What does it mean to lead a school that teachers and students cannot enter?
This is now: My empty desk, as I close the door to the office. Silent hallways, as I walk out of the building. The door clicks behind me, and school as I have known it my entire life is over.
The next morning, school begins. I am perched on a chair in my small bedroom, holding meetings on the computer in my lap. I write letters to my community, answer emails from parents, send a message to my board. I forget to eat, to stand, to stop staring at the screen. In the late afternoon, my team and I convene in a Google Hangout, exhausted, exhilarated, exhaling for the first time on this first day of this new way to do school.
The next morning, we do it again. Our team of eleven takes our bilingual international school of over 1,000 students, over 800 families, over 200 educators online, overnight. Though we spent weeks getting ready — the news from colleagues across the world was clear: Schools could close, schools would close — each day is a shock. We are still here, we are still not there.
I ask them to think about ordinary things under these extraordinary circumstances: attendance, activities, assignments. I check in with them, and they check in with theirs — their teams, their faculty, their students and school families. We identify an issue and address it, a problem and solve it, a success and celebrate it. Every day is a new now, the longest we have ever known.
What does it mean to lead a school through a calendar that has come undone?
Sooner than they can stand it, I nudge my team toward next: In the first days of campus closure, I invoke our unraveling school schedule, gesture toward events that must be reconfigured and tasks that must be accomplished, even while our doors are shut.
Campus is closed, but school is in session. How will we admit new students and welcome new families, I ask? Hire teachers and have faculty meetings? Hold prom, promotion, and graduation? What will we do about auction and annual fund?
Think with me, I say.
Their eyes grow wide, initially, and then they are intent. Event by event, we plan our way forward. Virtual visits for families, online happy hours for faculty. It’s hard to reimagine school when you cannot see it, harder still when you don’t know when you will see it again. The governor announces that shelter in place may last months, not weeks, and spirits drop, as now threatens to subsume next. But school has rhythms that are more powerful than we are, and these pull us inexorably forward, toward the next things. We return to the work.
What does this mean for school — and for leaders of schools?
From the beginning, from the first reports from Asia, then Europe, I have known that this would mean later, as well. While my team and I manage the immediate and the imminent, I mull the implications for our future. Carefully, I begin to mention these, nesting later in the work of now and next.
As we review calendars, I note that remote learning could continue; we will need to plan for it. As we welcome families, I speak of financial aid; we will likely need more of it. As we discuss hiring, I talk of budget; we will need to rebuild it. I see them start to understand: This will change us, not just now, but later.
They are unsettled; when it is hard now, we need the promise that it will be better, later. But leaders make only the promises they can keep, so I tell them we will be ready, later, instead.
I remind them that we have been here before — I was a principal in 2008, and they were in schools then, too. I tell them how I am working on later, and ask them to join me. I remember to thank them for their efforts and to laud their achievements. I remind myself to support their initiatives and solicit their insights. Their leadership inspires and sustains me.
Like all leaders in adverse times, I am seeding ambiguity while cultivating our capacity to manage it. We can do this, I say, and there is no one with whom I would rather do this than you. This is true, and so enough to get us through this day and the next, and to bring us closer to later.
This is leading, now.