Education has always been about people who want the best for their students, so it is no surprise that COVID-19 left leaders and educators searching for ideas, strategies, and innovative resources. Educators and leaders alike were thrown into online teaching platforms for the first time beyond preparation or expectation. The feelings of anxiety and frustration resulted in a need for intentional instructional leadership that could mobilize with little preparation.

Building collaborative relationships holds the potential to unite leaders, educators, and the public as they forge ahead to provide and consider equitable access as well as expectations that pave the road for increased effectiveness, school improvement, and student success—despite the pandemic. When we streamline instructional leadership efforts and view the culture of achievement as an opportunity to reconceptualize and motivate, lasting change and future impact can result. Today—more than ever—what administrators do matters.

Instructional Leadership

An overarching theme continues to exist among leaders, one that sought to ensure the safety and survival of staff amid school closures once the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Many leaders reported promoting activities that contributed to the well-being and mental health needs of a hurting staff. Organizing and supervising rigorous practices to relax and connect co-workers rose to the forefront in place of curriculum and instructional meetings.

Bucky Kramer, assistant principal at North Putnam Middle School in Roachdale, IN, invited all staff to participate in a variety of activities that included stretching, playing games, guided drawing, and zero school talk during weekly scheduled virtual meetings. “It was all about relaxing and connecting with co-workers,” he says. As leaders recognize the importance of mental health and well-being, teachers have indicated that they would like this practice to continue and be offered to students. Students’ mental health has changed over the past few months, so school leaders and teachers need to ensure that mental health needs are a top priority moving forward.

As this past school year progressed, educators said that they longed for more careful consideration for effective long-term solutions. Some teachers said they felt like they were just assigning busy work to get through the end of the year—they don’t want to do that. They want to be effective in educating students, specifically for those who need more attention.

Educator and author Flower Darby states in her article “How to Be a Better Online Teacher—The Chronicle of Higher Education” that a hallmark of good teaching is the desire to keep getting better—a commitment to improvement. Educators want to duplicate that same zeal in the online classroom. In recognizing the needs of students, leaders need collaborative, multifaceted partnerships with counselors, special educators, and instructional strategists, Kramer says. He notes that those collaborative partnerships are essential to providing improved approaches, resources, and guidance in support of teachers and for meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Although no one knew the format of teaching would change in such a dramatic way, many educators found comfort in knowing that they would have the opportunity to plan for the upcoming school year. Still, teachers need a clear and precise plan for the future outlined by administrators—how their school will operate, what the experience will look like, and ways to implement content effectively. If they know about potential options, then they know how to prepare.

As leaders prepare to cross waters not yet charted, many seek guidance, looking for models and resources from those who have gone before them. Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute’s Administrator Guide to Online Learning establishes many foundational requirements for compliance and implementation of online programs. The guide summarizes and outlines implementation, includes stipulations from legislation, and features many best practices to assist schools or districts with their planning and execution. What’s more, it offers a variety of training and support to parents/guardians, counselors, and mentors to prepare them to best support online learners.

In preparing and considering the options, educators, as stakeholders in the educational environment, want their personal needs to be considered. “I need to know that I will be supported somehow if my son’s school outside of my own district decides to close. If this school closes due to the pandemic, I may also lose my childcare provider who is considered high risk due to her age. Hopefully, both of our schools will be on the same schedule, but if not, this will present a big challenge to our family, as my husband is also a teacher,” noted one educator. Teacher voice continues to be a critical element in any successful approach, even during a pandemic.

Culture of Achievement

As schools explore options and approaches for a new future, educators specify a need for leaders who possess strong structured leadership capabilities and a willingness to be flexible and learn alongside them. Many teachers would like more in-depth training on the methods leaders expect to be used. That way, all are on the same page and students are getting what they need. Classroom management—according to the authors of “Best Practices in Teaching K–12 Online: Lessons Learned From Michigan Virtual School Teachers”—should be considered by leaders as the starting point in online education, as it is a key component to quality online instruction and is seen to help build a community of practice in online classrooms.

According to those same authors, the consistency of a schoolwide message while facing uncertainty and adapting to circumstances as they unfold provides hope and resilience. A school’s culture of achievement and vision of success for every student should maintain alignment with the schoolwide message. Leaders must understand best practices in the new environment, listen to professional recommendations, and back those recommendations to sustain consistency.

Keep in mind, however, that a culture of achievement that sets high standards for academic rigor and behavioral expectations that replicate the pace and type of work done in a brick-and-mortar setting may be unrealistic.

Educators need the administration to support a culture of rigor rather than urging grades. They need leaders to understand times have changed and student progress will look different—we cannot hold students to the same standards that they would have in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Horn had echoed a similar sentiment in their article “Can Digital Learning Transform Education?” when stating, “What hinged on making the most of remarkable opportunities is our willingness to alter a host of ingrained practices. Moving away from seat-time requirements toward a competency- based system, in which students advance upon mastery of a concept or skill, is critical to unleashing full power.”

Meanwhile, some teachers fear that if the new environment lacks rigor and high expectations, it will hinder students. Because some schools opted for pass/fail grades this past spring, some worry they were setting a precedent for the future. But educator fears may be fueled more by a loss of control, fear of the unknown, and a longing for the status quo. According to Liz Mineo, in her article “The Pandemic’s Impact on Education,” struggling to restore the status quo may not suffice, as the status quo may not have been operating at an equity level.

Leaders are familiar with the practice of guiding and building staff in educational programming. Rodney Simpson, principal at Bainbridge Elementary School in Bainbridge, IN, said that during this time leaders expressed a continued commitment to their staff and identified the need to connect with students and their families. Linda Schroeder, the assistant director of Old National Trail Special Services—a part of the North Putnam Community School Corporation in Greencastle, IN—said leaders recognized that training for teachers had been implemented, but just to prepare and address a total academic curriculum online for a day or two, not months. However, even when teachers were trained, the families were not. Educational leaders can use the crisis as an opportunity to redesign a better system of education, Mineo says. Without doing so, the most economically challenged in society will continue to be the most vulnerable, and the advantaged are likely to survive without losing too much ground.

Empowered and effective educators and staff are built through deliberate, respectful, trusting relationships by confident, productive leaders. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use tools available to maintain continuity of learning with realistic expectations.

Building Relationships

According to the Educational Leadership Constituent Council’s educational leadership program standards, it’s no longer enough for a principal or school leader to only manage school finances, maintain a spotless and safe building, and keep the buses running on time. Education leaders must also provide evidence students are being prepared for college, careers, and life. Waves of change were inevitable this fall, and many leaders met with stakeholders—as well as referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines—to review their options. No individual leader can accomplish these goals alone. Regardless of the crisis, educators want an environment in which each teacher feels equally respected and appreciated. All teachers should be allowed input when big changes are considered. Now more than ever, educators need to be a part of the decision-making process. Research shows that when leaders use strategies to increase empowerment, morale also improves. Plus, collaboratively working with the public is advantageous if the face of education is to be changed. Mineo acknowledges the newfound public awareness of pervasive inequities revealed by the crisis and hopes a sense of urgency has been created in the public domain.

The pandemic also reminds us of the opportunity for skills students need, such as informed decision making, creative problem-solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability. In order to ensure those skills remain a priority for all, leaders need to recognize that resilience must be built into the systems.

Given the conditions resulting from the pandemic, considerations may need to be made for preparation programs to prepare all leaders for a virtual future. A study titled “Challenges of Virtual School Leadership” by Jayson Richardson, Jason LaFrance, and Dennis Beck suggests that although virtual school leaders face many of the same categorical challenges as brick-and-mortar schools, their nuances are distinct. Hence, the field of educational leadership must respond in every educational context as virtual schools may challenge effective school leadership standards in the future.

Moving Forward

Regardless of the setting, education remains about teaching and learning. In the end, educators continue to ask for understanding that everyone is doing their best to meet student needs in this difficult and changing time. Leaders should applaud and recognize educators’ successes, as they have worked tirelessly to provide the best services they could throughout the closures, connecting with students and attempting not to leave any behind.

As the next phase unfolds, leaders have the opportunity to revolutionize the future of education foundational concepts—such as instructional leadership, the culture of achievement, and relationship building. Never has the American education system held such potential to be modernized, accelerated, individualized, and increased in student achievement, all while creating quality options for students and families among, in, and beyond schools.

Lynn Scott is a current doctoral student in the College of Community Innovation and Education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Collaborative Leadership

Creating Structures for Staff Members to Work Together
You can actively create structures for staff members to co-plan, to engage in collective reflection or learning, and to give one another constructive, actionable feedback. Teacher team structures can be a strong way for staff members to collaborate for the improvement of student learning opportunities and strengthened instructional practices. In the classroom, teachers can facilitate structures for students to collaborate and learn together. Principals can create and empower an instructional leadership team for staff members to contribute to school decisions through a consistent structure.

Collaborative Leadership is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.