My school, Indio High School in Indio, CA, has faced many challenges over these past two years. Throughout the pandemic, we have lost members of our school community: a beloved student, a coach, a teacher, and a teacher’s spouse. Many of our students live in intergenerational homes, where COVID-19 spread and led to the death of parents and grandparents. In the past two years, I’ve officiated 11 funerals in the community. Beyond these losses, I’ve been communicating messages about school closures, remote learning, and mask mandates, like school leaders across the country.
Having strong relationships is essential to being the bearer of bad news. It helps that I am from this community. I graduated from Indio High School, and before I was a teacher, I served as a youth minister. I’ve taught many of my students’ parents and even went to school with some of their grandparents. They know me and trust me as a member of this community.
In addition to relationship building, it’s helpful to be prepared ahead of time when delivering bad news. I’d suggest creating for yourself some templates for potential situations so that when the need arises, you’ll have a draft to start from. To save yourself time, review examples from other experienced principals or from your district’s public information officer. But be sure to adapt these into a message that feels authentic to you. Your community wants to hear from you because they trust you, so make sure the message is written in your voice.
Next, after sharing difficult news, especially after a death, it’s important to create opportunities for others to share. When we lost a teacher 3 weeks ago, it was important for people to express their grief but also to connect with each other to share their warm feelings about the deceased. I wrote an email to our team announcing Mr. Jackson’s death and included a picture of him with one of his prized students receiving an award. I wanted to remind everyone of who he was and what he stood for. Then, I created an online repository where staff and students could share their memories. Some of our staff had him as a teacher and others had worked with him for 27 years. There was an outpouring of pictures and stories. Soon we’ll hold a memorial in the quad, and we will also give people a chance to share their memories in person.
Sharing News of School Closures and Mask Mandates
Then there is the news that I am tasked with sharing on school closures and mask mandates. I try to communicate these in a way that will end any pushback before it starts. When school began in the fall with a mask mandate, for example, I met with teachers and students from each grade level independently, made a weekly broadcast on YouTube, text messaged parents, and sent out a newsletter. Across each of these lines of communication, I emphasized that I knew not everyone liked wearing masks but that our goal was to keep students safe and secure every students’ opportunity to learn and socialize.
I also explained that several of our students had lost a parent or family member to the virus, and we did not want them to feel scared about catching COVID-19 at school and bringing it home. Then—and this part is important—I made it a point to say how grateful I was that our kids care about each other so much that they have been keeping each other safe by wearing their masks.
The very next week, I took pictures of students in masks at lunch time and sent them out with a note about how proud and honored I was to work in a community where people are so concerned with each other’s welfare more than their own that they even chose to wear them outdoors where not required. Because of this, I have not had to serve as the mask police at all.
I know these are challenging times, but my final piece of advice is to stay the course. I see too many principals retiring early and that concerns me. I understand that this job is difficult, especially now. I’m getting to work around 6 a.m. every day just to figure out how to ensure I have class coverage. But I’m not going anywhere, even though I’ll be 60 this year. I just couldn’t do that to my staff or my community. With so much change and a shifting educational landscape, they rely on and need some consistency and predictability. My role and that of every principal is to provide that calm in the storm, that steadfastness that they can rely upon.
But as school leaders we must prioritize our own well-being. We cannot fill everyone’s emotional cup if ours has run dry. I make sure to schedule time in my day to unwind, breathe, and listen to soothing music. I surround myself with things that make me happy. I’m a big Disney fan, so I have Disney paraphernalia all over my office: my hand sanitizer, my stapler, my coffee cup, and even my pen and pencils are Disney themed. That way, when I’m dealing with challenging moments, I can ground myself in a memory of spending time at Disneyland with my family. Today, I brought my tennis racket to school to get in a few minutes of exercise and enjoy some fresh air with the tennis team as they practice and help “fill their cup” while revitalizing myself.
We need self-care routines outside of school, too. For example, every Saturday my wife and I have a standing breakfast date at the local greasy spoon. Find ways to ground yourself, to care for yourself, and to create some joyful routines so that you too can keep leading your school.