Perspectives on Instructional Leadership

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: I recently facilitated a Zoom conversion with a handful of school leaders in the #PrincipalProject community. We work in a range of contexts, leading middle schools and high schools in rural and urban communities – and everywhere in between. While the needs of our particular students and communities are different, we are all facing similar challenges and uncertainties as we head into this upcoming year. I wanted to know what strategies and mindsets are guiding instructional leadership in this new time and space – and what lessons school leaders are taking to the fall.

I asked: What does instructional leadership look like for you now? What are you working on with your community?


Educators

Find New Starting Points

We’re embracing the fact that classes will have to start at a different place. 

Even with so many unknowns lingering, we’re dipping our toes into the water in terms of planning for next year’s academics – especially in classes that build on each other in specific ways. 

We need to get on the same page about what kids will have missed this spring and start by teaching into those gaps in the fall. We can’t expect kids to just jump from Algebra 1 into Algebra 2 because they might not have learned the Pythagorean theorem. Kids aren’t going to be in the same spot as they normally are – not even close. 

We just have to be ready to embrace that. It means having some conversations about what our classes are going to look like. Some of the teachers on my team are afraid for next year, but the message I’m pressing out is: We’re going to be okay. We’re going to work with our kids, and they’re going to be alright.

Shake Things Up

We’re embracing the chance to let go of fears and shake things up.

I think on the other side of this, things are going to change so much. Something I’m celebrating is the way teachers are opening up and trying new things. Teachers who once had some resistance to taking on new technology have totally embraced it. People are thinking outside the box in ways I would never have expected. 

In a meeting with other leaders in my district, the question was posed, “What do you think next year will look like? What do you think are the possibilities?” 

That question excites me. I know it can feel scary, but it shows that education can be more than the experiences we’re used to offering. This is a chance for us to be proactive instead of reactive. 

It will be hard. We have no idea how school will look different in this crisis. What if we can only have half our students, every other day, to maintain social distancing? Maybe our class periods will be much longer. Maybe that will mean a chance to really delve into a lesson or do more project-based learning and hands-on activities. To me, not knowing is exciting. I see so much possibility.

Move Thoughtfully

We’re moving slowly and listening to feedback at every step.

As our school adjusted to the changes this year, we took a slow approach. Our district wanted to centralize and make sure all the schools were rolling things out in a similar way. 

So, we took our time. We didn’t come right out and have teachers adjusting curriculum and putting out content for students immediately. We kind of slow played it. 

And as we planned, we got feedback from teachers, from parents and from students to help us refine what we were doing. We’re learning. It’s an adjustment for all of us. It’s challenging. 

But I think when we do start school again in the fall, whatever that looks like, we need to be prepared to listen and respond. Through these unique circumstances, I hope we continue to utilize this process where we’re communicating up and down with all our stakeholders. 

Use Guiding Principles

We have two guiding principles: Do what’s best for kids, and focus on what we can control.

For our community in rural Alaska, connectivity issues have been huge. We spent this spring looking for ways to help our students without any technology whatsoever, and it’s been challenging and stressful. 

To ground our work, we took two of the norms we’d already established with our staff and elevated those as our guides as we moved forward. 

One is that we’re going to continue to do what’s best for our kids, no matter what. And as long as we’re keeping that in mind as we make every decision, then we know we’re moving in the right direction. 

The other norm is focusing on what we have control over. There are so many things that are out of our control, out of our hands, and that we have no say in. That’s true even on a normal school day, in a normal year. But we are going to keep moving forward into this uncertainty, doing what’s best for our kids.

Try Hybrid Classes

We’re considering bringing the best of this period forward in hybrid classes.

On days when some of our students were having a tough time focusing in the classroom, we would pull them and allow them to work in a quiet space, and they were sometimes very successful doing that. I think it was a surprise for some of our teachers to see that some students that struggled the most in class actually did their best during distance learning, with the regular classroom dynamics removed. They were being very successful, getting online, showing independence, really turning their assignments in and just communicating at a very high level.

I want to explore ways of replicating that in the school building. I don’t know what that will look like yet, but we’ve had a conversation around offering some kinds of “hybrid” courses – like integrated sciences or health – where, even if we’re all back in the school building together, we can put some of the materials online and allow students to work independently.

Family Fridays

We instituted “Family Fridays” to take some pressure off – and create more time to connect.

This is a stressful time, and part of our role as instructional leaders is to lift some of the burden off of teachers’ shoulders. 

One thing that helped us in the spring was changing our week into a four-day week of classes. We told students and families, “We’re only going to send work Monday through Thursday, and Friday is going to be a day about connections.” 

We called it our “Jaguar Family Day.” Teachers spent Fridays calling families, calling their students and sending postcards. 

We let kids know, “If you can’t do something Monday through Thursday, then you can expect a phone call from a teacher who can help, and Friday can be your catch-up day. Or, if you’ve gotten everything taken care of for the week, that’s your day to have fun with your family and not stress about school.” 

This was a way we could focus on student achievement and connections at the same time. It made a difference for teachers and kids.

This fall, we’re returning to a five-day model, but we have formed an advisory period where we will be connecting with a core group of students daily. If we go remote, we will continue to check in on those students.