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Musings on School Leadership Amidst a Pandemic


HELP WANTED: MAGICIANS


Are you capable of unbelievable feats? Can you defy the laws of science? If you are an individual with that rare form of magic that makes the impossible possible, the role of school administrator is for you!


The successful candidate will be able to:

  • Create a virtual learning program out of thin air at a moment’s notice!

  • Pull laptops out of a hat for students learning at home!

  • Escape from a chained desk while trapped under a flood of angry emails!

  • Maintain balance on the political tightrope of lawmaker whims!

  • Saw students in half to make room for socially distant classrooms!

  • Retrieve millions of coins from behind taxpayers’ ears to pay for it!


Must be able to work days, nights, and weekends. No signing bonus!


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If this job sounds as impossible as it seems, I can assure you that you are correct. Until very recently, I was one of these magicians.


Wrapping up my term as an Assistant Superintendent at the onset of the pandemic, I was desperate to gain insight as to how others were handling the situation. I contacted my colleagues in school leadership who were scattered across the country. Through texts, phone calls, and of course, Zoom, I found that my experience leading during a pandemic was hardly unique. While my friends and I contacted one another to gain information, we quickly discovered that our struggles were eerily similar.


Initially, districts went into crisis mode. Challenged to provide devices, internet connections, materials, and meals to students, administrative teams worked around the clock. A new reliance on videoconferencing required updates to network infrastructures. School leaders researched, purchased, and implemented new learning management systems within a period of several months rather than the typical several years. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that teachers were now delivering instruction in a completely different environment that required support and training from administrators. In addition to a new instructional model, providing supports to vulnerable populations was a struggle. Services like special education and English as a Second Language did not always translate well online.


Yet at the beginning of the pandemic, despite all the challenges, my colleagues and I felt encouraged. People were rising to the occasion and cooperating with one another to support our most valuable resource, our students. Sure, it was long hours and a crazy workload, but it was what needed to be done. Largely, our school communities were supportive of the efforts.


However, as virtual learning dragged on for several months, a good friend of mine serving as an administrator in another state quipped, “the communal spirit for the collective good is waning.” If you have any doubts regarding this assertion, it can be confirmed by a simple scroll through your Facebook feed. For when it is time to make decisions about the future of education amidst a global pandemic, outrage is common on all sides:


“What do you mean my child has to wear a mask?”...“Your mask policy isn’t good enough!”


“This is all a hoax.”...”You’re not taking this seriously enough!”


“Sports and extra-curriculars must continue!”...“How could you dream of allowing sports and activities during this time?”


“You are taking too long getting kids back to school.”...“I’m not confident you’re ready for students to be back.”


“My child has too much work.”...”My child is not getting enough work.”


“Students need to be in school for their mental health.”...”You are risking the lives of teachers by allowing students in school!”

“Please make the right decision.”


This last statement is the trickiest. What exactly is the right decision? Does anyone know? They don’t exactly teach Pandemic Leadership in administrator graduate programs.


But while our school leaders might not have had Pandemic Leadership courses, I feel pretty confident that the administrators I know are experts at it by now. They communicate frequently with public health officials. They stay up late creating protocols and procedures. They train their staff on safely returning to school. They bring tape measures from home to measure the distance between desks. They distribute cartons of masks, gloves, hand sanitizing bottles, and wipes. They call students who are not showing up or logging on. They deliver meals to families who need them. They listen calmly to complaints that come at them from all angles and do their best to address concerns with grace. When they are not spending their evenings answering emails, they are attending hours-long school board meetings via Zoom. They make schools feel as normal as possible despite them being anything but.


Yet, everything comes at a cost. The tolls of school administration right now are great. Sleepless nights. Waking each morning with a pit in your stomach, wondering what the day will hold. High blood pressure. Headaches. Eating too much. Eating too little. Anxiety. Depression. Hopelessness. Missing time with family. Emotional strain. Fear. Exhaustion. Sickness. Self-doubt.


If nothing changes, I fear that in a year or two from now, many of our administrator magicians will pull their own disappearing acts. Who will run our schools then?


Let’s pause for a moment and discard the social media rhetoric and outrage that seems common right now when it comes to schools. Because our school leaders are not magicians. They are heroes.