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How To Lead a School District in a Crisis

By Nicole Krueger
April 7, 2021
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Remember when 1:1 devices were a luxury and video lectures felt subversive? For many school districts, it wasn’t that long ago.

Over the past few decades, education has been dipping its feet in the technology pond one wary toe at a time. Then the global pandemic shoved educators head-first into deep waters, and even districts steeped in technology were floundering as they attempted to get their remote learning programs off the ground.

It was a career-defining moment for education leaders, who had to spearhead the shift to online learning overnight while also managing their own personal and professional struggles in a time of crisis and uncertainty.

“I think number one is acknowledging that what we’re going through is bigger than anyone can possibly imagine,” says Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer for Rowan-Salisbury Schools in North Carolina. “In crisis mode, it’s really easy to be completely overwhelmed by it and not know what steps to take next. We’ve got to recognize the human biological response to fear. There is a huge reaction in the amygdala based upon changes in the environment, and we’ve just turned everyone’s on hyperdrive. People are acting in survival mode and asking us to lead in survival mode.”

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What comes after the pandemic?

Leading through change is hard enough without a global crisis amplifying the urgency and magnitude of every decision. In the beginning, districts operated in triage mode, addressing the most immediate problems as they arose and grasping for any solution that could keep kids learning. But as the pandemic wore on, they began to address the looming questions about the future of education: What happens next? Where do we go from here?

To do that, district leaders need to formulate a more strategic approach to leadership, says former district superintendent Lu Young, executive director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Next Generation Leadership.

“I really think strategic leadership is almost like a military operation, where really good learning is captured along the way. We were researching ourselves as crisis leaders in the middle of a crisis.”

Here are some of the lessons that Young and other education leaders learned about strategic leadership during the initial months of the pandemic. These are takeaways that can be applied to almost any crisis.  

1. Develop a system for swift decision-making

Before the coronavirus forced schools to close their doors, district leaders had the luxury of poring over their technology decisions, taking months or even years to plan before launching new initiatives. But once the pandemic hit, they were inundated with decisions to make, each more urgent than the last.

“The biggest piece for us, logistically, was to develop a strategic process to be able to answer the thousands of decisions that needed to be made,” Smith says.

His team started by setting a clear and concise goal for the entire district to rally around: Provide a high-quality learning experience to every child within a remote learning environment. That became the “why” behind every decision they made.

Since every action revolved around that core goal, the district was able to develop a system in which two leaders could meet online, make a decision and leave the meeting on the same page, all without getting bogged down in the bureaucracy that often plagues district conference rooms.

“It was a way for us to be able to make a lot of decisions quickly in an ever-changing environment,” he says.

2. Be willing to pivot — a lot!

Decisions made swiftly and under pressure often lead to mistakes. For leaders in a traditionally risk-averse profession, one of the most challenging lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic was learning how to fail forward.

“In this kind of environment, people need to feel comfortable making a decision and maybe having to reverse course,” Smith says. “You might make an incorrect step, but I’ll give you the grace to make a decision we might have to change later on.”

Leaders also need to expect things to get tense sometimes — and realize that it’s OK. Even the most heroic educators are only human.

“Somebody’s going to break today, and it will seem like they broke for the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen. Someone will make the littlest comment, and they will just lose it,” he says. “It goes back to brain science. People hate instability and have a visceral response to unstable environments, so it’s important to acknowledge that up front.”

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3. Capture the learning

Every educator’s practice should include time for reflection, and this is especially true during a crisis, when necessity fuels innovation and every failure offers rich opportunities for improvement. As district leaders start planning for the future, they need a systematic way to capture their successes while analyzing what went wrong.

“There has to be a really intentional debriefing effort on the part of school leaders,” Young says. “What can we learn from this? What does it mean for us in the long game? We need to look past ensuring learning continuity to the phase where we say, ‘What are the takeaways?’ ”

Young recommends developing a structured, strategic protocol for assessing how leadership teams are doing.

“That means the leadership team stopping every week or two to ask, ‘What have we experienced? What were the big ‘aha’ moments or lessons we’ve learned?’ Then do it again 10 days or two weeks later, and we can begin to map out a picture of what the experience was like as we lived it.”

These discussions should be candid, she says, and should address questions such as:

  • What did we do well?
  • What might we have missed?
  • What opportunities do we have?
  • Are we engaging kids?
  • Have we left any stakeholders out of the equation?
  • If we blew it in the early phase, how can we correct it moving forward?
  • What level of conscious, intentional leadership strategy can we bring so we’re harnessing the very best learning from this experience?

There’s no telling how lCOVID-19 will affect education in the long run.  But by shifting from crisis mode it a more strategic approach, leaders can use their experiences to help steer their districts through whatever comes next.

“I hope we don’t ever see anything like this again, but there will always be challenges, and some in really big proportions,” Young says. “Leaders always get better when they come through the most turbulent times.”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

This is an updated version of a post that originally published on November 24, 2020.