Amid news of school board protests, threats to teachers, behavioral issues in schools, staff shortages and the ongoing stress of the pandemic, there is an expanding role for school leaders. They play a critical role in providing stability, community trust and a supportive school environment where students feel safe and can thrive, while also helping teachers and staff navigate the hardships and opportunities these challenging times present.
When I walk into a school, it’s apparent immediately if there is a strong, supportive culture centered around good leadership. Typically, what I see is trust from the teachers who are willing to try new things, kids who are having fun and really seem to enjoy being in school — they feel safe. I see staff action being driven by good data and having a system built around a shared understanding of success. I also see this culture extend beyond the school walls into the community where caregivers have a trusting, transparent relationship with their school and their child’s teachers.
The common denominator in schools like these is a strong leader.
But it is now more challenging than ever for leaders to create and maintain that supportive environment as factors inside and outside the school walls have become more chaotic. This past year, we formed a partnership with UChicago Impact to provide resources that guide and support school improvement efforts.
Our main focus is on building strong school leaders as one of the most effective ways to improve conditions for students and for teachers, especially as we work to recover from Covid-19 related disruptions. These are the areas strong leaders will need to expand on to succeed in this new phase of the pandemic and beyond:
Making communication and outreach a priority
During times of instability and uncertainty, opening lines of dialogue can maintain and grow a trusting environment where challenging issues can be overcome. Strong school leaders must prioritize communication and outreach efforts and approach them from a strategic, proactive side. This is not the time to shy away from tough conversations but to open opportunities where thoughts can be exchanged and addressed.
School leaders should tap the district’s communications expertise as a resource for support. A communications-first approach also means rethinking how and where communication takes place — perhaps an email may not be right, but a community meeting might be. It’s understanding where conversations are taking place, then being present and available to be part of the dialogue.
Being an effective information translator
It’s not just how much or how often a school leader communicates, but also how that leader is able to make meaning out of complex topics. Someone who can make sense of school data, school board policies, budgets, educational trends or topics will be a valuable resource to school stakeholders. And, it’s not just about providing details, but it’s also about putting it into terms that stakeholders can understand, engage with and provide critical feedback on. This adds to the importance of deep, meaningful dialogue as part of a supportive school community.
Radically support and be firm around accountability
Radical support means trust through well-defined expectations — a shared vision — so that everyone from the teachers to the custodians to the parents understands what their role is in driving student outcomes. School leaders must not only articulate their vision but also voice how they will support and drive that vision forward together with their teams. Radical support also means transparency by sharing results, feedback and developing relevant goals together. It means holding firm on accountability by openly discussing when things don’t go well as a recognition point to learn from and not as a punitive measure. One of the biggest indicators of trust in a school community is the ability to discuss good and not-so-good results in an open, safe manner with the goal of doing better, altering plans if needed and ultimately improving action.
The role of school leaders has always been challenging, but the pandemic, the current social and political climate, staffing shortages, expectations of their stakeholders and ongoing budgeting complexities have added a layer of difficulty to their world. Investing time and focus on building a supportive school environment ensures their school can navigate through these tough times together and come out on the other side stronger, more connected and engaged.
Chris Minnich is CEO of NWEA, a not-for-profit organization that creates assessment solutions that precisely measure growth and proficiency—and provide insights to help tailor instruction.
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