Since December, we've been pleased to see a great number of school leaders making time to climb back up to the crow's nest after months of deck swabbing and late nights in the chart room. Late fall's trickle of RFPs for strategic planning, enrollment and marketing studies, and leadership searches turned into a steady stream over the next several months as schools took projects out of dry dock or initiated original projects to take stock of new realities.
As we began our interactions with heads, the conversation invariably turned to the tension they feel between their communities' emotional health and the importance they attribute to communicating a new vision for the school as it emerges from the pandemic. There's a sense of urgency in capturing the key learnings from this extraordinary year, the potential to be at the forefront of a potentially forever-disrupted educational landscape, AND the certainty that the faculty and staff who fought their way through this year are exhausted, in desperate need of recuperation, not task forces, and keenly aware of the fact that next year, even if all pandemic restrictions are lifted, will be difficult in ways they're just beginning to envision. Here are the key balancing themes we've heard this winter from heads:
Catching Up: Academic vs. Social Learning
Parents and kids are worried about what they missed academically this year, but teachers are just as or more concerned about their students' social and emotional development. A third grade teacher friend at a school that has been remote or hybrid throughout this year told me that she's planning for her students next year to arrive functioning like end-of-year first graders in terms of their social skills and executive functioning--craving attention from adults, intently-focused on fairness, just beginning to understand the intersection of time and activity, a much greater distance from the goals of social, emotional and academic autonomy she typically has for her students by the end of third grade. Some kids and entire families (and faculty, more on this later) have encountered emergent and chronic trauma this year, perhaps compounding pre-existing trauma. Schools must be prepared to help these people get the help they need. Schools should communicate the work they'll do to achieve this balance at the beginning and end of the summer and throughout the first semester and prepare teachers for the parent coaching they can expect to do.
Faculty Exhaustion vs.Their Time and Expertise
Schools should very conservatively move two categories of extra activity into next year's programmatic work plan: the curation of key learnings from last year, and long range institutional planning. The former is more pressing: some of the digital tools that schools adopted were handy workarounds but will become obsolete with in person schooling, some offer the opportunity to extend pedagogy and learning, some are handy rehearsal tools, and some were about engaging kids that translates directly into in person schooling and has little to do with the tools. It will be important for schools to draw some circles around the things that have educational and cultural value in their communities and to account for the developmental differences in the grade levels that make up the student body. It's my contention that elementary schools/divisions should do as much as they can for kids and parents in person (or personally) and be very circumspect about mediating any of it with a screen. School leaders will need to identify faculty and staff whose life circumstances and good luck have left them with a little more in the tank for some of this work and ask them to report out frequently and engage their colleagues at key points in established (not extra) meetings. The same is true with long range planning. All schools should reexamine their existing strategic plans in light of the year past and make certain to provide similar points of intersection for faculty and staff.
Reunion Energy vs. Pacing
With any luck, pandemic restrictions will be lifted over the summer so that kids and adults can recapture some of the social stamina they've lost in a year of selective, social/emotional sensory deprivation. Like the subjects of some kind of twisted sociology experiment, we've had various ingredients for balanced survival removed from our environment and now must adapt to their return. Teachers at schools that spent much of the year in remote instruction and returned in person later described the kids' initial excitement at being back together and the consequent emotional exhaustion. Even where kids have been in person all year, the removal of restrictions will make a level of play and proximity possible that will be enormously taxing at first. Daily schedules, the fall's events, the nature of recess, lunch, dismissal, before and after school should all anticipate the unique energy that will be present on campus.
Standardized Testing vs. The New Advantage
Many teachers and students have welcomed a potential end to the tyranny of standardized college admission testing. Some schools have begun to reimagine how they assess student learning and reflect that practice on a new kind of mastery transcript. In secret, perhaps and however, school leaders might be wistful about the departure of a handy (if inaccurate) proxy for excellence. What school doesn't splash its National Merit Scholars across the website and proudly display the occasional perfect score unicorn? Parents, on the other hand, won't hesitate to express their concern publicly. If they can't track test score data, how will they know that the school is effective in preparing kids for selective colleges and universities? Those Naviance scattergrams were often a bucket of cold water, but at least they provided some kind of leading indicator. Schools must prepare to confront this energy and help kids and parents understand the new landscape of college admissions. Selective colleges and universities haven't lost their edge. More kids than ever applied to them for the 2021 - 2022 school year, competing for spots with deferring students from last year.