leadership, change, chance, covid19, transition, school year, opportunity, next normal, test scores, qualities, attitudes, students

School Leadership for the Next Normal

As we end this unimaginable school year and transition to planning for the summer and fall, we are terrified, saddened, and exhausted by a global pandemic that has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives.

COVID-19 has shattered our norms, routines, and patterns. It has also shuttered our schools. With little warning and preparation, we have asked teachers to provide learning in unfamiliar ways. And our school leaders continue to face unprecedented challenges. 

But within every crisis lies opportunity. Our opportunity is not just to re-open school. We are in a unique moment when we can re-imagine school. It’s not just returning to normal. It’s about seeking and creating the next normal. 

Before COVID-19, many school leaders were already contemplating and implementing instructional innovation initiatives. But we were burdened by realities that often constrained us, keeping us from challenging the status quo. 

During the past months, many of those constraints have been suspended. We are experiencing an unfreezing of assumptions that previously might have been impediments. Planning for another school year of continued uncertainty is allowing us to consider new possibilities. What are examples of those possibilities? And what are the qualities of leadership required to seize these possibilities to create the next normal?

As we prepare for the probability of continued online learning in some form, and as traditional academic requirements and expectations are briefly relaxed, teachers are re-thinking what is important to learn. They are re-thinking content, and they need active encouragement and advocacy from school leaders during this moment of instructional renewal. 

Also, with the sudden shift to online learning, teachers are seeing incredible possibilities. They are also experiencing severe limitations. With active administrative investment and support, teachers must be encouraged to explore a thoughtful, high quality, age-appropriate blending of both online and face-to-face learning while teaching for digital competency. 

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of standardized examinations, temporarily removing the looming pressure of certain tests. Colleges and universities admissions offices are relying on evidence of academic promise other than test scores. This may only be temporary. But some colleges have already announced plans to drop testing requirements, which might prove liberating for schools and their leadership. 

In our efforts to personalize and deepen learning for students, our challenge has been to find effective forms of assessment. Many educators are shifting to competency-based learning, with a focus on individual student growth and mastery of learning outcomes. But how can we best measure that learning in ways that can be helpful to K-12 schools, and still meaningfully represent student achievement to college admission offices? The work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, with a growing membership of over 300 private and public schools, can be a thoughtful resource as we broaden this conversation.

Our response to COVID-19 has already asked us to think differently and creatively about how we construct time in schools. The current unfreezing of time constraints gives us a rare opportunity to consider permanent changes to daily schedules and school calendars that are in the best interest of student learning.

We know that our students are living through a lifechanging series of events. They are witnessing a global pandemic that is having devastating impact through widespread sickness, loss of life, economic downturn, increased poverty, homelessness, exposing significant economic and social inequality, and rising xenophobia and racism. Paramount for parents is the physical/emotional safety and well-being of their children.

Therefore, now more than ever, educating for social responsibility, empathy, and human inter-dependence is critical. We must be attentive to the social, emotional, and ethical learning of students. In the transition to the next normal, these can no longer be considered the soft skills. 

School leaders must continue to seek ideas from the wider community of schools that are re-imagining themselves. We have much to learn from other private and public schools, charter schools, and from other countries. Our common global challenge is already blurring the lines that have historically separated us. 

Major crises require courageous, optimistic, creative, and empathetic moral leadership. The COVID-19 crisis has already tested a school leader’s capacity to adapt quickly to crisis. But as we renew and re-imagine our schools, these same qualities define a leader who will inspire innovation while skillfully navigating strenuous transition and change. 

As we prepare students for a world of rapid change, complexity, and uncertainty, we will continue to foster enduring qualities and attitudes that should include: self-confidence, self-direction, curiosity, resourcefulness, persistence, critical and creative thought, effective communication, an entrepreneurial mindset, collaboration, compassion, social responsibility, and an empathetic global perspective.

As we move to the other side of the crisis and define the next normal, our schools will need to create the conditions and opportunities for students to reach our aspirations for them. This will require courageous and inventive leadership.

The future of our children, our society, and the planet depends upon it.