School leader shares strategies for keeping students at the center of his work
As a school leader, I am currently challenged with creating an educational experience that nourishes and speaks to the needs of my students and teachers in the current climate. I am now trying to understand the current context through so many lenses – educator, scholar, school leader, parent, and community member.
With physical school being closed, my team has attempted to take our work virtual. Initially, I think that there was excitement about the closures – working from home and spending time with family was alluring. However, as each day passes, the heart–wrenching stories of loss are piling up, and our collective angst has grown. What will be the short- and long-term effects of this societal pause, as both educators and scholars continue a quest for knowledge from a distance? How do schools combat learning loss for both scholars and adults? How can school leaders and educators move academic achievement forward and provide social-emotional support to our colleagues and students who have endured loss?
These challenges are so complicated. The truth is that there is no prescribed recipe to fix any of these issues, but as we navigate these tumultuous times what has become abundantly clear is that educators and leaders alike matter now more than ever before. The work we do will undoubtedly make a difference in the lives of those we serve. I believe that there are better days ahead, and below are some of the things I’m practicing to keep my students at the center of my work. I am reminded to:
Listen with my heart and provide critical care. People are dying at an unprecedented rate – Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends. My natural instinct as an educator is to stay goal-oriented – almost always focused on results, but our current circumstance is unusual. I had a conversation with a parent, recently who was stressed that her daughter had not been honest about the amount of work she was assigned during remote learning. The young girl even went to the extent of avoiding her educators. I responded by expressing that our communication was not punitive, and that we hoped to be of support.
Make the work we do strategic and intentional. I don’t want to my educators bogged down with compliance tasks. I’m using this opportunity to think strategically about what my educators need to be successful in the moment AND once school resumes. FIRST – Is every student being contacted on a daily basis? Are educators deepening relationships with focused groups of scholars? I hope educators at my school feel empowered and encouraged. I hope that they are continuously asking themselves, “Does this make sense for children?” This is particularly important in my leadership because I need my educators to see that while our job asks us to teach, our profession demands that we love.
Be Flexible. Our virtual class schedules must respect the various home-schooling capacities. I’m mindful that a large portion of my students and parents are working in a technological deficit. For many, even with access to technology, teaching and learning are still not ideal. I received a text message from one of my closest scholars that read, Mr. W, “How can I do my project, it’s nine of us here?” This is just one example, but represents so many of my families. Our school’s plan works to monitor subgroups of students like these very closely. The idea of nuanced care for particular individuals must be planned for in our daily schedule. Our schedule provides multiple opportunities for both service providers and content educators to call and engage with scholars via phone. These calls are critical at building strong working relationships among scholars, particularly those who find this experience very disruptive. In the same vein, I allow educators to have open lines of communication with me so that they know that I am in the trenches with them.
Drive the narrative of resiliency and that better days are ahead. As educators and community leaders, we play a huge role as sounding boards for our families, scholars and community members. In every conversation with staff members and scholars, I start by taking a pulse check of where they are emotionally. My goal is to ensure that no single obligation is becoming a stressor on top of what is already a tense situation for us all. Depending on where that individual may be, it is up to me to lead from the balcony.
My hope is that through a constant focus on these reminders, I can deepen learning and relationships throughout our school. I hope that these small acts can normalize equity, and support our community to rebound after even stronger when this has come to pass.
Marvin Walker is an instructional coach at Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School.