By the IPLI Leadership Team: Linda Marrs-Morford, Steve Gruenert, Rhonda Roos, Jane Rogers, Mike Pinto, David Robertson, Brian Disney, & Amy Linkel
When a situation challenges us to respond, we will search our
memories first, hoping to find a similar situation by which to inform the best
decision. In schools, we rely on our
school culture to dictate our response. Roland
Barth (2002) defines school culture as “a complex pattern of norms, attitudes,
beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions, and myths that are deeply
ingrained in the very core of the organization. It is the historically
transmitted pattern of meaning that wields astonishing power in shaping what
people think and how they act.” This invisible power manifests itself more when
there is uncertainty. With the COVID-19
pandemic, we have been flown to a different planet and charged with providing
the same services. In this situation, the
culture is not much help with the issues we face today.
most schools, it takes three to five years to change a culture unless there is
a crisis. We would argue our current
pandemic is a crisis, perhaps September 11, 2001, times 100. In 9/11 we knew
who the enemy was and took precautions, elevating our safety standards across
the nation. With this pandemic, the enemy is not visible, and our friends may
unwillingly, unknowingly transmit a virus.
school cultures are struggling with what to do, because there are no past
events to use as frameworks for future decisions. There are no experts since
nobody has ever been “here.” However, as expected from our best leaders, this
problem can be an opportunity. This is an opportunity for leaders (good and
bad) to step up and build the next culture – at least a big piece of it. Cultures
are vulnerable now, given the long-term uncertainty. People are searching for
comfort, and the bad guys are ready to claim new territory if the good guys let
short window of time, the bigger culture changes can happen now, and not just
easy wins. There are things in the culture that can be changed easier than
others. Some things are sacred, and some may be silly routines or rituals that
have never been challenged. At this moment, given the crisis at hand, leaders
can make large changes in “the way we do things around here” without much
the past, school leaders have had to face negative teachers whenever changes
were being proposed. Many of the negative teachers were veteran teachers who
represent a past era. They had successes 20 years ago, and they have seen many
initiatives fail. In an effort to protect the school, and perhaps themselves,
negative teachers will remind us of what did not work in the past as weapons of
influence. However, today nobody can say, “It won’t work here!” We’re in a new place where the rules of the
past are invalid, at least for a short period of time – perhaps a few weeks or
months. There will always be a few toxic people (worse than negative) who claim
to have the solutions to problems they have never faced. We typically know who
these people are and have granted license to all others to ignore them. Today,
we are in a new place, and there are many who are looking for solutions,
perhaps in the wrong places.
does a principal begin to shape a predominantly toxic culture into a
collaborative culture, or maintain a positive culture in a time of crisis? Leadership is critical. It starts with meeting the needs of our
students and staff. Think about Maslow’s
hierarchy of needs. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before
individuals can attend to needs high up.
time of crisis, some (adults and children) will be at level one – physiological
needs (food, water, warmth, and rest).
For example, many of our students may be wondering where their next meal
is coming from, so ensuring that meals are provided is critical.
may be at level two – safety. They are
concerned about the security of body, employment, resources, morality, the
family, health, and property. COVID-19
is scary, and there are lots of myths out there. Schools should be sharing information with staff
and families – what it is, how it is transmitted, how to protect oneself,
etc. Many organizations have infographics
available to share, and IPLI has placed many of them on its website for use – http://indianapli.org/ under “resources,” “eLearning.”
and our students’ parents are worried about their jobs. “Will I continue to be paid during this
crisis?” Many are concerned about their
own health and the health of their children and extended family members.
distancing, the sense of belonging may disappear – Maslow’s third level. With eLearning, our best teachers may not do
well with limited engagement. They built
relationships all year, and the kids are now back to Maslow’s first level. Teaching of content should not happen until
connections are reestablished.
this new place, you may have some teachers rise to the challenge and obtain
some efficacy (level four – esteem) with a new format. It may be possible this new approach taps
into teaching gifts they may have but have never had the opportunity or environment
to utilize them. During this time, the
gap between best and weak teachers might get fuzzy as some of the stronger
teachers become uncomfortable with eLearning.
do we get our teachers, staff, and students to levels four and five – self-esteem
and actualization, where they are achieving their full potential? Here are four
strategies to consider: 1) have open and
honest communication; 2) have regular meetings online; 3) have teachers provide
professional development; and 4) continue relationship building via phone call,
the fears of health and security come to bearable levels, it is the time to invest
in building connections. Open and honest
communication from the principal is critical.
The principal has to remain calm and communicate positive messages on a
regular basis. Remember, the principal
is the filter for the school. For
example, a recorded morning message from the lead learner each day for students
and staff to view can do a lot to calm the fears. Don’t know what to say? Check out Twitter,
Instagram, or Google “principal morning messages” for positive examples.
at all levels will want to see their teachers faces and hear their voices. As
much as possible, what we do online should mimic the positive things we’ve been
doing in our schools, just a different medium.
principals and educational leaders, we need to remember to be human during this
crisis. We know that being open and vulnerable creates trust. We
need to share our own struggles and concerns right now and ask our teachers and
staff about theirs. Ask specifically about how each of them is doing. Not
how they’re doing on lesson planning, etc., but how they’re handling their own
health, their own kids, their parents, their needs, their particular
situations, etc. If we are willing to be transparent through this crisis, our
staff members will be able to be more human and real with us. They need that right now. It’s the leader
“leaning in” to her team; it’s the leader “pulling her team
toward her” in the most uncertain of times.
online meetings with your staff and individuals are critical. Continue (or begin) PLC meetings utilizing
online meeting tools such as Zoom™, and be a part of these meetings. This is a great opportunity for teachers to
develop lessons together instead of in isolation. If you are a small school with only one
teacher for each grade level, combine grade levels. Small high schools with only one teacher per
subject area can reach out to neighboring districts and create online PLCs.
these meetings, it’s so important to clarify the work as much as possible for
staff. Set clear expectations to alleviate questions that teachers might
have on what they are to be doing or if they’re doing enough. Give clear
examples of what is expected and share specific examples of teachers doing just
that. It’s a reality check on their expectations. Don’t expect too much from
teachers; don’t expect too little; just don’t make the expectations unclear. Remember
Brene Brown’s advice, “Clear is kind.
Unclear is unkind.” If teachers are
struggling with something, help them name specifically what that something is.
Once you know, you can help to normalize it and put it in perspective for them.
This is all new. Leaders need to help name the concerns and then help
push right through the middle of them.
These times are stressful, so make
sure and close each of these meetings by having someone share the funniest meme
they’ve seen in the last few days, or the best recipe they’ve tried, or the
best game their family has been playing, or the best Netflix™ show they’re
watching, or the best things they saw on their nature walk, or how many kids
they waved to when they took a quick drive around their neighborhood – just
something to bond staff together through their personal stories. Teachers may
even have the last 5 minutes of one meeting to have their family join them on
screen so everybody can see what we’re all dealing with! It might not be that
pretty:) Just be creative.
order to move them through their challenges, they will need ongoing
professional development to ensure successful online learning for your
students. Use your strong eLearning
teachers to conduct this PD, and give teachers a chance to practice with each
other. Online instructional rounds are a
great way for teachers to learn from each other. If you have not been doing eLearning and need
resources, reach out to other districts.
IPLI and IASP can help connect you with experienced schools.
have always been the calm in times of crisis.
Now is no exception. Relationship
building (level three) is critical during this pandemic, whether it be with
teachers, staff, students, or families.
Good principals and teachers will invest the time it takes to reach out
and communicate with individuals. A
quick phone call or text to check-in is important. The principal could even create a document to
chart the calls, texts, notes to each individual staff member to make certain
each team member has received an intentional, thoughtful gesture from the
The culture doesn’t know what to do, but soon those who claim to
have solutions will be filling the voids, using any type of media available to
sell their opinions. If a school leader has ever wanted to make a change in the
school culture, it has been weakened, and it is listening. Don’t let the bad
guys send more fear or their version of comfort. We need our best leaders now,
and whatever they do will echo many times louder than they realize in this new
But remember, before leaders move forward on changing the culture, they must take time
to really think about what, exactly, they want to communicate through
cultural changes and do it in a consistent manner. Right now,
educators are being bombarded with tons of communication, and often
miscommunication, which is contributing to the lacking sense of
stability. Be the filter! If
principals can stay “on-point,” whatever that point is, it will help
teachers adapt and build the culture.
yourself during this time. Find ways to
relieve the stress and use this “sheltering at home” time to strengthen
relationships with the ones you love.
Continue to grow yourself! Most of us have a stack of articles or books
we have wanted to read. In terms of
leadership, this is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Start asking, What will I take from leading through this
crisis and implement in daily practice when we return to “normal?”
firmly believe that our teachers and staff members will remember how we led
during this time. Principals, pose these questions to yourself: Pretend it’s June or July. What do I want
my staff to say about me in the next 3-4 months when we might be returning to
normal? What specifically do I want them to say about the way I led them
through this difficult time?
on those questions and write down several items of action. Then start today!
Start doing those things today so each of your staff members can say just that!