By Andrew Hawk
At my school, we are nearing the end of our third full week of school. Approximately one-eighth of my students elected to participate in school as virtual learners at home. The rest returned to an atmosphere that has changed dramatically since they departed last March. Desks are socially distanced. Whole-group instruction is the most-used instructional format. Lunch and special classes are in students’ main classrooms. Physical education has become more of a movement class, and music has become more of a music appreciation class. Staff and students have to wear masks to navigate the building. Our state also mandated that we designate a second nurse’s office specifically for students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.
Do all of us miss our previous ways of operating? Of course we do. Was everyone happy to be back to school? If any of my staff or students wished we had opened 100 percent virtually, no one has mentioned it. Students especially seem to have a new appreciation for school. Office referrals so far have decreased from two or three a day to one or even zero per week.
Still, times are challenging all over the world, and teachers are a group who have seen their workloads and stress levels increase. Here are a few ideas for how administrators can support teachers who are teaching during the time of COVID.
Now more than ever, teachers need administrators’ doors to be open. They need administrators’ help finding ways to meet the needs of their students. Since my school is part of a small school district, we could not afford to hire or designate teachers to focus only on virtual learning. Now my teachers are juggling virtual and in-person learning. I have stated in the past that part of a principal’s job is to let staff members vent their frustrations. Teachers need this now more than ever.
Measure Your Responses
Is a teacher reporting that students were taking off their masks in the hallway? Is a virtual learner not turning in work? The way the principal reacts to these reports has to balance validating the teacher’s concern while showing compassion for students and parents. If reactions are not measured in a well-balanced way, the consequences can have a ripple effect. For me, I try to address COVID-related infractions in a manner that is serious but not stern. While I want students to take safety precautions seriously, I also want them to remember elementary school as a place they enjoyed being. Even during the pandemic.
Keep the Essentials Stocked
Some of my staff members wanted a face shield, so we ordered face shields. All students in Indiana were provided a mask at the beginning of the school year. Do they forget their masks at home sometimes? Yes, of course they do. We ordered a lot of masks just for students. Principals should be proactive in keeping these and other essential COVID supplies stocked.
Act as a Buffer
Since the pandemic has become a politically charged topic, we should expect emotions to run high during this time. Indiana is currently operating under a mandate to wear masks in public places. I have already had a parent who was visiting the school for a case conference tell me that it was unconstitutional to tell him to put on a mask. Parents have come into the office angry that they were called about their students having possible COVID symptoms. Staff members debate the need for safety precautions.
Principals need to be the ones to help everyone navigate COVID-related disagreements and grievances. I offered the parent the choice to attend the conference in person with a mask on or to hold the conference as a virtual meeting. This simple concession seemed to make him happy because he felt he had a choice in the matter.
Have a Theme
Yearly themes are a tradition at many schools already. This year especially, having a mantra for your staff to rally around can help everyone keep up their spirits. The instructional coach at my school worked with our staff to choose “Color the World with Kindness” as our theme this year.
Find Creative Solutions
Take stock of whether your teachers are struggling. If they are, find out why, and look for a solution. My teachers needed more time to balance in-person teaching with virtual teaching. It took some doing, but we were able to work out a schedule that gives teachers a second planning period during the day to dedicate to e-learning. Even if you cannot completely solve your teachers’ problems, they will appreciate your effort.
Keep Everyone Updated
New guidance on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Departments of Education monthly, biweekly, and, in some cases, even weekly. Do your best to monitor these releases and update your staff if the information is pertinent to your school.
Focus on the Positives
I find myself constantly reminding everyone that even if we do not like everything we have to do right now, our situation is temporary and there are still many good things that come out of each school day. I recommend closing meetings by having staff take turns naming one good thing that has happened at school this year.
Stay healthy, everyone!
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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