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The Pillars of Leadership During Uncertainty



We know that leadership matters - it’s the backbone of any school and all districts. As principals and school leaders, we are not unfamiliar with uncertainty. We’ve built our careers on balancing unknowns as teaching and learning is not one-size-fits-all, nor do students all prescribe to it the same way. When I was principal of a K-8 STEM title school, our daily mantra was, “fail fast and pivot.” Each day brought new surprises and opportunities to learn a great deal about not only who I was as a leader but as a human being. 


When I first thought about the new challenges schools are facing amid the COVID-19 crisis and our role in supporting them, my first reaction was, “it will be okay, we were built for this.” Being “built for this” does not imply that we had a coronavirus pandemic plan in our back pocket nor could we dust off a manual on how to respond during this time. It does imply that the mindsets and strong culture we have cultivated among our teams, staff and even community will be our greatest asset. 


The new normal has brought about so many questions and so much uncertainty. How will principals continue to develop and support their educators and provide clear communication and timely updates? How will principals be supported as they navigate everything from online learning to food scarcity in some communities? 


Now, perhaps more than ever, the galvanizing of human and professional capital to solve problems will be our greatest investment. While the disruption is real, the education industry can look to strong industry models for inspiration to define their pillars on how to move forward. 


Take a Page from Industry’s Remote Communications

Industry has a long history of telecommuting. Many companies across a variety of industries have defined platforms for collaboration and communication. What can we learn from them? 


We can benefit from the plethora of existing collaboration tools. We’ve seen educators take to Zoom or Google for question and answer sessions or Schoology to push their content and units. We’ve heard about educators hosting Netflix viewing parties online to discuss documentaries or elementary educators posting videos demonstrating the signs of spring. As we all scramble for how to connect our students and communities, we also cannot lose sight of how we connect our colleagues and teams together to ensure professional support and learning is not halted. Whatever the platform to keep learning moving forward, we also cannot lose sight of the importance of connecting people. 


The opportunities for distance learning have been made slightly easier with companies stepping up to offer steep discounts or free limited-time access to content for parents, educators and students alike, but just as we are very diligent about vetting curricular resources, the need to be “picky” and well-researched in what tools and resources are best is crucial. With the abundance of information to sift through, deciding on what is noise and what is important is key. It is also vital to assess resources into near-term and long-term categories. What do I (as a school leader) need right now-what will serve me best as I triage AND what do I need over the next several months?


Embrace Entrepreneurial Models

For many school leaders, shifting to a project management mindset will be incredibly helpful. I have said for a long time that education cannot and should not do it alone. Partnerships are paramount and intersecting education and industry to support each other is a must in this new paradigm of learning, absent of a physical school structure. 


Keeping solutions simple and scalable is key. During times of uncertainty, the path forward is often not linear, it can be messy. Start-ups are masterful at asking “how” questions to source viable solutions. Coupling that with cultivating ideas from diverse groups and not being afraid to add “and” to our idea making. How do we (as school leaders) continue to support our communities first and foremost AND ensure we reach all of our diverse learner needs? 


We can learn from our business and start up community to have somewhat porous boundaries and lean into partnerships to transact a win-win and source solutions for our questions. Well into the 21st century, we have been discussing and designing what innovation looks like in education in the fourth industrial revolution, now we need to enact those ideas, together.


Remember the Human Element

Leading a school remotely is not easy, just as leading a nonprofit or company remotely has its challenges, and I believe there is a lot to be learned from each other. The human element of the current crisis should be the first priority for all organizations. Like more conscious organizations, superintendents and school principals are putting their communities first and prioritizing health and well-being. Creating networks for leaders to connect, intersect with community partners, and share ideas is an asset we all need especially those centered on the basic needs and resources for communities we all care about. Hyper-localized ideas that can be globally applied will be the new commodity not only in business but in education. 


Throughout our professional experiences at mindSpark Learning, we train and teach our clients to lean into disruption, even cultivate it and learn from it. We talk about the need for distributive leadership and the power of multidisciplinary teams and the need for empathy in problem solving. Fostering a growth mindset is not new for educators, it is part of our everyday vernacular and now it is being put to the test. 


Educators are resilient and relentless in their pursuit to champion their students and their families. Companies can learn from educators and school leaders on what it means to build community and support a wide variety of stakeholders. Transformation of any kind for any organization takes courage. Careful, proactive leadership doesn’t just happen because suddenly all the systems we know stop working, but it can be cultivated and developed. I was never formally trained to break up a fight, ask a squatter community to leave my school grounds or be the first to console a student who lost their sibling to violence but in the moment you adapt and overcome; you learn to anticipate and act. 


During a crisis, school leaders will need to rely on these critical pillars more than ever, just as CEOs will have to relinquish some of their top-down approaches and mobilize and empower their teams. One of the positive outcomes from our long-debated school accountability systems is creating a culture of transparency. Even if we don’t agree with the techniques, educators and school leaders are masterful at collecting and deciphering data, discussing how the data impacts a students’ learning trajectory and adjusting based on that data. We know how to disseminate information for the purpose of pivoting and being responsive. During a crisis, the ability to collect and disseminate well-vetted information demonstrates a leaders ability to remain calm and informed. Now is the time for brilliance and unparalleled collaboration remotely. We are seeing school leaders and educators rise to the occasion as they do everyday inside their schools to build and maintain a new level of normalcy for our future workforce. 


As CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to supporting our country’s educational systems, during the past few weeks (and as always), the greatest tool in my arsenal has been my staff, my team. The foundation of who we are is to be agile and responsive. We see challenges as opportunities and we have a prevalent start-up mentality, adjusting constantly. Our core principles, like solving problems like it is our job (because it is), making the weirdest connection we can to transact a win-win, leaving organizations systems better than we found them and pursuing opportunities and cultivating potential, have ricoheted to the forefront reminding us, we are stronger together. And yes, in the face of adversity and uncertainty, we were built for this. 


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