It’s August, and that means it Back-To-School time! In my lifetime, I’ve had 36 first days of school when you combine my years as a student and as an educator. That’s a lot of first days. None of them have prepared me for this year.
You see, this is my first time starting the year as a building principal. I moved into the role last December, but often joke that for all intents and purposes I only had one grading period as the principal, and the first half of that was spent with a map of the school in my pocket so that I knew who was the teacher and which grade level classroom I was walking into. Then came March 13, 2020. We shut down for Covid-19, just like so many others. We went home with the hope that we’d be able to return after our scheduled spring break at the beginning of April, but the Governor of Indiana changed those plans for all of us by closing down all schools for the remainder of the school year.
Beginning in mid-May, those of us who worked in the office were able to return to close out the school year, but there were not teachers on-site, and there were no students. The school was a quiet and dark place most days. Really, it didn’t even feel like school.
During June and July, our administrative team would meet each Tuesday to review our plans for the coming year, work towards reopening, and begin planning for a new school year. We had a reopening plan. I spent my first week back working on schedules for lunch, recess, related arts, all while trying to think about how to keep students appropriately physically distanced. We revamped several aspects of our schedule so that not as many students were entering the cafeteria at the same time. We were thinking about how to map out our hallways so that there would be fewer traffic jams of students. We were registering new students. We were responding to parents who wanted all students to wear a mask at all times. We were responding to parents who never wanted their child to wear a mask.
Then came July 17th – we received word that the school year would be starting virtually in our school district. While the work we had been doing all summer wasn’t a complete waste – we need to have plans for when we are able to open the building – we had to make a quick pivot from the mindset of how to safely open a school to how to start the school year in a virtual setting. As a large suburban district (and like so many other districts all over the country) we are doing something that has never been done on quite this scale – opening public schools in an entirely virtual setting, during a global pandemic, and in a moment of awakening for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Did I mention I’m a first-year principal?
Luckily, I work with an amazing team of educators, and they were up to the task!
As a new principal, when I came into the position, I was walking into a building that I quickly realized needed to take some time to revisit the work of a mission and vision. When I brought this up in staff meetings, nobody mentioned to me that the school had a mission and that it was on the wall outside of the office. That was a sign to me that the mission that was on the wall didn’t have a true meaning.
Through some vision setting activities during staff meetings, in working with our PTO, and working with our school leadership team, some clear patterns arose. In conversations around our building, it was clear that our staff valued three key ideas:
These three words will guide the work we do all year.
On the first teacher day last week, we opened with a staff community circle. We valued the time to rebuild relationships and community after a school year that was cut short. This was relationship work.
On Tuesday we spent the morning in our PLC Teams watching a presentation from Cornelius Minor thinking about how we can “Lean into the idea of possibility” for this school year, and discussing in our PLC teams how we can create equitable learning opportunities for our students even when they aren’t present in our school building. This heart work was so powerful and tied to our beliefs in both equity and learning.
On Wednesday, I spent much of the day meeting with each of our grade-level teams to talk with them about how they were feeling. What questions did they have, what support did they need? While we certainly spent some of our time discussing logistics that people were worried about, I also heard about the thoughts and ideas that each team had come up with in order to build relationships early with their students. I heard ideas they had to provide equity in their learning opportunities. But most of all, I heard a staff that couldn’t wait to see their kids. This was more relationship work and continued work on learning.
In starting a virtual learning school year, our district plan provided us with a unique opportunity that no teacher ever truly gets. On the first two official days of school, our teachers spent the day meeting in an individual Zoom call with each one of their students. By lunchtime of the first day, I had already heard from many of our teachers how great it was to start the year this way. Several were asking if this is something that we could do every year. You see, when else in the first two days of school would you be able to have a 15ish minute long conversation with every one of your students? And when would that time be uninterrupted by the other students in the classroom?
As I write this today, we are in the first week of our true virtual learning schedule. I promise all of you that I would much prefer to have each and every student in our school building every day, but since that isn’t possible we are trying to make the most of the situation we’re in. Every student is participating in reading, writing, and math every day. They will also have their related arts every day. Some of the instruction is coming from pre-recorded videos created by our students, and some of the instruction is coming as live individual/small group instruction on Zoom. And while we are doing this in a way that we have never done before and it feels so much harder than anything else we’ve done, I’m excited by the possibilities that this time will afford us.
And even more so, I am so excited to see the teachers of our school embodying our three words: Relationships; Equity; Learning.