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Remembering August

There is a definite cycle to the traditional school year. This is especially true for the school leader.

We would get to mid-June and exhale. The kids have gone home. Graduation is done. Teachers have posted their final grades, made the required summer classroom preparations and are ready for their time off, their vacation. My wife always characterized my mid-June experience as “crawling across the finish line.” It’s true. The period from early September to mid-June is an escalating winding of the proverbial rubber band: tighter and tighter with the hope that it doesn’t snap. Human interaction, especially within the context of education, over the course of an academic year, is both exhilarating and exhausting.

And, it’s hard to be on the top of your game in the midst of exhaustion.

This was my reality for the final eighteen years of my public education career. Principal. The face, the force, the champion of the school community I worked hard to lead. I loved it. By mid-June I was spent.

July was the calm sea of my calendar. It afforded time to relax, maybe even vacation in a sincere effort to recharge the battery, to regenerate the energy that the responsibilities of my position would, again, soon require. For me, this month of relative calm afforded me the time to reflect and plan, ponder and project. It was a quiet time for me to formulate approaches that would address the challenges that confronted us. It was a time, my time, to define priorities for the advancement of my school community. The master schedule would be finalized. Hiring for vacancies would be well under way. My head was allowed the luxury of defining what should occupy our collective energies in assuring that our school community would experience an even better year moving ahead than the year before. July was the month of moving forward. It was the month of optimism and hope for a new school year.

July was the month to prepare for August.

Aw, August. I loved and looked forward to August. Public education may be the only profession that affords a re-start, a do-over, predictably in the fall of each year. A clean slate. A fresh opportunity. That’s August. A new beginning, a breath of fresh air.

The month of August was the invitation to a new and dynamic school year. I looked forward to welcoming the return of students that had seemingly grown three inches, and were somehow wiser, since I had last seen them. I looked forward to greeting, and welcoming, incoming students and their families into their new school community. I was always eager to greet rejuvenated teaching colleagues and hosting staff inservice sessions that would define our instructional priorities and outline what the actions of the adults in the building would be to achieve our desired outcomes. I looked forward to being “cheerleader-in-chief” as well as “protector-in-chief” for that fragile, and frequently vulnerable, enterprise called learning.

I looked forward to shaking hands, ice cream socials, exchanging smiles, offering stability and hope. I looked forward to assuring safety.

August was the annual opportunity to re-set the clock. More importantly, August represented my opportunity to exemplify, and demonstrate effective leadership for the year ahead.

My Augusts were pre-pandemic.

This is going to be a strange and eerie August for school leaders. If their site is re-opening for in-person instruction, the required safety protocols will be a distraction from an otherwise joy filled opportunity. Kids and teachers are going to be apprehensive, nervous, and maybe a bit scared, even though they are looking forward to their reunion. And the remote learners? What do they get to look forward to? Isolated from their peers and quarantined through no fault of their own, many of these kids will again struggle with the uneven playing field of distance learning. Their only solace, their silver lining, is that their experience may only be for a few months if we can manage to tame the viral beast.

In these unprecedented times, steady, compassionate and visionary leadership will be essential for the successful launch of the coming school year, perhaps to a degree we have never experienced. As we edge back into the seats of learning, regardless of what it looks like from site to site, kids, parents, teachers, support staff will be looking to their school leader for direction and reassurance. It is fair to ask “how?”

Speaking directly ro school leaders, I offer three straight forward suggestions based on my experience. First, reflect on what you hope to accomplish from your leadership activities during a “normal” August. I’m confident these will include nurturing a welcoming and inclusive school community, establishing some improvement goals and direction, relationship building and celebrating a culture of joy and trust. (I’m sure there are many others, but these are a decent place to start.) Now, ask yourself “how do we accomplish these things now that the paradigm has flipped?” Get creative. Be bold in your planning. Perhaps, instead of bringing everyone together for the traditional Back to School Night, you embrace a digital communication platform that focuses on celebrating Back to Learning. Maybe you engage some of your students in devising some safe kid friendly ways to welcome new students to your community. Think of some effective strategies to communicate to your staff your appreciation of them and how you look forward to another year of striving forward together. It may not be the annual pancake breakfast, but there are other ways to demonstrate your respect of them and your affection toward them.

Second, communicate. Often and honestly. Follow the lead of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as he effectively and calmly guided the citizens of his state through the morass of the pandemic. Communicate what you know, not what you feel. And, strive to offer a degree of hope and aspiration, without succumbing to the trap of delivering “feel good” messages that have wishful thinking at their core. Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings communicated factual information, gave direction and offered optimism: we’re in this together and if we do these things, we’ll come out of this together. He built trust.

My third suggestion is to not loose vision in the pressures and uncertainty of our immediate future. School communities must hold on to their collective vision. They must retain the sense of purpose for their school and all of its inhabitants. Community leaders must remain steadfast in the direction their community is headed. Sure, we’re experiencing a detour right now and the terrain may look a bit different when we round the bend. But, there’s visionary work to be done. Committed communities can get it done.

(If this 2010 publication is still available, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in effective leadership. Authored by Michael Fullan, it is titled Motion Leadership - The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy. At only 78 pages, it’s packed with practical wisdom and powerful insight. This little gem was a joint publication of Corwin Publishing, Ontario Principals’ Council, School Improvement Network, American Association of School Administrators and learningforward. ISBN 978-4129-8131-6. Get it!)

Here’s the bottom line. This August may look and feel different, but it’s still August and leadership is required. Great schools rely on great leaders. In addition to circumstances, what may set this August apart from previous years is that our constituents are desperately needing, and looking forward to, the very best leadership that can be mustered.

Your community is counting on it.

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