Many school districts have continued to provide virtual learning options for students even as the pandemic continues to affect our communities. Some have launched fully remote schools and are recruiting virtual principals to lead them. Others are adding virtual leadership responsibilities onto their building leaders’ plates. In either case, these reconstituted boundaries of school mean principals have become liminal leaders in this pandemic era—leaders who now govern between the old and the new, between the campus and the cloud.
A recent principal effectiveness report, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” by Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay at The Wallace Foundation, identified three overlapping realms of effective principal leadership: instruction, people, and organization. While this research does not account for these emerging virtual leadership roles, it does provide a lens through which 21st-century principals can view the standards of effective leadership and begin to ask themselves: How do these practices translate to the virtual space? To understand each of these domains within the scope of liminal leadership, principals can turn to the experience of veteran online school leaders for insight.
Effective principals are skilled instructional leaders; strong instructional leadership involves ethos and actions. Instructional ethos refers to having a clear and consistent vision for high-quality teaching and learning and cultivating a school culture to promote that vision. Instructional actions refer to the principals’ direct observations and conversations with teachers that unite vision with practice. Like traditional building leaders, liminal leaders must clearly communicate the ethos and the actions that constitute quality virtual instruction. In the absence of defined practices and structures, virtual schools risk overtaxing students with too many digital tools, inconsistent expectations, and variable procedures; worse, they risk providing an inferior educational experience.
For many leaders, the emergency shift to virtual learning forced them to make quick decisions about online platforms and curricula that may not have aligned with the district’s educational philosophy. As schools move away from crisis-based choices, they can begin to make more intentional decisions about curriculum and course design tailored to the district’s ethos.
Develop a Virtual Program Evaluation Committee
One way to begin is by examining existing virtual programs to determine which ones match the district’s shared learning theory. For instance, if a district subscribes to place-based or experiential learning models, which virtual programs ask students to engage in authentic investigations that require research, collaboration, and community? Which programs simply ask students to complete textbook exercises on the computer? Liminal leaders have to ask these critical questions to ensure they unite ethos and actions. They should work with their school teams to develop program evaluation tools based on the instructional vision to audit these curricula and guarantee alignment.
If school teams decide to develop curriculum in-house, they will also want to identify a unified approach to instructional design. The good news is that veteran cyber leaders have been establishing instructional visions for virtual learning long before the pandemic. In the study “Leading From a Distance: The Virtual School Principal as Instructional Leader,” online leaders shared that they have leveraged tools like the ISTE Standards for Educators, iNACOL’s National Standards for Quality Online Courses, and Quality Matters rubrics to guide their staff in designing effective online courses. These models can serve as frameworks for educators who don’t know where to begin.
According to Grissom, et al., effective principals “possess the skills that enable them to provide effective, structured feedback to teachers, with the goal of motivating them to refine their practices.” Clear and transparent instructional visions are necessary for designing observational tools and rubrics to guide virtual teaching. Once a vision for virtual learning and course design is established, leaders can do the actionable work of instructional coaching.
Positioning the principal in a technology-mediated space changes the organizational dynamics and the relationship between leaders and their colleagues. Caring, communication, and trust are the hallmarks of positive principal-staff relationships. But how can a virtual principal demonstrate care, communicate effectively, and build trust if that principal is perceived as “invisible” to the students and staff?
Care, Communication, and Trust
Care can take many forms, and a caring community is attainable even when students and staff are separated by time and space. Care is often shown through meaningful conversations and active listening. Virtual leaders can establish standing one-on-one meetings with teachers or small groups of staff; mail handwritten notes home to teachers, students, and families; and show empathy through inclusive and shared decision making. Caring virtual leaders also need to be sensitive to time spent online. Phone calls and texts in place of video conferencing demonstrate care for virtual teachers who spend hours staring at their screens.
Effective communication for online principals starts with being an active presence in the virtual learning community. A few simple ways principals could increase their visibility and ramp up communication include engaging students during synchronous class sessions; hosting virtual town hall meetings; conducting student, staff, and parent focus groups; and offering virtual assemblies or panels on specific topics. They can communicate more formally through live daily announcements or weekly newsletters, or informally through social media. For instance, virtual leaders can schedule regular social media posts that highlight and humanize students, staff, and teachers, and showcase student work. Making digital learning and virtual school more “visible” on social media reduces disconnectedness and builds a sense of community.
Like care, trust is developed over time; it is often the sum of many small actions that make people feel safe, seen, and heard. For example, consistent and frequent communication sent through reliable digital platforms helps develop trust. Liminal leaders need to ensure that the virtual community knows how to access specific information and how and where to provide feedback or contribute ideas.
A cohesive learning management system (LMS) with two-way communication and an organized and up-to-date website can help mitigate confusion and ease student and parent anxiety around communication. Districts should approach selecting an LMS as they would curriculum—using a vision-driven program evaluation committee.
Invest Equitably in Virtual Learning
Principals who are rated as having strong organizational management skills correlate with higher student achievement. In district-run virtual schools, strong organizational management means effectively allocating resources for virtual teacher professional development, sufficient technology, and adequate personnel to meet the needs of students and staff. As online schooling expands, superintendents and state-level leaders must right-size professional development and curriculum budgets to reflect the proportion of online staff and students. Since the pandemic, professional development opportunities about online teaching and technology have expanded, but as in-person learning returns, leaders will have to resist the urge to prioritize face-to-face curriculum and instruction initiatives over the unique needs of virtual educators.
Rethink Daily Schedules
Strong virtual organizational management also requires that leaders think strategically about daily scheduling and student support. They must leverage the flexibility that is endemic to virtual instruction and reconsider the traditional bell schedule online. Students and staff both benefit from synchronous and asynchronous learning; the pandemic revealed that “seat time” is an outmoded metric for learning. Virtual schedules shouldn’t be fossils of the six-period school day; instead, liminal leaders should begin with student needs and build support around those needs. A student-centered virtual schedule may mean starting synchronous classes later in the day; creating unstructured, open periods where students can pop in for support; or using co-teaching models that maximize the power of whole-group instruction while allowing for more intimate breakout sessions.
The K–12 principal is a liminal leader with broadened virtual leadership responsibilities, yet even the most current research on principal effectiveness does not account for virtual leadership. While the educational field gathers more empirical data on what constitutes effective virtual leadership, liminal leaders can turn to veteran virtual principals to learn how what we know about instruction, people, and organizational management in traditional settings can translate into virtual learning landscapes.
Sarah Pazur, PhD, is the director of school leadership for a network of public schools across Michigan and the co-founder of FlexTech Education in Brighton, MI.