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3 ways COVID is retooling schools — and what to do about it

A meeting of superintendents & HR leaders at the nation’s largest urban district reveals how the school experience has changed – and not just in the classroom.

In a Council of the Great City Schools meeting last week of school superintendents and HR leaders for some of the nation’s largest urban districts, a sobering reality emerged: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators at every level to rethink and retool the very notion of school.

But, buried amid all the hand-wringing and frustration of the last eleven months, exists an incredible opportunity.

Many of the changes, while drastic, have hastened long-overdue improvements in the ways schools operate, from the build out of hybrid learning models, to staff development to customer service to departmental efficiencies and workflows.

As a lifelong educator and former school district superintendent, I walked away from a full day of virtual sessions feeling equal parts exhausted and genuinely inspired. For me, the story that emerged from nearly a dozen online meetings wasn’t just that of large urban districts like Miami or New York. But that of school systems everywhere.

To change, and change for the better, educators need not only to rethink how students learn and teachers teach, but — perhaps, just as important — how schools effectively listen to and meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and economically uneven group of stakeholders and families. It struck me that the struggle isn’t about doing the same things differently, but about doing completely different things altogether. To me, that process starts with a commitment to service and to people and their needs, and scales from there.

Below are three points I jotted down during the sessions that I hope will shed some light on what I mean by this. If you agree with these points, or even if you don’t, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll drop some contact information at the end.

Our message matters, but their experience matters more.

As school buildings slowly re-open, everyone’s talking about communicating with parents and staff.  Teachers are being asked to teach in a whole new way, administrators are juggling crazy mandates and health and safety requirements. You almost certainly haven’t heard the last word from your teacher’s union yet. With everything that’s going on, the pressure to respond to parents can feel overwhelming. When someone writes to us, we gather the necessary information and fire off a response. How we communicate matters. Over the years, schools have gotten pretty good at the outbound piece of this equation. Where we continue to struggle, and this was clear at the meeting, is our inability to do something meaningful with that communication. Our message, by itself, doesn’t change the outcome. At best, it acknowledges a problem. But, it’s what we do with that information, and how we use it, that changes the experience. All this to say, we need to do a better job not just at communicating, but at using what we learn to improve the experience that families and staff have. It doesn’t matter if they engage with us through our website, on Twitter,  in our hallways, on the ballfields, wherever. It’s all part of the same school experience. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this: The message is important, but it’s those individual stakeholder experiences, and their perceptions of those experiences, that stand to have the biggest impact on our communities and what we’re trying to accomplish.  

Trust is the foundation on top of which all other things rest —
and, right now, our cracks are showing.

As school leaders, we love to talk about building trust. Trust with parents. Trust with teachers and staff. Trust with students. But the terms we use are vague and indistinguishable. Truth is, we don’t have a good sense for what trust in our schools looks like, or worse, how to achieve it. We simply think that, if we use the word enough times, people will believe it. Maybe that used to work. But not now. These days, trust is earned. In some cases, with everything that’s gone on, we have to earn it back. This isn’t easy. It means coming up with a common definition and set of standards and goals. And it means creating a system to measure stakeholder confidence. All of this stuff sounds great when you say it out loud. But, if you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s easier said than done. So where to start?  Listening to parents and families is a great way to begin to measure public trust in your schools. Whether you choose to conduct surveys and gather feedback or simply invite people to engage with your school or district online, just being there shows a willingness to engage and is a great first step. However you seek to build trust, it’s important to know that the fruits of those efforts will be visible in everything that you do, from feeding students, to making your schools and classrooms safe, to reopening physical buildings during a global pandemic. This isn’t something that can wait.

Our staff need more help than we’re currently equipped to give them.

If it wasn’t clear to me before today, it is now. Our staff are getting absolutely hammered by all the changes and uncertainty. They’ve done incredible work under the circumstances. But there is a tension in our schools, the likes of which we’ve not felt before. HR leaders are fielding resignations and complaints at a rate unimaginable less than a year ago. Our principals say teacher morale is the lowest it’s been in years. The pressure is real. Our schools simply must do a better job supporting and training the educators out there on the front lines. Teachers and staff have always been passionate about what they do. You don’t go into public education unless you’re willing to make a few sacrifices for the greater good. But everyone has a breaking point — and it’s hard to be effective, or even just a little bit good, when you’re working 20 hours a day, just to stay caught up. We need to find more ways to take the pressure off of our teachers and staff. There are tools and systems to help our teams work more efficiently and change policies. It’s up to us to save them time and preserve their sanity, while nurturing their passions. We need to help them work smarter, not harder. At the most basic level, that means plying them with new training to deliver instructional content in different settings. It also means giving tools to communicate and showing them how to build relationships. Beyond that, the easiest thing would simply be to recognize them, to show them through our actions how much we appreciate what they do, day in and day out, to make our schools go, however they go these days. And, maybe, just to stop and say thank you. 

Thanks for hearing me out on this. If you’re interested in any of these ideas, or you simply want to talk through strategies to support parents and staff and students through these changes, I’d welcome the opportunity to catch up and share what we’ve been up to. Just let me know.

About the Author

Gerald Dawkins
Dr. Gerald Dawkins was formerly senior vice president of superintendent and district relations for K12 Insight. A longtime district superintendent and tireless advocate for public schools, Dr. Dawkins passed away in June 2021.

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