I began writing this post at the beginning of my state’s—Kentucky—descent into being “healthy at home” and my growing consciousness of social distancing. I replied to the invitation with an acknowledgment that I was sure I could get it done during the coming weekend. That was almost a month ago.
In all honesty, I don’t think I have ever been as burdened or overwhelmed as I have been in the last month. We sent kids home for an indefinite period, we created a hybrid system of continuing to engage our students, some of whom have the benefit of the internet and technology, some who don’t. I learned how to run meetings via Google Meet while sharing daily work task assignments with teachers and classified staff by email. We gradually moved all staff to work from their homes except on Mondays when we still gather, cautiously, to deliver a week’s worth of shelf-stable food to our students via bus routes. And, oh yes, I am transitioning out of my school into a new job at the state department of education, so I am mentoring my assistant, who will be the new principal, on all of the “necessaries” of the job.
As my parting charge to those of you who will continue on with this work, work I have been blessed to do for nearly 20 years as a principal and 32 as an educator, I want to share some of the truths that have revealed themselves to me over the years—and in the last month:
- There are bigger things to think about than schoolwork.
I have been guilty of sometimes elevating our work to an unhealthy status of all-consuming near holiness. I have been bogged down by test scores and teacher evaluations and budget management. I have neglected my health, my family, even the relationships I have hoped to build with teachers and students as I have “focused on the work.” I have been reminded this past month that there are always more important things to consider. I hope these historic days will allow you the opportunity to acknowledge those important things for yourself and to realign your life to better live apart from the urgency of the “now.”
- Communication is key.
It is easy to neglect the daily check-ins with staff and students when we don’t have the benefit of an open office door and blessed interruptions. When all we have is a phone (I detest mine) and a computer, finding a way to maintain the fabric of our school culture takes on new importance. I have been forcing myself to make better use of social media (talent shows and awards programs via Facebook Live? You bet!), phone calls, text messages, and emails. It is far too easy to withdraw in these uncertain days. I encourage you to create and use structures to keep putting yourself in the midst of your people.
- The strength of any school is in its culture.
The circumstances created by this pandemic will only serve to reveal the cultures that already exist in schools. Perhaps the quality I am proudest of in our school is the sense of community that pervades who we are. We are seeing this now as we are all committed to sacrificing for one another’s well-being. We see it in the hours upon hours of public service that our students do each year. We see it as our faculty goes far above expectations to connect with students to ensure they are healthy and okay. These unfortunate times reveal what is best about us. Look for ways to acknowledge that.
- Faith strengthens us.
While my own personal spiritual faith has seen me through a great many trials in our work, this time has reinforced not only a reliance on my personal spiritual faith, but also on my faith in those around me. The faith I have in my faculty and students is rewarded daily. I see remarkable creativity in problem-solving, kindness, and compassion at new, extraordinary levels and a resolve to overcome challenges that will be the hallmark of my students’ lives and of my faculty’s bond for years to come. The faith we have in each other makes this possible.
- My faculty is the best!
Well…they are most certainly the best part of our school, at any rate. While these current circumstances have underscored that our business is truly not a competition, our faculties have been called upon to create a new system of connection, instruction, and assessment on the fly—and they have done so without flinching, all in an effort to make our school all that it can be for our students. We deliver food. We call, email, and text our students each day to make sure they are okay. We will assign grades and send our graduates into the world ready to face new challenges. This is what we do and who we are.
While none of us imagined these days or prepared for them, our response on behalf of our students has served to illuminate what is great about our schools. I never imagined this would be my own valedictory, but I have never been prouder to do this work. Godspeed to all of you who will continue to do it!
How are using this time to strengthen your school community? To build healthy bonds with your staff? With your students? How will you make this moment a positive touchstone for your school community for years to come?
Duane Kline is in his 32nd year as a public school educator and 17th year as a high school principal. He lives in New Liberty, KY with his chemistry-teaching wife, Anne, and he is the proud dad of his special educator daughter Hannah and soon-to-be history-teaching son, Aaron. He was blessed to be recognized as the 2016 Kentucky Secondary Principal of the Year.