Tips for principals and superintendents on leading during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing educational leaders around the globe to make tough choices. How can they best look after the welfare of their staff and students? Michael Kozak, EdD, a professor in Drexel University’s EdD in Educational Leadership and Management, looks at how principals and superintendents can best support their staff and students, and what the post-pandemic future might look like for education.
This is the time for leadership
Now more than ever, it’s important for principals and superintendents to demonstrate leadership capabilities. They need to be flexible and adaptive to this new learning environment. “You need to be able to address unplanned circumstances, as well as be planning for change,” Kozak said.
For many teachers, this is their first foray into teaching online. In addition to these new challenges, many of them are balancing more familial responsibilities, including taking care of children or other relatives. Administrators need to be cognizant of this, and make certain allowances to support their staff. “The school leader needs to be aware of [teachers’ responsibilities], and make sure that he or she does not burn out their teachers and staff by asking them to do too much,” Kozak said.
Leadership also means looking out for the physical and mental well-being of students. This may mean turning to networks they’ve built within the community. Mental health centers, faith-based organizations, nursing and health centers, social services – administrators can utilize these connections to create a network that parents and students can turn to for help.
Look to the past to learn how to deal with challenges
Many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented, but dealing with situations of this magnitude isn’t uncommon for educators. Kozak brings up 9/11, the HIV crisis and school shootings as examples of past and current issues education administrators have had to grapple with. Despite their differences, two things remain consistent: the importance of communication, and the responsibility to protect vulnerable (or potentially vulnerable) populations.
“The important thing is to offer frequent communication. You need to let people know what is going on,” Kozak said. “You need to be honest and transparent – don’t make up things. If you’re not sure what is going on, you have to let people know.”
In terms of vulnerable populations, some students can become targets for abuse during times of trouble. LGBT students (or students perceived to be LGBT), Indian or Middle Eastern students, and now Asian students have all faced backlash and bullying in schools during the HIV epidemic, 9/11, and the current COVID-19 pandemic, respectively. Teachers and administrators need to be aware of the potential for bullying or even outright violence, and have a plan in place to protect these vulnerable students.
“A school leader needs to be aware of those potential threats,” Kozak said.
Advice to principals and superintendents
Kozak’s most important piece of advice for principals and administrators? “Don’t operate in a vacuum,” he said. If you’re a principal, you should be communicating with your superintendent during this period. It’s also important to be consistently checking in with teachers to see how they’re doing and let them know about any updates.
Kozak also advises administrators to look at current policies to see if any need to be updated to address the current situation, while still keeping the safety of students at the forefront. This might mean using a platform that allows the school district to monitor the interactions between teachers and students, or discouraging one-on-one online communication between teachers and students to protect students from potential improper behavior.
Kozak said administrators need to ask themselves, “How can we deal with this crisis, but yet still follow the safety policies and procedures that are in place?”
What the future will look like
“Any time a school leader goes through an unexpected occurrence, besides dealing with the immediate impact and providing for the students and the staff, you have to step back and reflect. You need to say, ‘What have we learned from this, and how can we put things in place to help us, should we come across something like this again?’” Kozak said.
Even after the pandemic subsides, Kozak still thinks we’ll see a growing prevalence of online learning at the K-12 level. “I think principals and superintendents are going to reexamine how instruction is delivered. I think you’re going to see more online courses being offered, not only at the high school and middle school level, but at the elementary school level,” he said.
Kozak also thinks teachers are going to have to become more comfortable bringing technology into the classroom. “I think this also brings to light the importance of technology in teaching and learning today,” he said. “It’s not a question of, ‘Do you want to learn how to use this,’ but, ‘This is a necessary part of your job, to know how to use technology.’ The students are comfortable using this technology, and we need to bring that into the school, not stop it at the door. It doesn’t replace a good teacher, but it is certainly a necessary component.”
For more Drexel University School of Education resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.