By Peter Dufresne
Former 16 year High School Principal and Curriculum Director
Academic Lead, Knovva Academy
The work of a school and district leader is already exceedingly difficult. In a study on decision fatigue in 2011, the FAA posited that air traffic controllers and classroom teachers make nearly 1500 decisions a day (SFGATE, April 2011), which is far more than any other profession. Having served as a classroom teacher, principal, and district leader, I can speak to the fact that education is a mental triathlon on a daily basis. Often educators are metaphorically building the plane in mid-flight. Whether it is students hacking the school website, new state or federal mandates, or fire drills during a standardized test, educators know how to roll with the punches and handle emergency situations.
None of us, however, were prepared for a school shutdown with no clear end in sight that was foisted upon us almost overnight. Whether you knew it at the time or not, you are now practicing disruptive leadership! The most nimble schools and districts in this remote learning situation are now the best disruptive leaders. At Knovva Academy, we are fortunate to have a company full of educators. As we have reached out to our contacts across the educational spectrum, both public and private, domestic and international, we have seen the best of educators in action during a crisis.
The educational institutions that are meeting with most success during this global crisis are those who have changed their own paradigm instead of passively accepting their fate and waiting out COVID-19. Waiting is not a solution. Seeing this crisis as an opportunity and not an impediment has led to new and creative solutions to educational issues. As educators build out their tools to educate students, we are seeing the new face of education emerge. Instead of focusing on the inequities that remote learning has shone a light on (digital divide, anyone?), we are seeing schools and school systems literally create the new normal right in front of us.
The city of Springfield found a way to deliver laptops to ten thousand students so that every single student has a remote learning device (Western Mass News, March 31, 2020). One need only to do an internet search (I refrained from just writing “google it” to the two of you out there who still use AltaVista) to see how many districts have passed out hotspots to families without internet access.
We see low-tech solutions like the teacher driving around town with a whiteboard to teach math to students through a window. We also see high-tech solutions like teachers who are learning to use video games to teach students worldly concepts (Civilization players, here is a nod to you!). Educators who taught the same way for years because “it worked” are now learning how to reach their students in new ways.
This crisis has presented school and district leaders with an opportunity to “lean in” and embrace the new normal. Long after we have packed away our COVID-19 masks and relegated this pandemic to a story, the most successful schools and school leaders will be the ones who pivoted into disruptive leadership. Schools will not go back to the way they operated before COVID-19. Educators have learned a new way of doing things. Many of our coping strategies for teaching our students during this time should stay in our arsenal: We have an opportunity to model for our students that we can change for the better by using these teaching tools.
Disruptive Leadership is defined as “looking for better solutions and ways to establish new processes […] to make an impact on the business as a whole, without worrying about shaking up things or altering the paths to obtain the necessary results.” (PDAInternational, April 2019). If you are a school or district leader who is reading this blog post, you are keenly and painfully aware that we are in the middle of a challenge that no one in education is likely to have faced before. Of course we all know about online schools; online learning is not new. The challenge I am talking about is the sudden change to a fully online educational experience for our students.
I was fortunate to be the principal of a large urban high school as my very first principalship. The teachers at that school, for the most part, taught with desperation. They knew, even if their students and some of their families did not, that the education they were providing was necessary. They showed me what a dedicated group of educators could do to educate their students. We drove to students’ homes to get them out of bed and into school. We set up tutoring centers in parts of town that people wouldn’t drive through at night. We did all of this to get our students the education they needed.
This forced remote learning situation is no different. The best schools are the ones that are embracing disruptive leadership and changing their paradigm from seeing this as a challenge to seeing it as an opportunity to change their educational practices for the better. (Did anyone think all these companies would have sensible work-from-home policies this quickly?)
The good news is that if you have not leaned into making your new remote learning situation an opportunity to change, it is not too late. One of the gifts of being an educational leader at the building or district level is the endless opportunity to solve problems and facilitate positive change. At the risk of sounding biased, take some time today to look at the many free online solutions that can augment the work of your faculty and staff. Knovva Academy, among many other companies, can help your teachers introduce new ways of learning. The opportunities to get informed and start to gather resources for your faculty are right in front of you, and now that we are all working and learning from home, you have the time to reflect on how you can leverage this situation. Your students will benefit from your nimble and reflective leadership if you use your vision to turn the challenges they are facing into learning opportunities.