The Pressure of “Normal”

We hear the phrases, “the new normal” or “try to normalize things”. Or, we see operational plans and expectations laid out by politicians, bosses and/or leaders that demand “normal practices”. How can any organization or business manage as if things are normal in 2020? Why could this possibly be an expectation? Especially of schools? How can it be “business as usual” during a pandemic?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “normal” as characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine. What is typical of staying six feet apart from everyone you work with or go to school with? How can sitting with a mask on and never seeing the smile of a friend be “normal”? What is “normal or routine about “virtual hugs” versus real hugs? Of families, who have never gone without food, lining up at a food depot? Of worrying, minute by minute of loved ones who are very ill in the hospital? Or entire families falling ill together?

School leadership coaching in 2020 has open the doors to new challenges and opportunities. During the first few months of the pandemic, principals were creating ways for teachers to reach as many of the students with on-line lessons. Opportunities were found to maximize the time that we were all home and to do what could be done so students finished their school year with as much learning as possible. The 2019-2020 school year ended with teachers and school leaders feeling proud of their ability to be flexible and manage even while they were all home in a lock down situation.

Over the summer months in North America, principals and teachers attended virtual trainings and spent hours and hours preparing for the 2020-2021 school year. Plan A was made for if students could be face to face, Plan B was made if it was a blend of both, Plan C if everyone was home and so on and so on. School started with whatever plan seemed best for the district/state/province and then came fall and a second wave of COVID-19.

And with this wave, I have felt the confusion, exhaustion and stress of leaders who are trying to do the right things. They may or may not agree with the direction being given by decision-makers but are taking steps to take care of the students and adults in the building. They know that it is not easy right now for many to attend school or come to work. They are doing with less staff and they are devastated that so many students are not engaged and participating in learning. However, they acknowledge that, in the homes of many of these students, there is sickness, unemployment, essential health care workers and very high levels of anxiety. Students are not coming to school from “normal” situations right now. COVID fatigue is real however, the pandemic is not giving us time to rest and school and district leaders are well aware that the fight continues.

While decision-makers at every level are dealing with the on-going need to put health and safety first, they are being pressured by outside influences and expectations to ensure school goes on as “normal”. In every coaching conversation, I hear a story of a parent or politician or local leader who makes a demand that just doesn’t make sense right now. What does make sense, always, is keeping the student at the center of all decisions. What is “normal” is student-centered thinking and for right now, the decisions being taken to ensure student learning may not be the usual decisions made.

It might mean that students are not physically in the building every day or that their lessons have to be more self directed. It might mean that student ownership of their learning has to be increased and that they accept more responsibility for participating in learning. It means that teachers have pivoted with every decision made about how they will work this year and they will continue to do this as needed. The worry that students will drop out and a very large learning gap will occur during the pandemic is real. And, I know that every educator cares about this and wants learning to feel normal. It just doesn’t right now.

For my school and district leaders reading this, I challenge you to accept that this is not a normal year. To take a breath and know that your work is important in the lives of students, families and your staff. To take the time to watch a sunrise or sunset, or notice a full moon or rainbow in the sky. To find a way to keep the student as the center of all decisions, especially when health and safety needs must come first. I hear your exhaustion and worry about others; I know that you are trying to take care of every small detail to ensure learning continues and thrives in your buildings. Celebrate your great accomplishments this fall. So many students have learned a great deal despite a world-wide pandemic and under those masks, there are many smiles because of you.

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