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My Year With COVID: Practical Leadership Lessons

In my role as Assistant Principal at Woodside High School, I entered 2021 with a growth mindset. This fresh outlook was influenced largely by the words of Poet Laureate Amanda Gowan. She wrote, “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If we’re only brave enough to be it.” The power of her words led me to reflect on the impact that COVID-19 has presented challenges for school leaders ranging from students’ access to technology, academic support for students, mental and physical health of teachers, limited school and community engagement, and a host of other obstacles. In retrospect, during my year long journey as a school leader during COVID-19, I have read articles, watched news interviews, and attended webinars and meetings that focused on the challenges and obstacles because of the global pandemic. This left me burdened with deficit thinking… “I can’t do this, it’s too much, and I don’t have solutions.”

However, my rejuvenated mindset led me to take out a sheet of paper, and I began to write down my personal list of positive school leadership outcomes which resulted in the midst the pandemic. As I reviewed my comprehensive list, I crafted the title My Year With COVID: Practical Leadership Lessons and this led me to further review my list and narrow it down from ten lessons to three lessons. Each lesson serves as a call to action and required me to be the leader my teachers, students, and school community need and deserve. My three leadership lessons are:

1. Affirm Teachers Daily.

2. Keep Students First.

3. The Power of Saying I Don’t Know

Lesson #1: Affirm Teachers Daily

Baruti Kafele in his book The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence emphasized that as a school leader you cannot imagine moving a school forward without first demonstrating genuine gratitude and appreciation toward teachers. I echo this sentiment and take intentional steps towards encouraging and showing gratitude towards my teachers.

As a school leader you cannot imagine moving a school forward without first demonstrating genuine gratitude and appreciation toward teachers.
As a school leader you cannot imagine moving a school forward without first demonstrating genuine gratitude and appreciation toward teachers.

Daily Affirmations

Each morning, I email my staff a motivational quote or inspirational video vignettes. Over the years of implementing this best practice, I found that it is great way to connect with staff by setting the stage for a positive outlook to start the day. As one of my teachers responded to a quote by George Raveling which stated, “Be somebody who makes everybody feel like somebody.” – Wow Dr. Ford I have to maintain a positive outlook and uplift others… I needed this one today! It has often been shared the daily affirmations are the best way to release negativity, fear, worry, and anxiety.

Faculty Pop-Up Luncheon

There is an old adage about the power of food which states, “Food is the ingredient that binds people together”. In an effort to actualize this mantra, I planned a series of spontaneous “pop-up” luncheons for the staff which created a platform for teachers to connect with each other and spend time talking about non-school related topic but enjoy casual conversations about children, family, hobbies, and dinner menu. I was amazed how a hot dog, chips, and soda served as the perfect ingredient to build collegial relationships and foster trust.

Friday Lunch Bunch

Teachers want to be heard and valued; therefore, the Lunch Bunch was established as a safe space to allow teachers to ask questions ranging from school instructional procedures, how to best arrange the classroom for hybrid learning, when will additional PPE arrive, to who has the best recipe for chicken pot pie. This has been a remarkable leadership tool that devotes weekly uninterrupted time to build interpersonal relationships between the school administration and teachers. As leaders, we must be committed to establishing school cultures that thrive on sustaining positive relationships which help foster a collective consciousness around shared beliefs, ideas, and morale imperative.

Lesson #2 Keep Students First

COVID-19 placed limits on the day to day physical connection with students thus it became paramount that as a school leader, I listed youth development at the top of my daily to do list. Now more than ever, school environments have to invest in young people and create opportunities for them to learn, discover, and grow. One lesson learned in this area was to take a collaborative approach to achieve this goal. Utilizing the skills and talents of my Student Assistance Counselor, Activities Director, and Graduation Coach helped foster a “students first culture” and seek various instructional and enrichment opportunities to keep the students engaged.

Now more than ever, school environments have to invest in young people and create opportunities for them to learn, discover, and grow.
Now more than ever, school environments have to invest in young people and create opportunities for them to learn, discover, and grow.

Establish Community Partnerships

One of the best examples of an outstanding community partnership was established with Zeta Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. (Newport News, VA). In February 2021, the fraternity partnered with the school to host a Virtual Student Oratorical Competition which provided eight students the opportunity to participate in an oration on the topic “Hope, Humanity, and Activism: Are They Relevant in Contemporary America” along with engaging an extemporaneous discourse on the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments. First, prior to the competition, the members of the fraternity made a commitment to serve as mentors to the student participants by serving as Oratorical coaches. This involved weekly support meetings in which the member worked with the students on writing, speaking, and presentation skills along with assisting with research for both the prepared oration and discourse portions of the competition. Second, the post competition follow-up for the students was outstanding.  The students were given overall feedback on their performance which served as a boost of confidence. More importantly, the seniors that competed were immediately connected to the fraternity Educational Foundation President who provided them information of the chapter college scholarship program and shared a host of scholarship opportunities sponsored by both fraternities and sororities in the area.

Structured Academic Support

There is a plethora of research about the student academic slide that has resulted during COVID-19. Sara Sparks (2020) suggested that students basically gained no ground during the school closure and have lost ground academically during the closure, at rates similar to those seen over the long summer break. With my students in mind, I began to work closely with the Student Assistance Counselor and Graduate Coach to create and implement an academic support and mentoring program for students that are failing behind academically. This program was entitled “The Student Success Program” and was exclusively supervised by both counselors. The program had three core objectives. First, it served as an additional support for teachers that are having challenges connecting with students that need additional support. Second, it assisted parents with best instructional and behavioral strategies that can be used at home to support students. Third, both the student assistance counselor and graduation coach provided ongoing academic and social emotional support for the students with the establishment of weekly zoom “check-in” sessions, conducted home visits, hosted individual and group tutorial sessions, and scheduled bi-weekly student support meetings with both student and parent to review and set goals for both academics and attendance.

Overall, the results of this program yielded small gains in student academic performance, but we celebrated each gain with an optimistic view that we had a system in place to support students and committed staff that took a “whatever it takes” approach.

Lesson #3 The Power of Saying I Don’t Know

The statement “I don’t know” is taboo in school leadership, but in the era of COVID-19 it ironically was power. Gupta (2016) shared that as leaders we are conditioned to having and providing quick and confident answers as a sign of competence and leadership.

I have settled for saying “I don’t know” as an avenue to seek facts and accuracy first versus just giving an answer.
I have settled for saying “I don’t know” as an avenue to seek facts and accuracy first versus just giving an answer.

Gupta warns against this by challenging leaders to consider the following question, “is the desire to answer questions quickly just to desire to give an answer and for immediacy? My leadership lens during COVID-19 has caused me to be reflective about answering this question. The day-to-day uncertainty of that has resulted in leading a school during this time and encouraged me to take a different approach. I have settled for saying “I don’t know” as an avenue to seek facts and accuracy first versus just giving an answer. As my leadership mentor always reminded me… “never make shot gun decisions.” This advice served me well especially as we prepared for students to return to school under the Hybrid Learning Model. My teachers had so many questions and concerns, they posed questions such as, “how will school handle students who arrive on the wrong day?”, “what additional academic supports will be designed for students both hybrid and virtual that are working below potential?”, and “will students be able to attend clubs and activities after school?” As I faced these plethora of questions, the power in saying “I Don’t Know” made me a more effective leader because my focus is on articulating my vision, crafting a clear direction, and mobilizing the “builders” that have talent, will, and skill to help me to achieve success for both students and staff. As the adage states, “saying I don’t know is the greatest form of intellectual humility and allows one to be more open minded and motivated to learn and understand.”

In closing, there is a consistent mantra in education that school leaders must be continuous learners and this year has been the ultimate “classroom experience.” I am grateful for the COVID-19 leadership lessons in that each day has provided practical experiences that have and will make a better school leader. In retrospect, as we prepare to return to learn under the Hybrid Learning model, I approach this work with optimism, an expanded leadership skill set, and even more committed to the moral imperative of the creating the best school environment for my students and staff to set the course of the being the best versions of themselves.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

Gupta, G. (2016, November). The power of saying ‘I don’t know’. Forbes, 15(3), 5-8.

Kafele, B (2015). The Principal 50: Critical questions for inspiring schoolwide excellence. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sparks, S. (2020, December). States renew efforts to track student attendance at pandemic stretches on. Education Week, 12(3), 10-13.

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Diron Ford
Dr. Diron T. Ford is an Assistant Principal at Woodside High School located in Newport News, Virginia. In addition, to his administrative role, he also serves as the Executive Director of the Newport News Public Schools RISE! Male Empowerment Network. He has twenty-five years of experience as an educator with extensive research on educating and mentoring African-American males while conducting presentations at the local, state, and national level. Dr. Ford also serves as an Adjunct Professor at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia.

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