Brian McCann found guidance for leading during the upcoming school year in, of all places, a young adult novel he picked up in his school library. “It began with this preface that says nothing goes back to exactly how it was—which was what I was trying to do,” McCann, a 2018 Digital Principal of the Year, said during NASSP’s Principals Power-Up Virtual Symposium earlier this month.

To be sure, the upcoming school year and all the uncertainty it brings will be a challenge for school leaders. But building relationships, developing a network of peer leaders, and taking time for self-care are among the ways principals can prepare for the unexpected.

“We’re about to undertake serious leadership challenges where we [will] have to pivot and be flexible,” said Sanée Bell, the 2015 Katy ISD Elementary Principal of the Year. “When we think about this, it’s not just the technical challenges and logistics, it’s about being self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses and building the relationships that help you lead.”

Here are six steps shared by McCann, Bell, and 2019 NASSP Digital Principal Beth Houf:

Brian McCann Sanée Bell Beth Houf
  1. Build—and rebuild—relationships.

“You can’t think about education without thinking about relationships,” said Bell. “We’ve been physically disconnected for months, and there’s not enough technology in the world to bring us face to face.”

In preparing for an unpredictable school year, renewing those relationships with staff can begin with a simple question: How are you doing?

“Make sure when you ask that, you mean that and you are prepared to listen,” Bell said.

Maintaining routines within the new reality also can help. Houf’s introductory sessions for new staff members have continued over Zoom. And Houf and her assistant principal have continued home in-person visits this summer for all incoming sixth graders, albeit with masks and social distancing.

“It helped me lead how I want to lead—not behind a computer screen,” said Houf.

  1. Develop a professional learning network.

Along with collaborating with fellow school leaders in their district or region, every school leader should also have a PLN—a broader professional learning network of peer school leaders with whom to share and learn. In the absence of in-person conferences, said McCann, the best place to start building those relationships is “to make that step into social media.” When he first joined Twitter, McCann spent the first month lurking before posting. Now Sundays, including the #PrinLeaderChat at 9:00 p.m. (ET), are how he shifts from weekend mode to school mode. They also provide opportunities for school leaders to make more direct connections with peers.

“Have the courage to respond or follow one of these people. They’re there to help,” McCann said. “When you feel you’re not alone, it provides you with courage that you can conquer these times.”

  1. Focus on leadership wellness.

Doing so involves questioning long-standing stereotypes, said Houf. “It seems as though the only way to be a principal is Type A—the first one to school and the last one to leave,” she said. “We have to take control of our lives.”

One key, she said, is to set boundaries. For Houf, that means not sending emails at night because it sets the expectation that teachers and others must reply. “When we do that as leaders, it lets our staff know it’s okay to do that as well,” she said.

For McCann, wellness meant renewing a long-standing habit that slipped during the early weeks of the pandemic—reading. Doing so and focusing on his own professional growth was part of “modeling that for my teachers and my students,” he said.

Wellness also means pushing back against the constant pressure to add new initiatives and programs, particularly since so many things will be different this fall.

With the challenges of the new year, “we’re going to have to let some things go,” Houf said.

  1. Focus on clarity and transparency.

As we enter an uncertain fall, it’s important to be as clear as possible about expectations and plans—including when plans aren’t yet clear. “When you’re being wishy washy, it’s hard for people to be confident about leadership,” Bell said. “With so many variables, it’s important as leaders to practice that clarity … If you don’t know, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

  1. Don’t allow equity to be overlooked.

The pandemic began by starkly exposing the inequities students face at home, including access to internet and devices. This summer’s demonstrations following the death of George Floyd revealed even deeper issues that schools must address. “We would be naive that everything that happened around us will not come back to the school,” Bell said. “You better get yourself ready. Students have watched social injustice and racism. If you work at a public school, it’s there.”

“Our health crisis is so great, I worry the equity crisis will be overshadowed,” Houf added. “We have to advocate—most [school] mission statements include ‘all kids.’ But are you digging down into your discipline data?”

McCann said he’s looking at how his school teaches history and literature with a renewed focus on equity. “It’s a great time to put up the mirror,” he said.

  1. Model collaboration—and vulnerability.

As he plans for the fall, McCann detailed what he feels like he has under control—lunches—and everything he doesn’t, including transitions, bathroom use, advisories, and more. Given the uncertainty, it’s vital for school leaders to seek solutions with other stakeholders. “It’s not my singular job to solve every problem out there,” McCann said. “When I recognize the power of collaboration and give that power to others. Together, we’re going to come up with a plan, and then we’ll iterate and come up with a better plan.”

“There’s going to be a lot of failure, but that’s okay,” McCann added. “This is a great year to model vulnerability.”

All three school leaders stressed that the year to come will be challenging but one that they and their peers will be prepared to take on. A guidebook and toolkit on how school leaders can lead their learning communities through systems change is available from the Wallace Foundation and may help identify ways to address the expected and unexpected challenges to come.

“This is going to be rocky, but we will come out at the end,” Bell said. “The storm will pass, and we’ll get through on the other side.”

See more from the Principals Power-Up Virtual Symposium here.

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