How much would you pay for a crystal ball that could foresee the next school crisis? Though the ongoing pandemic has been referred to as a ‘once-in-a -lifetime crisis for school,’ we know that future crises are, unfortunately, inevitable. What schools, educators and families have experienced over the last two years has radically changed our understanding of what it means to truly care for students and teachers.
After nearly 20 years in education, one thing I have learned is there is no ‘normal.’ Whether it is a nationwide teacher shortage, challenging politics, funding instability or the devastating impact of gun violence on our communities, there is always a school crisis to navigate.
How can schools prepare for the next crisis while ensuring their long-term success? I may not have that crystal ball, but I do have leadership philosophies that have helped our schools remain the highest-performing elementary schools in their respective neighborhoods.
I hope, pandemic or not, schools can continue to share working methods with each other so that all students have access to high-quality education.
- Clear the Clutter: Minimize Complexity. I live by the Jim Rohn quote: “To be successful, you don’t need to do extraordinary things; you just need to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.” In light of the great complexity of educating students, leaders must keep the strategy simple.
Every year we see new curricula, new technology interfaces, and new trends that can divert attention from the core of what we know works. Saying no to the many distractions is an important leadership skill. Help your team clear away the clutter by giving them simple, proven strategies that can be replicated across classrooms and schools. At LEARN, we are laser focused on high expectations for our students and staff, wraparound support for students and families, and partnering with parents.
- Top Priority: Talent. This should be the #1 priority of any leader. If you do not get the people right, no strategy will work. When I interview candidates for any position, there are three things I look for: 1) They have a clear understanding of why our work is so critically important. Educating children – especially in an urban environment – is difficult work. Candidates who are not clear on their ‘why’ from the beginning struggle to succeed when they face inevitable challenges in their school or classroom. 2) They have overcome adversity. Resilience can come in different forms, but candidates must demonstrate that they can persevere regardless of the challenge. 3) They take ownership of problems. When children are not learning, there are a lot of explanations we can make for why that is the case. I want colleagues who are willing to acknowledge those realities and take them as personal challenges to help students be successful.
- Clarity and Core Values: Infuse This in Everything You Do. Your mission is why your organization exists and is your promise to the larger community. It should be clear, concise, compelling and consistently communicated to your colleagues. In a crisis, it should inspire and guide your organization. Your core values are how you treat people and your guide as you make tough decisions, including allocating finite resources.
For example, one of LEARN’s core values is to ‘focus on the whole child.’ As we prepared for a return to in-person learning this school year, we knew families would have more concerns about health and safety so we hired a full-time nurse at every campus. This decision was difficult because it meant sacrifices in other places, but by grounding our decision-making in our values, we knew it was the right thing to do.
We will not ever experience a ‘normal’ school year. When you are charged with the important task of preparing young people to navigate the future, there will always be unexpected challenges. By creating a strong organizational foundation that garners support from families and staff, you will ensure that your schools will not be thrown off course when the next school crisis hits.
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