Thoughts on Heading Back to School Post Covid

As the audience for this newsletter is current and aspiring Heads of School, let me start by congratulating all of you for making it through this most challenging year. While my RG175 colleagues and I have been busy on the sidelines, coaching beleaguered new Heads, leading searches, and consulting on governance and strategic planning, you’ve all been in the trenches battling to keep your school communities safe during a pandemic. You have had to create new plans on the fly, craft the right messages for anxious students, parents, and faculty, and do all you can to keep your schools open and your students engaged. From all reports you have been working harder than ever, going without vacation time, and facing more criticism from your various constituencies than ever before. This is not what you signed up for when you took your current job. Hopefully many of you are now finally enjoying your first extended break in 16 months, will get some rest and renewal, and will find the strength to keep smiling, keep focused, and keep moving ahead as the new school year begins.

I had the good fortune to retire as the founding Head of Avenues Sao Paulo in December of 2020 after 32 years of leading schools in the US and abroad, before most anyone had heard of Covid. I joined RG175 the next month, and have greatly enjoyed my time as a consultant. However, while working on a search last fall it turned out the school was going to need an interim Head. Missing the sense of school community, missing the day-to-day action of leading a school (and perhaps out of naivete not knowing how challenging Headship has become in the last year), I will be taking a sabbatical from RG175 starting on August 1, joining all of you for one more year in the trenches, leading the American School in Dubai. 

While none of us know exactly how Covid and Covid strains will affect our schools next year, hopefully the worst is behind us and we can begin to envision having all our students back on campus full time, and the resumption of all school activities. What will be different, and what will we want to do differently? What has Covid changed? While you have all been living through this and will have your own ideas, please allow me to share a few thoughts that are on my mind as I prepare for the coming year. 

Certainly one of the major lessons of Covid is that we can use time and space in school differently. We can be much more creative in our scheduling. We can successfully blend virtual and online learning, we can have students off-site learning just as successfully as they can on campus, and we can have our students access teachers and classes and learning experiences all over the world. While younger learners may need more structure in their day, high school students do not need to be in school every day. Standardized testing has undergone rapid change during the pandemic and we no longer need to be so focused on preparing students for SATs or IB exams. Are we thinking about how best to use our students' time if they do not need to be in school every day and they no longer need to sit for some standardized tests? Are we thinking how we might best design new school buildings? We certainly should be thinking about redesigning curriculum in light of all this change. I will leave long-term school restructuring for those of you in long-term jobs, but here are three immediate issues that many of us will need to address next year. 

1. Recreating community: I feel badly for any teachers and students who were new to their schools last year. In many cases, new teachers never had the chance to have face-to-face meetings with their colleagues and new students with their classmates. What so many of us missed last year was being part of an in-person community and as we resume we all need to be thinking about how we can safely and best create "in person" contact in our schools. We need to make up for the lack of personal contact last year and go overboard to bring our communities together this year to hear each other's stories, and to share our humanity. Parents have also missed the sense of community our schools provide. When I visited Dubai in April I met with three leaders of the Parents Association on campus, their first on-campus meeting in over a year. They understood why they had been shut out, but they yearn to be back cheering on the sidelines, applauding in the theatre, supporting the school, and connecting with their friends. I am hoping that our local laws will allow us to bring parents together on campus this fall and that we can find a way to celebrate their return. 

2. Rebuilding community norms: A many of our schools, students have been isolated and learning on their own. As they return, many will struggle with our expectations. At a number of schools students have been happily zooming to class in pajamas and slippers all year and we may encounter a lot of pushback to our dress codes. Students have had their phones in hand constantly during the pandemic and we need to now ask them to put them away and to be present in all their school meetings. Students may need to be reminded that multitasking is actually not paying attention and that we need them to truly listen and focus again. 

3. Accommodating individual student needs: We have always known that all students learn differently, but this reality was brought into greater focus with Covid. We quickly learned that some students were more successful with online learning than they were in normal classes, and that the reverse was also true. We also learned that some students who were often shy and retiring in class had a lot to say when they went online. How do we take these learnings and create the best possible learning environments for all our students going forward? How can we create more flexibility in our programs to accommodate multiple learning styles and to hear more different voices? 

I am sorry to intrude on your summer vacation but hope I have provided some food for thought about immediate changes you might consider for next fall as well as long-term changes that could profoundly change the way we deliver education in our schools. I look forward to being back in the trenches with you and to seeing you at an upcoming conference along the way.