As Dorothy said to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself.” Before becoming a Head of School, I did not realize, nor could I have ever imagined, the importance of courage to this role. I never saw the word listed anywhere in the position description; yet, serving as Head during this unprecedented and uncertain moment in history, I know that courage is something school leaders must have.
Courage is showing strength in the face of a crisis, and COVID-19 has brought a singular crisis to our doorstep. While I was not prepared for something of this magnitude, the belief that I could lead a school-wide shift was rooted in a considerable change we made at my school three years ago, when I took our faculty on a journey to professionalize our teaching and learning. At that time, our school became a founding partner of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s School in Potomac. The CTTL makes Mind, Brain, and Education science (MBE) research the central focus of faculty professional learning, curriculum, and program design.
Kent School was on spring break when the COVID-19 outbreak became a pandemic and the state board of education closed Maryland public schools. With three of my teachers self-quarantined due to possible exposure while traveling internationally, we held our first faculty meeting with some of us on campus and others via Zoom — my very first attempt at hosting a videoconference. In all honestly, I was more nervous about the technology than the conversation I would have with faculty, who never let me down. With only 48 hours of preparation, we leapt into action, launched distance learning, executed a “grab and go” textbook and resource material pick up for parents, and created Google classrooms and SeeSaw accounts.
In reflecting, I think it was our work over the past few years with the CTTL that made our pivot to distance learning so swift and strong. Much of our work with our partner affirmed our teaching, yet some of the work has made us more mindful of how students learn best and caused us to rethink and alter our schedule, our classroom strategies, and technology and arts integration. Creating longer academic blocks in our schedule and holding fewer classes per day to deepen learning for our students, we courageously moved forward before we really had to.
During our school’s recent closure and the shift to distance learning, we have had to literally throw our scheduling model away, which took courage. But we did it because we thought about the stress on families needing to manage school-aged children at home, with siblings vying for computer time and parental attention. We are mindful of our MBE classroom strategies, a key one being to build community and belonging. Our teachers are working hard to connect daily with students and parents.
Leadership in this time of physical distance, and in a rapidly changing and fluid situation, takes courage, empathy, and kindness, as well as constant communication. Courage helps me guide employees through periods of self-doubt, performance challenges, personal and family issues, and difficult classroom or workplace situations. COVID-19 has brought this to the forefront as teachers are exhausted by juggling their students, their own children and families, spousal job loss, and self care. Courage helps me guide families through disappointment, academic pressures, social and emotional issues, and financial setbacks. The current economic conditions have made our re-enrollment process difficult for some, and I have had a few heartbreaking conversations this past week with parents fearful of the future of their small businesses. Courage helps me to personally handle these emotional discussions as well as the impact of my decisions.
Maya Angelou said, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” I have found this to be especially true in the past few weeks. The voice of courage is the voice in my head that partners with my heart on a daily basis so that I can lead my school community. I think of it loosely as donning my armor during my morning ritual before commuting to my home office, in my kitchen, ready to face my day.