During the best of times, being a school leader is challenging. Balancing the wants and needs of thousands of people on any given day can be exhausting. During the best of times however, there are so many ups to compliment the downs. Looking for ups in the midst of complete worldwide disruption, however, can seem darn near impossible.
Being a school leader means you are expected to have the answers. There is usually a line of people at my door before the first bell even rings. I pride myself on responding quickly to every question and calmly to every crisis. One of our veterans dubbed me “the answer lady” early on in my administrative career. What happens when the answer lady doesn’t have the answers?
I field countless questions every day, and it guts me to not have the answers. Some are trivial in the grand scheme of things, and some are heartbreaking. My district is a Community Eligibility Provision district, meaning that 100 percent of our students receive free lunch. For the few in our community who don’t need it, the free lunch is a nice bonus. For the majority, it’s a lifeline. Parents are terrified about feeding their kids. These parents didn’t have the luxury to “panic buy” when this all began. Most of our parents are hourly workers whose hours have been cut or eliminated altogether. We offer free lunch in the parking lot, and hundreds wait in line in the cold.
Homes that struggled with stability prior to this are rocked to the core, and now they don’t have the safe space of school to escape to. Teachers are struggling to connect with those who don’t have technology. Students are struggling to keep up with schoolwork and looking after younger siblings for those whose parents are still fortunate enough to have a job. A number of students are working more hours at grocery stores and fast food restaurants to make up for their families’ loss of income.
I could go on. It’s all pretty bleak. So what can we do? At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, all we can do right now is what we can do.
Check In With Families As Much as Possible
Not just on their learning, but how are they? Is there a way we can help? Is there a resource we can recommend? For some, it’s just assuring them that their child is going to be okay. Some families have a designated area for home schooling, a color-coded chart, curriculum on a white board—and some just don’t. Some are just trying to survive.
Parents need to know that either way they will be okay. My teachers have chipped in to have pizza delivered to homes where we know food is scarce. Are we solving the problems of the world? No. But maybe we made that family’s life a little easier for that one night.
Check In With Your Teachers
This is hard for them. Some are tech savvy, and this is a no-brainer. Some are really struggling. Some run on their interaction with kids, and their tanks are empty. Think about how you can help them connect. Many of our teachers have their own children at home and are trying to work double time as a teacher and a home-school teacher. What can you do to support them? Some have spouses who have lost their jobs, or spouses that are on the front lines as doctors, nurses, and first responders.
Support One Another, and Your Staff Will Follow Your Example
This is the time to be the best leader you can be. This is the time to be understanding, compassionate, and collaborative. You have to be all of these things because your staff needs you, and the kids need them. When we come back—and we will, at some point—the challenges might be even greater. We will have more students who have been impacted by trauma than ever, we will have learning gaps that we will need to fill.
It will be hard, but we will succeed because that’s what we do. Just as we saw in the days after 9/11, this will make our communities stronger. We just have to get there, and we will get there. We just have to keep moving forward and doing our part.
Dana Paredes is a high school principal in West Haven, CT. She is the Connecticut Association of Schools’ 2019 High School Assistant Principal of the Year. In her free time, she loves being a pageant mom to her daughter Mena, and being both wife and boss to her teacher husband Taylor.