COVID-19 impacted school communities like no other challenge ever has. During the closing-out process in June 2020—and in the fall of 2020—students and teachers prepared for instruction in a different manner than ever before. To lead their schools back into a positive school climate following the COVID-19 pandemic, principals can focus on the following five “STEPS” to achieve success.

S Is for Students First

Most educators live by the adage, “We’ll do what’s best for students.” This is certainly easier to say than do. In classes, a student-centered philosophy will lead administration and teachers to learn new ways to engage students instructionally.

Consider how educators have adjusted to our national school closure limitations. At Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) in Chesapeake, VA, teachers, counselors, and administrators have learned how to facilitate video conference meetings, post lessons on new platforms like Google Classroom, and adjust lessons to accommodate the unique circumstances that students and their families are experiencing. A second lesson learned was the importance of getting student feedback about what was—and was not—effective during the remote learning phase. Students are our primary clients, and their experiences should be the compass for our instructional landscape. This new acquisition of skills occurred because we have a shared vision in Bruin Country: We are 100 percent committed to teaching our students first and the class content second.

T Is for Teacher Retention and Recruitment

More than any other aspect of school, teachers have the most profound impact on student achievement. With this in mind, the quest for every principal is to retain the teachers who connect well with students and are most effective with actively using these strategies. At the same time, we must also fill vacancies with teachers who can reach students emotionally and academically.

At WBMS, we have gone through a significant transformation in my six years as principal. We have intentionally retained and sought out teachers who were mission-spirited about serving students; in other words, we only hire staff who are passionate about their calling. We know who they are. These are the staff who are mentors, role models, and purveyors of kindness to all students, not just those who appear on their rosters. For these teachers, it is not a job to educate; it is their identity. They are so much more than excellent classroom instructors; they are also inspirational school leaders.

As we prepare for the next school year, we realize that adjustments must be made to retain this most talented family of educators. First, a renewed focus is needed on professional development for teaching and learning virtually. Teachers need to feel empowered with knowledge of not only the most effective ways to facilitate virtual learning, but they also need information on the best practices with motivating students to participate in this type of setting. Second, and equally important, principals must attend to the social-emotional needs of their staff. Weekly check-ins allow staff to maintain some degree of normalcy and rapport, and to ensure their needs are also being met. Principals must remember that even though they can handle so much responsibility and pressure, teachers are not machines, and as such, they need to emotionally decompress and be able to vent in a safe setting.

E Is for Equity

Providing equity to students is hard work. It takes courage. Courage to identify when a group of students does not have fair access to a program or school experience. Courage to challenge the status quo. Courage to challenge historical practices that contribute to the disproportionality of minorities with discipline (overrepresentation in suspensions) and academics (underrepresentation in advanced classes). In these instances, courage is not defined as the absence of fear; instead, it is action while one is fearful or anxious.

If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has highlighted the embedded and systemic inequities that exist within school systems across America. In schools last year, we found students who did not have the same resources at home—internet, devices, stable environment—so their opportunity to continue their education virtually was hindered significantly compared to their peers. These same inequities that were discovered during the school closures are equally impactful during a “regular” school year; they’re just better hidden when buildings are open for business. This pandemic has underscored that equity is not something we should “do” for a particular phase of closure or designated week or month. Equity is a philosophy and mission that permeates every facet of a school’s DNA.

Staff at WBMS took equity to a higher level when 25 of 70 teachers volunteered to meet for a five-week self-analysis study in April and May 2020. The purpose was to discuss how we would provide equitable practices to students during and after the school closure. We formulated ideas such as increasing our social-emotional learning sessions from once to twice per month, providing professional development for parents on ways to best support their children in virtual settings, and training staff on how to effectively facilitate online learning, with an emphasis on continuing to meet social-emotional learning needs.

Finally, to provide an even higher level of equity for our students, we refocused our school improvement efforts on student and staff learning needs. This continued effort to help our staff build positive and quality relationships with students has led to our next equity initiative for the 2020–21 school year: responsive classrooms.

P Is for Personalization

One of the most important focal points for middle level principals is personalization. Originally developed by NASSP, the Breaking Ranks model highlighted this skill as one of three pivotal pillars that separate “average” from “superior” middle level schools. This personalization element has a laser focus on both the environment as well as the needs of individual students.

We take personalization seriously at WBMS. It is paramount in every decision we make about the way the school appears, how it feels when students walk in the building, and the overall experience that stakeholders have while at school. For example, we believe that the experience of being a Bruin begins the moment you step onto our campus. Outside our school, we pay purposeful attention to removing graffiti from light poles, building beautiful flower beds, and installing engraved bricks—with the names of current and former Bruins—to accentuate our school pride.

Inside the building, visitors find recognitions for both students and staff located throughout the school. Both academic and citizenship recognitions adorn our school’s main hallway. Another way we personalize WBMS is with student artwork, which is proudly showcased on ceiling tiles, benches, and trash cans. Lastly, we put school spirit on full display, as our bulletin boards are updated monthly with creative and student-centered designs about upcoming events and celebrations for our Bruin family to enjoy.

The school closure proved a major impediment to providing these types of personalization. Like every other school, we had to think outside the box. For our students, we were able to host several virtual events. Our student council association took the lead by creating videos for students to remember each other and events from earlier in the year. The elective teachers joined in by recording personal messages to their students and expressing how much they were missed. Annual events that we knew our students would be disappointed to miss quickly became virtual to keep their Bruin pride alive. For example, we hosted the annual semiformal dance by video (which included students and staff dressed in their semiformal attire, as well as featuring the traditional superlative award winners), the eighth-grade year-in-review video, the talent show, and each grade level’s academic awards ceremony.

We found that the school closure highlighted a particular group of students who struggle significantly more than others. Students with autism missed the routine and structure that our teachers provided them when they were physically in school. So, in response, we have planned several sensory projects. The first is our new sensory hallway, which will include multicolored rubber floor mats, colored ceiling light covers, and sequined, reversible fabric on the walls. These items will help our students improve their focus as they learn more about themselves and their abilities. Perhaps most exciting will be our venture into our first-ever sensory-friendly, semiformal dance. In addition to having sensory-friendly lighting, music, and décor, we are inviting student leaders from various organizations to help their peers celebrate and enjoy this special event.

S Is for School Leader

Paul Metler, author of Leadership Transformation, a handbook from OneInitiative that provides professional development, states, “Leadership is about influencing others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good.” Leadership requires you to develop a shared vision with those with whom you work, challenge yourself and the status quo, and embrace change and accountability as the building blocks for serving your clients.

As is true with equity, leadership can and should involve both staff and students. As Albert Einstein said, it is essential to see that “failure is success in progress.” Keeping this in mind, it is imperative that we give constructive feedback to staff, with careful consideration for each individual’s readiness to receive it. However, when done right, watching the growth that staff members make can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the principalship.

At WBMS, we develop school leaders throughout the year in several ways. In addition to the formal positions of department chair, team leader, or professional learning community leader, staff members can lead one or more of our 60 extracurricular club programs. Staff can also facilitate professional development sessions, sponsor schoolwide events, or lead a taskforce. These opportunities have led our school to the forefront of shaping tomorrow’s empowered school leaders.

Developing student leaders is admittedly one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a principal. Over the years, I have learned that it is not as simple as assigning a student to a leadership position—such as president of a club or captain of a sports team. Through my growth with positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), I have realized the power of setting clear expectations combined with sustained training. Some of my most memorable experiences have been with our student council weekly meetings, our student advisory council—four times per year—and our monthly town hall meetings during lunches.

Moving forward, we have new expectations for how our school leaders will reach these goals. Their discovery of virtual meetings and improved communication will become part of our “new normal” as we look forward to their leadership skills evolving in the coming months. Specifically with student leadership, we will include students as members of our PBIS team, which meets monthly. With teacher leaders, we witnessed many of our quieter staff members stepping into leadership positions with their colleagues by teaching them new technological strategies and sharing their instructional expertise. In 2020–21, we have strategically sought out these and other “behind the scenes” teachers to elicit their feedback and develop their leadership skills.

Where tragedies strike, opportunities abound. The COVID-19 pandemic knocked every organization and the people in them to their knees, but we must prioritize reestablishing connections to the people we serve and those with whom we work. This relationship-building process should be as thoughtful as it is strategic. The STEPS outlined here are one way for principals to rebuild, restructure, and reinvigorate a positive school culture for our stakeholders. Harnessing the passion, energy, and enthusiasm of students and staff is paramount to making our school year the best one possible. When we eventually come back together in person, we are going to have the chance to reflect on our experiences and share our stories as we finally breathe a sigh of relief publicly—hopefully without the need for a mask!

S. Kambar Khoshaba, EdD, is the principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.