in. And every day, despite the best efforts of many, people are reminded of our situation as we try to have school in an office building, with most of our supplies still boxed up.
So how do you lead your community through something like that?
Let’s start by saying that the real answer is, “I have no real idea, but I’m doing the best I can.” While our situation is certainly unique, I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past few months about how to navigate through challenging times are hopefully useful to other school leaders who have to deal with schools going through various forms of trauma. The irony is not lost on me that we’re facing our biggest challenge as a school within months of NASSP recognizing me as a Digital Principal of the Year. As always, school life will keep you humble. With that, some thoughts:
- Your school culture—good and bad—will be on display. Whatever your school is, you’ll see it in a time of crisis. To quote SLA’s health and PE teacher, Pia Martin, “We are who we are in all moments that we are.” And whatever you and your team has created as a culture, you’re going to see it—good, bad, and otherwise—as you navigate the crisis. Your best bet is to lean into that, because the pathway through is going to involve figuring out how that culture can sustain everyone through the crisis.
- You have to be the calmest person in the room. You don’t necessarily feel that way, but people are looking to you. This doesn’t mean you don’t tell people how you are doing—and it certainly doesn’t mean that you pretend to be something you are not or superhuman—but you do have to figure out how you can keep your head about you when a big part of you doesn’t feel like you can.
- Transparency and honesty are even more important than usual. You have to be honest about what you know, what you don’t know, what you can do and what you cannot. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is that you need your community, and being transparent about what is going on will empower people to help you when you need it. But beyond that, one of the things about trauma is how disempowering it can feel to everyone experiencing it. By being transparent and open with people, you allow them to access their own agency, which will help them heal.
- You can’t ask people to be their best selves forever. This one is really hard. If your whole community is in trauma, so are your teachers. And as a school leader, you are going to want your teachers to dig deep and be their best selves to help the kids who are most in need. And you can ask that for a little while, but not for long. Teachers can’t sustain that effort any more than you can. One thing you can—and should—do for your teachers is help them figure out what “good enough” looks like for a little while, and help them reach that level as consistently as they can.
- Figure out what is essential and what isn’t. Your observations may not be as well-written during this time, some teachers’ classroom decor may flag, and maybe that new idea you had for professional development may have to wait. That’s all OK. Figure out what the school needs most to make sure that teachers and students can engage in meaningful learning and focus on that. Your students, your teachers, your staff, your parents, and you are spending mental energy dealing with the crisis, and you are probably getting pulled in even more directions than usual. If you try to do everything, you’ll fail. Listen to what people need to be effective during the crisis. Figure out what is most important with your team, and do that.
- Be proactive as much as you can. One thing that is so hard about being in an extended crisis is that it can push you into being reactive all the time. It’s easy to go there. People are coming up with crises, the situation may or may not be resolved, and fallout from trauma and crisis are real. But we know that reactive leadership isn’t effective in the long term. So creating space for proactivity and intentionality while in crisis is actually even more important than usual. Creating space for people to come together to plan, not just react, and giving yourself and others space to get off the hamster wheel and actually do the work of school is important.
- Be kind. I think, when we are in trauma, it’s easy to forget this. We feel justified in being angry or being short with people or not listening as well as we could because we’re hurt too. But unless we break the cycle deliberately, we know that hurt people hurt people. Leaders—we cannot do that or, we will extend the trauma others are feeling. Double down on listening. Double down on caring for the people who look to you to lead. Be understanding that everyone isn’t at their best and figure out what you need to do to be a true servant leader during this time. Your kindness and understanding and patience will help people heal.
- Be honest with yourself. One of the biggest gifts anyone gave me was in October. I was running around as we were trying to figure out what relocation was going to look like—running from meetings with parents to meetings with district staff, to meetings with my leadership team, to checking in with our most vulnerable students—and I ran into a friend at the district offices who asked me, “How are you?” I answered, somewhat by rote, “I’m fine.” And she stopped and said, “No, you aren’t. You can’t be. Slow down, think, and then answer me.” She was right. I wasn’t fine. I was angry and exhausted and frustrated and on the verge of burning out. She pushed me to be honest about how I was, and that was what I needed. Since then, I’ve tried to be far more honest with myself about how I feel and what I need to keep being the leader of my school in a way that honors the trust everyone has placed in me as school leader, even—and perhaps especially—through this crisis.
- Take care of yourself. You’re going to need to figure this one out. I’ve made sure to try to cook healthier this fall. I’ve carved out time at night to play guitar. And I’ve made sure that I’ve had healthy outlets to process everything that’s going on, so that I can figure out what “good enough” looks like for me too.
As school leaders, few of us emerge at the other end of our careers without having to navigate our schools through times of profound trauma that affect our entire community. For me, this fall has been our greatest sustained schoolwide challenge. I wish I could tell you that I’ve succeeded at everything I’ve listed above. I haven’t. But hopefully, I’ve succeeded more than I’ve failed this fall and, with luck, our school will move back into our new building in February having navigated this crisis as best as we could, ready to build on our strong foundation. And who knows, maybe we can learn from crisis and emerge as better leaders ourselves.
Here’s to a better spring.
Chris Lehmann is the founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy, an inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop school in Philadelphia, PA, that is considered to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement nationally and internationally. Named a 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, Lehmann is also the co-author of Building School 2.0 and blogs regularly at www.practicaltheory.org. Follow him on Twitter (@chrislehmann).