Leadership Lessons from a Pandemic School Year

A MiddleWeb Blog

Summer is HERE!!! And I couldn’t be more excited. This year has been an extremely hard one for all of us and, like most of you, I am ready for some rest and relaxation.

But summer has a whole new meaning now that I am an administrator. As an assistant principal, I have meetings to attend, data to collect to close out the school year, files to update to get ready for the coming year, and office hours to keep so that I can supervise summer workers at our school.

However, with all these changes, one thing has stayed the same. Summer is my time for reflection. And with that reflection, I find that the school year 2020-2021 has been a year of firsts.

A Year of Firsts

We’ve had to monitor students and teachers on a digital platform.

We’ve had to enforce policy and procedures that restricted student movement and excluded parent involvement.

We knew – first hand – that behaviors we saw in students and teachers were directly related to the stress and anxiety they were experiencing because of the pandemic.

And for many of us, the first time we may have seriously questioned our decision to go into administration.

For me, the challenges of this year have not only given me pause, they have also brought much needed insight into the type of leader I truly want to be.

I have learned that as a leader I need to express more compassion and understanding when dealing with teachers, students, and parents.

I have learned that as a leader a kind word or expression of gratitude can go a long way towards building and sustaining relationships with faculty, staff, students, and parents.

I have learned that as a leader being flexible and knowing that “no plan survives first contact” helps us deal with the stress of not only a pandemic year, but also a normal year.

Although I may have known all of these lessons before COVID became a household word, the struggles of this year have really shown me the true meaning of each.

A Year When Compassion Was Paramount

This year the need to give and receive compassion has been paramount. The stress from constantly changing policy and procedures from the federal level to the local level left many of us emotionally and physically drained before October.

Couple that with staff being out sick, lack of substitutes because of COVID, and our own families needing us when partners and children got sick, and we had a school environment ripe for consternation and argument.

The stress of this year called for us as leaders to demonstrate compassion and understanding even when we didn’t feel like we could. But this compelling need to be more understanding helped me realize that everyone truly has a backstory.

We don’t know what our faculty, staff, and students really deal with on a daily basis. We don’t have access to their lives outside of school. Coming to know more about those that we work with every day, and showing them empathy and understanding, builds up relationships. As an administrator, learning to express a little more empathy and understanding every day can contribute to creating a culture that emphasizes relationships as much or more than rigor.

We’ve Learned That Words Are Powerful

I’m sure that everyone remembers the old saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I know I said it many times as a kid on the playground. The problem with this saying is that words can hurt. They can cut us to the quick and leave us feeling vulnerable and isolated.

However, words can also heal. They can make us feel six foot tall and bulletproof. With the stresses of this year, it was more important than ever to make sure that we used healing words. With all the emotional ups and downs, the constant changes to policy and procedure, and the normal everyday stressors, those healing words – words of kindness and gratitude – had extra power.

Finding time whenever I could to look faculty, staff, and students in the eye and give them words of acknowledgement and encouragement became a priority. It wasn’t always easy. With all of my daily duties during this crazy school year, I wasn’t always able to get into every classroom and say what needed to be said.

But the lesson has been reinforced for the future. I need to make a concerted effort to make sure everyone in our building feels appreciated and seen. Taking time to do that helps foster a school climate of trust and appreciation.

Good Leaders Have to Be Flexible

My career-Army husband has often quoted that saying, “no battle plan survives first contact.” I love this because it applies to civilian life too, and I have used it as my mantra this past year.

It reminds me to be flexible. To try something but to not be too surprised if it doesn’t work out the way I envisioned right away. It also reminds me that plans from the district and state level are not always going to work right the first time either.

This last point was clearly evident in the struggles of this year. Whether your school started “back to school” on time (like our district did) or started late – or went straight to a virtual platform – I’m sure we all experienced many last minute changes that required us to turn on a dime.

Remembering to be flexible helped me get through many situations where I questioned directives and decisions, or when I didn’t understand the why behind what we were doing now. Although it is important to know the why behind what we do, sometimes we have to act on faith, do the best we can with the information we are given, and be ready for the consequences, good or bad.

It’s not ideal, but it is practical. And sometimes, practical is all we can be when we are trying to get the job done in unstable circumstances.

Yes, I Sometimes Wanted to Scream

This year has been one of the toughest in my 15 years of teaching and leadership experience. I’ve been so frustrated at times that I’ve wanted to scream. On the flip side, I’ve been privileged to see the resilience and commitment to excellence of our faculty, staff, and students during a year of trials and tribulations.

I’ve gotten to see parents and community partners come together to ensure that our students experienced a school year that was as close to normal as possible. And although being in education through this pandemic has increased our understanding that compassion, words of gratitude, and flexibility aren’t just ideals, it has also reinforced our belief that when push comes to shove, people will join together for the betterment of all.

And this should give us all hope for the future.

DeAnna Miller

DeAnna Miller (@DMiller0502) has been a middle school English teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal during her 14-year career in education. She began her fourth year as an AP in the fall of 2021 and currently helps lead a K-6 public school in Enterprise, Alabama. DeAnna is an Army veteran married to a retired First Sergeant. They have three daughters, a son, and a new grandchild. She’s also a runner, avid reader and writer, and an “extreme Disney fanatic.”

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