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School system leadership in an almost impossible era

September 8, 2021

School system leadership in the current pandemic era is a little like being the bullseye in the Olympic archery competition. The challenges of leading a large, multifaceted, dynamic and complex organization under normal circumstances have given way to the challenges of unprecedented uncertainty and rapid change. We are faced with environments that are not fully understood and put into high stakes decision-making situations that regularly place concerns for public safety in competition with ideal educational environments. In addition, local school boards and districts have become the epicenter of the political and cultural strife that currently defines reality in 2021 America.

Thirty-two years ago, I entered my first teaching classroom as a middle school science teacher and coach. Today, as I embark on my twelfth year as a school district superintendent, I consider myself, first and foremost, a teacher. I strive to be a strong instructional leader, a school CEO who still understands, expects and coaches effective professional practice. Yet, for the last eighteen (18) months, that role has fundamentally changed. The duties are now, more than ever, concentrated upon maintaining cohesion, finding common ground, building trust and communicating clarity, all at a time where clarity itself is a moving target.

For example, in Arizona, at the current time, the state has legislation that schools cannot exclude students from schools based upon vaccination status. Of course, all students are welcome at all of our schools. However, this law has been interpreted by some to mean that a student who has had definitive close contact with a confirmed positive case of an infectious disease like COVID cannot be quarantined. But, schools have always had enforcement duties of public health regulations in a public health outbreak. We have allowable orders from the local public health authority that, in line with standard disease-mitigation protocol, say sending students who’ve had close contact with an infected individual home to quarantine is exactly what we are supposed to do as part of state-ordered provisions. In our community, this issue related to COVID led to parents being arrested on our campus for trespassing after refusing to comply with the quarantine requirements.

Sometimes, I ask myself what we’ve learned about effective leadership, especially in such turbulent times. Always the optimist, I think there are plenty of productive takeaways. First, it is imperative to build a strong and cohesive leadership team. The level of trust, leadership development and shared commitment nurtured over time has served in helping us, as a school district, to find common purpose in these trying times. Second, it is important to create and communicate clarity about guiding lights, purpose and decision points. For us, we have said that we desire to both support safety and quality learning environments. Sometimes, those two goals are in conflict. Yet, it still gives people a point of reference for decisions. Similarly, we’ve always said that we look at the basic disease data from referent authorities, consult with our local appointed public health agencies, and review the management of our own local conditions. Regardless, every decision is still going to be approved by some, and despised by others. However, being consistent and value-centered help to advance a sound, rational and balanced approach.

In the midst of it all, many COVID “silver linings” have emerged, things that have helped shape our community and organizational culture and will make us better for the long haul. For example, we now have a more clear definition of operating full remote learning, even for the in-house, in-person learner. We have a platform for sharing assignments, activities and communications. This helps to serve and support students when they are absent for whatever reason. Second, through our relentless commitment to offering choices and serving all students, we have developed a comprehensive fully online learning school. We did it in a matter of weeks and continue to refine and improve it over time. We were able to lower our device-to-student ratio from about 1:6 to 1:3. All of these things are possible through the power of finding common ground, purpose and striving for collective impact. For example, we worked with CDC and HHS to pilot and implement one of the country’s first school-based testing screening programs. This partnership helped us learn and contribute to evolving practices about how to use testing programs to both keep schools safe and open for traditional in person learning.

At the core, this pandemic has served to spotlight and perhaps accelerate what we already know about effective leadership practice. First, we must take care of the people in our charge, through listening, serving, recognizing and providing them with the resources and support needed to advance a shared mission. Second, as leaders, we must be a visible presence, in classrooms, school activities and community meetings. Third, we must model and communicate an example of hope and optimism. Even though the pandemic era has had its share of disappointment, sorrow and frustration, we know that we are joined in common purpose and will emerge stronger from the experience. Let us remember the words of Henry Ford, “When everything seems to be against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” Amid this continued challenging era, we are building the foundation to take flight to amazing and new destinations.

About the author

Manuel Valenzuela portrait photo

Manuel Valenzuela is currently the superintendent of the 6,400 student Sahuarita Unified School District, a rapidly growing K-12 school organization just south of Tucson, Ariz.

About the T3 blog

Given the unparalleled threats and uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, sharing information is more important than ever. Here you’ll gain insights, knowledge and strategies to help you navigate the challenges, improve decision-making and take control of your workplace and your life.

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