Henry (Hank) Thiele, Superintendent for Community High School District 99 in Thorndale (IL) can’t stop looking forward.
Despite the current, daily chaos of re-opening and lockdowns, hybrid and remote learning, and other disruptive undercurrents affecting schools, he believes that being prepared for what’s next is as important as dealing with the problems of right now.
In this conversation with eSchool News, Hank offers his insights for education professionals that will have to deal with fractured communities in the future even after they are “back to normal.”
The following has been edited for clarity.
eSN: It must be maddening to manage a district in times like this.
HT: In this current situation, sometimes we’re building programs in three days that we would have spent three years building in the past. These are just massive seismic organizational changes. And, you’re pulling on resources and pushing people so quickly at uncomfortable rates. All at the same time, your number one priority is keeping everybody healthy and safe. So it’s an all-new vocabulary and mindset—just things that we never had had concepts around before.
I will say that being raised on technology in leadership for the last 15 years definitely prepared me somewhat because in tech as it is always wildly changing. There can be just a quick introduction of a new idea, something comes in and causes massive ripples throughout your thinking or your planning or how you’re going to respond. And some of that really helped me heading into this year, but nothing can totally prepare you for what we’ve seen.
eSN: Have you noticed a change in the way in which the community interacts because of this crisis?
HT: Absolutely. You know, we all have to remember that schools are just an extension of their communities. So everything that we have seen in society we see in schools and that has been amplified very much so. There are those taking it very seriously and we have the other direction that thinks that this really is nothing more than the flu and we’re overreacting and we’re destroying our economy and our children and, and everything because of it.
And if you had a tick mark of degrees everywhere between one side and the other side, I have somebody everywhere along that. That could be a parent. It could be a teacher. It could be a student. And then we have groupings of those that have formed, you know, via social media, across our community. Heading into this school year, it became very toxic to the point where I had to issue a statement to my community of like, “Enough, this is not helping.” We’re all trying to do what’s best for our district, for our children. You need to do that as a parent, but threatening one another, threatening school, board members, threatening administration? That’s not how we get this work done.
eSN: How do you solve that?!
HT: You have to start focusing on moving forward. I think one of the biggest challenges for school systems in society is how we heal from those fractures that have occurred over the course of time. And when you layer inside of that, we have had racial strife that has caused fractures. We have had political strife that has caused other fractures. We have a whole lot of healing to do once we’re all vaccinated and can get back together with one another. It’s going to start with people who aren’t even used to being around each other anymore.
There’s going to be a time period here where people are going to have to get used to being around one another again, and actually conversing with a full body experience rather than just talking heads. We’re not, we’re not ready for that but we have to get ready and get there.
I know with our kids returning to in-person learning here more frequently, I’ve heard a lot of kids talking— “Well, I didn’t think that’s what that kid looked like.” Or— “Oh, that’s the kid that is annoying in class online. He wasn’t so annoying when we were in class together.” These dynamics and relationships are gonna have to change.
I have people on my staff that I’ve never been in the same room with. We have students that have never stepped foot on campus and they’re almost sophomores. There’s going to be a lot of healing and getting to know one another, and knowledge to gain, to move forward.
eSN: Do you see any of these hybrid techniques sticking around when things get back to normal, whatever that means?
HT: I think there’s going to definitely be some holdovers. What we have heard from teachers and from parents that one-on-one meetings were far more effective over Zoom. They didn’t have to rush out of work. They could do it, whether they were home or at work still, they could hop on for a quick session. If they couldn’t get in that night, they could just schedule a different five-minute chunk sometime in the next couple of weeks and drop in and get to know the teacher and get their questions answered. And it worked really effectively.
We are hearing that IEP meetings are far more effective because you need to pull together this wide variety of team members to gather, to have an effective IEP meeting. Parents don’t have to leave work to get there. You can get more people in the room because schedules are easier to work out.
eSN: So maybe another silver lining from all this madness?
HT: Right. Well, everybody’s a heck of a lot more comfortable on video now along with sharing and uploading resources and finding resources. If nothing else, the digital literacy of society has taken a massive leap forward.