In the school building, while washing my hands in the bathroom, I fixed my face. As I dried my hands, I fixed my posture. Before opening the door, I fixed my tie. As I stepped into the hallway, I cleared my throat. The way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I looked, the volume of my voice: all of these, when I was an in-person principal, were elements of leadership. Leaders make the weather; I wanted to make positive, high-energy weather.
This fall, leading remote schools, most principals can’t make the weather for their school communities. They aren’t even in the same building as their teachers and students; there are no hallways to walk down. How do you make the weather when it’s raining on one part of your virtual school and not on the other?
In distance learning, the way you dress, walk or project your voice aren’t as relevant. But personal leadership—setting an example, in your own person, of how you want your community to be—is as important as ever.
Make a Plan
A school is a community because of shared values, and good leaders tried to convey those values in every interaction. Whether stopping by a teacher’s classroom early in the morning, greeting parents at the door, comforting a staff member who seemed down, or dealing with a student in trouble, you knew you were being watched. You checked yourself, as I did in the bathroom, but you didn’t have to plan to share your values: you could simply live them as you went through your day.
Now, principals I talk to emphasize intentionality as the key to effective personal leadership. “You don’t wing anything,” says Guye Turner, who leads a middle school in Washington, D.C. To convey care for his staff, he can’t rely on stopping by classrooms or running into teachers in the hallway. Instead, he schedules 10-minute wellness check-ins with teachers throughout the week. “I want to show compassion if there’s anything you need, or if you want to throw out an f-bomb right now because Zoom is messing with you!”
Principals who led online schools before the pandemic have longer experience with the kind of planning necessary to exert personal leadership in virtual schools. Teri Cady is head of an online public school in Colorado. Like Turner, she wants casual interactions with her teachers, but she has to schedule them: “I host an office hour every Thursday where teachers can come in with concerns or feedback or questions. They know that I’m always there.” They know she’s always there, at a particular time in a particular online spot, because she can’t rely on the happenstance of being there in person.
Model Your Expectations
If I wanted teachers to hurry kids toward class, I needed to do so myself. If I wanted kids to clean up after themselves, I had to also. More than once, I taught a class with a dozen teachers watching as a learning lab. Partly, I did so to demonstrate some instructional techniques, and also, I wanted to show that I was able to walk the walk.
Nobody’s walking now, but leaders should still demonstrate the behaviors they want. “One of the most important things I did was shoulder-to-shoulder work with teachers. They needed to see ‘Turner’s willing to do what he’s asking,” says Guye Turner. “I had to teach a virtual class. Just like my teachers, I was successful, and I fell on my face. But we reflected on it.” Another longtime leader of a virtual school in Kansas, Philip Thies, says that “my whole approach is servant leadership and being right there, side by side.” When his school changed its schedule, he created instructional maps to align content to standards, and modeled how to break down lesson timing.
In talking to Turner and Thies, I noticed they both used physical metaphors about relating to staff: shoulder-to-shoulder, side by side. When leaders put in the effort, the virtual school can feel much less distant. The same is true with students. “When I’m in classrooms observing teachers,” says Cady, “I can say hi and greet a few students, go into breakout rooms, and say goodbye. It’s no different than a principal would in a brick and mortar.”
Cady also models, in her treatment of staff, how she wants them to treat students. “At any staff meeting or office hour or class session, I always start with a smile. If a staff member comes to me with a problem, I’m hearing them out, having some empathy, and turning to ‘how can we solve this together?’” One aspect of this modeling is easier, she says, than in physical school: the leader can more easily take a break. “You’re in and out of classrooms, but you’re not always walking around the hallways where everyone can see you!”
Communicate to Connect
In physical school it’s the leader’s responsibility to keep the energy up: to not appear burned-out, dragged-down or overwhelmed. That’s the case, though in different forms, in remote school too. “You just have to show up in everything you’re doing virtually as well,” says Cady, “whether Zoom meetings or everything you write. They don’t necessarily see your body language, but they hear your voice, they see your writing. You’re thinking about how you present yourself in a different way.”
Some forms work better than others: “You really have to take advantage of the times when you are together by using video meetings,” says Thies. “You can see somebody’s emotions, facial expressions, see when they’re confused.” Those you lead can see your energy, and you can see theirs.
That doesn’t always mean relentless positivity, especially with the additional challenges of newly remote school. “Lead with transparency,” says Turner. “It’s OK to say that we are learning and creating as we go. We collect data, we reflect, we refine, and we try again. I wanted to get my staff to the point where, if things weren’t going well in their class, they didn’t panic.” Model that struggling is okay, too!
Another principal whose Washington, D.C., school went online, Maya Stewart, says, “I had to be honest with myself around my disappointment, my sadness, as well as my excitement.” With remote staff meetings, as with remote classes, “you don’t know what’s going to happen, if the Wi-Fi is going to cut out, who has Zoom anxiety.” Her staff knows that she is in a newly “therapeutic space:” “Any type of workshop that I lead, I include a breathing exercise.” Maya knows the virtual weather is stormy; she’s modeling how to weather the storm.
Staff meetings and student assemblies can still happen over Zoom, but remote schooling requires more—and more personal—communication from leaders. “We don’t want to overwhelm people, but when you go virtual,” says Cady, “err on the side of over-communication. People feel isolated when they’re used to seeing people every day.”
Though over-communication, especially electronically, does have its downsides! Another D.C. principal, Seth Biderman, says, “more and more, I’m picking up the phone and just calling someone. I can’t expect that they’ve fully read or ingested all their email.” Turner has another approach: “I did surprise pop-ups at student houses! I told mom, ‘I’m going to be outside your house, I’m going to beep my horn and see Roger. There were kids who needed that extra push. The message was, ‘Hey, I know this is crazy, and we’ve still got your back.’”
Whether outside houses, on the phone, or over Zoom, the communication can’t just be one way. Turner tried to listen for what his team really needed and, in these challenging times, respond creatively. “I gave some folks time off: ‘Take this hour, put your son down for a nap, and we will fill you in.’”
Tell Your Truths
Nobody is going to pass the “Habits of Heart and Mind” posted by the main office. Nobody is going to read the inspirational quotations in the stairways. In remote schooling, you need other ways to communicate the core values of your school. And you need to do so more explicitly, more frequently, and more creatively than you ever have before.
“We start every Monday meeting with stories and kudos about students,” says Cady. “We have student and staff shout-outs. We name a student of the month and a staff member of the month. All those things you see in brick and mortar carry over to the virtual world as much as possible.”Thies has similar strategies: “For staff meetings, the lead-in slide always includes the vision statement, mission statement and the school goal, and the rest of the meeting is going to relate to the vision statement, mission statement and school goal. With our parent council, the same thing: the mission statement, the vision statement, the school goal and how the rest of the meeting supports them.”
Saying the mission, while valuable, isn’t the same as living it. Personal leadership can show up virtually in unexpected ways. Pankti Sevak, head of a middle school in New York City, joined the sourdough trend in the spring, with less-than-ideal results. She showed off the misshapen results in a video for her students and families. “We’re all being asked to do so many things that we really don’t know how to do,” she said. “We’re not always getting it right. It’s messy and confusing. It’s not what we hoped it might have been. But going through it is a way to learn from it.”
Pankti is my sister-in-law, so I can report that, eventually, she figured out the sourdough. She showed more leadership, though, by making the video before she got the recipe right. You can build connections among people, even when they can’t be together, so that they can work and build the future side by side.