One Year Later: Staying Lit And Looking Forward For Our Schools

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One year ago, we shuttered the lights and doors of our small private school with the plan to resurface in-person in two weeks. While we watched the cancellation of spring unfold in those weeks, our staff responded with inspiring grit to ensure we remained a living learning organism for our students and families.

Adapting ourselves successfully for that long and lonely stretch of remote learning paved our runway for fully re-entering school in September, which, by every measure, has yielded success and countless lessons learned. We are unapologetically in a state of managing and responding to the day-to-day. Being physically here and executing in-person school for our 225 students and 40 staff members is this year’s (and dare I say, likely next year’s) singular feat. We are fortunate to have been able to put kids safely in their socially distanced desks and promise a teacher’s direct role in their learning.

With the light glowing brighter as teachers receive vaccines and public schools gear up to return in person, school leaders need to keep reflecting on the lessons to be applied resulting from this disruptive period. A return to the old ways of doing school will be inevitable if we do not stop and take stock of what has been accomplished, and how we can strategize when leading all schools – small and big, public and private – toward a better tomorrow. Certainly nothing brand-new on this list, but these lessons have remained most resonant for those who have been doing school in-person this year:

  • Teachers and administrators have only grown in their tenacity and resilience. Most of us are called to this work with our hearts first. We are in the “giving business,” and being thrust into a pandemic has highlighted this quality in countless ways. Teachers change lesson plans all the time, and last spring’s sudden shift to remote teaching only demonstrated teachers’ innate growth mindsets and resourcefulness. The skills of grit and tenacity can be harnessed for when we all return to in-person school.
  • Parents will be grateful for their kids to be learning continually and consistently. They are tired, too. For many, they have seen through the window how their children learn. Once in-person can ensue, their gratitude will only grow. Even in our small school, where we do not see our parents like we used to, we hear their support and gratitude, and it is energizing!
  • And because the tendency to serve and give is such a part of an educator’s DNA, teachers and administrators may burn out. We are fierce about our work, about the yearning to make a difference in a child’s life. Leaders need to go beyond a simple “how are you?” and hear teachers’ frustrations, anxieties and maybe even grief for the loss of some of the special harmonies and rituals in our schools. And leaders, too, welcome the empathy to ensure there is fuel for the long drive of managing the sea of change while occasionally lifting our head from the water to think about the future beyond COVID, and let’s also add, the need to be infinitely relational, visible, authentic and pastoral.
  • Looming ahead for our schools needs to be an intentional focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). Our kids need language and skills to ensure they are growing into emotionally literate, communicative and self-coping humans, and such skills should be directly integrated into the classroom routine or via advisory programs. Let’s hope to see an increase in the value of mindfulness, self-care and overall EQ in our classrooms. Let’s give our kids a “non-screen” toolbox of skills – and time in their school day to take seed – for them to practice how to talk out feelings, observations, and experiences.
  • Finally, educators and school leaders need to capitalize on found time, meaningful moments and small celebrations to keep our batteries running, to remember that our work is relational at its heart. A mentor once emphasized how the work of school leadership is an ever-evolving state; there should never be a fait accompli attitude. There are always possibilities, strategies and visions to propel forward to ensure a school reaches its potential. All the same, the magic can lie in a singular moment of a connection with a child about his new pet or a short exchange with a teacher about a successful activity. Taking advantage of meaningful moments in our schools will keep us all balanced and moving forward.

The accelerant of change in our schools spurred by the pandemic has felt anything like a sprint. We have all experienced it as a marathon, which despite it catching us off guard last spring, has tested our resolve and stamina to think long-term with focused steps along the way. Here, in our case of being a small school, we have lit our path forward, stayed agile and balanced, and focused on what is possible.

St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal School is a preschool through grade eight AIMS accredited school serving 225 students from 19 zip codes. For more information about St. Martin’s and its commitment to building students of confidence, character and compassion, visit www.stmartinsmd.org.

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