It was just this past spring when, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Students, teachers, and parents were anticipating the final months of yet another school year when, without much warning, school closures, emergency remote learning, and a myriad of worry and fear tossed us into uncharted waters.
Candidly, I have a tendency to take the ordinary, everyday parts of life for granted. Ordinary life is familiar, predictable, even routine. It doesn’t require a second thought—until, that is, something happens that disrupts the normal. As days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, I longed for some sense of normalcy to return to life.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
During this time, I happened upon a blog entitled “My Extraordinarily Ordinary Life.” In an interview, Lisa Howard, a writer and cancer survivor, shared a deeply personal and life-changing story: a breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer, Lisa says, pushed her to explore uncharted waters and redefine her normal. For her, life “has always been about writing a new story. Just when I think I have life figured out, I have to regroup and learn to navigate uncharted waters.”
These words resonated with me. As we faced unprecedented disruption in both our personal and professional lives, we needed to regroup and begin to write a new story.
Charting the Course
In times of struggle, true leaders are the key to helping people navigate uncharted waters, according to John Maxwell, one of America’s foremost experts on leadership. In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell says, “Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.”
Educational leaders, who are the navigational leaders for schools and districts across the country, began to chart the course for reopening schools this fall. And all educators were invited into the struggle of redefining school. How have they approached this unprecedented work?
Navigational leaders do three key things as they chart a new course.
1. They see the journey ahead and anticipate the unexpected challenges that might arise.
Effective leaders start with experience. Every past success and failure can be a source of information and wisdom if you allow it to be. As districts across the country engaged in the development of comprehensive and thorough reopening plans, they:
- Reset expectations for the new school year.
- Redefined the school day.
- Restarted school with consideration and attention to detail regarding operational and logistical plans.
In resetting expectations, districts sought to distinguish between the emergency remote learning in the spring and to communicate their commitment to a consistent schedule for learning and the provision of a rigorous and engaging instructional experience for students this fall. The message was clear. The new school year will be different, and learning matters.
They redefined the school day and gave consideration to the need for flexible and adaptable learning models, parent choice, health and safety protocols, teacher planning and preparation, and the learning needs of students, particularly those in special populations and programs. The message was clear. We will need to be flexible and adaptable as we redefine school schedules.
And districts considered every detail of restarting school with detailed operational and logistical plans. This included how to get students to and from school safely and how to ensure the health and safety of students and staff in the building. It also involved consideration for how to move within the building and the classroom while meeting CDC guidelines for social distancing and face coverings, as well as how to schedule classes and staffing for multiple learning models. Every aspect of the school day had to be rethought while anticipating the need to respond to and mitigate changing circumstances. The message was clear. No assumptions. Each and every detail of restarting school needed to be anticipated ... and may evolve as the school year progresses.
2. They empathize and acknowledge the emotional turmoil people are experiencing.
Navigational leaders listen to what others have to say. It is a fact that no matter how much you learn from the past, it will never tell you all you need to know for the present. Therefore, navigational leaders gather information from many sources.
Throughout the spring and summer, education leaders invited input from stakeholders across their school communities to inform their reopening plans. They were acutely aware that teachers, staff, and school leaders have felt disconnected, stressed, uncomfortable, or fatigued since the time of pandemic. It’s understandable. School simply doesn’t feel the same. And despite our investment of time, energy, and effort, we often found we’ve come up short.
Therefore, navigational leaders have placed priority on relationships and have been intentional in their efforts to address the social-emotional needs of not only our students, but adults as well. And in these times of uncertainty and change, education leaders have strived to provide effective, informative, accurate, and timely communication to students, families, staff, and their larger school community.
3. They Inspire others to follow their vision.
Navigational leaders reflect on their past experiences and evaluate their performance. It is in this period of reflection—the time to think about what happened—that learning occurs.
As a vision emerges, they examine the conditions and count the costs before making commitments for themselves and others. Education leaders have been redefining school, balancing optimism and realism, intuition and planning, faith and fact. And preparation is the key to conveying confidence and inspiring others to follow your vision. While the journey we are currently on has no known ending, there are milestones along the way that offer opportunities to pause, reflect, and learn in order to better prepare us for the next part of the journey.
The new school year is underway. And we continue to find ourselves navigating in ways that are unfamiliar, unpredictable, and uniquely uncharted. As we embrace the struggle to navigate in uncharted waters, there is hope. Disruptive change will not hold us back, but rather it will propel us forward. Together, across the education community, we will write a new story, grounded in our commitment to learning and the success of all students. Now, more than ever, we recognize that our success depends on our ability to become navigational leaders.
About the author:
Jean Sharp has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management, and effective implementations for digital learning solutions. Among her credits are numerous award-winning educational software products published for both school and consumer markets. Jean currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Apex Learning.