“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” (Brené Brown, 2018). Leading with hearts wide open, showing up day in and day out and courageously doing “whatever it takes” has been the mantra of educators in 2020. “Showing up” has meant figuring out how to teach virtually from home or pivoting from virtual to face to face to virtual; whatever learning had to look like this year. Leading this work are the courageous district and school leaders who had to put their hearts and souls in to ensuring the health and safety of their students and staff. It has not been easy to lead through a pandemic and it isn’t over. As the holiday season is upon us and schools are closing for a much needed break, it is a good time for reflection and consideration of what comes next.
During a school improvement coaching call this week, I asked a principal what she was looking most forward to over the next two weeks. Without hesitation, she told me that she could relax knowing that the responsibility for the health and safety of everyone in her building would be off her shoulders- well, at least not a 24/7 worry as it has been for the past ten months. She admitted that she would still think about her staff, students and families but it would be nice to be on vacation from the brave, courageous, organized and problem-solving administrator expected of her everyday. She reflected that she felt so vulnerable so many times this school year; knowing that behind her mask she wasn’t always smiling and in fact, she was nervous and fearful that she wasn’t doing all she could to keep her building safe from COVID and being closed.
Zooming in with another school administrator, I was greeted with her always pleasant smile and endless energy. I asked her how she was doing that this year; keeping her energy up when everyone else seemed so exhausted. She told me that she was “faking it” and that extreme exhaustion had taken over. And the one thing that really stuck with me was this, “I am mad at myself because I let my vulnerability show too often this year.” You can imagine what a great opener that was for me as her leadership coach. Through our conversation, we explored why she felt that being vulnerable was something others shouldn’t see. We talked about the courage that it takes to truly connect with others by allowing them to see our needs. She told me that she was worried that her staff would think less of her or that she would be seen as weak because they knew that this year was hard for her as their leader. And then the conversation turned to what is the most difficult part for her, the worry she has for students and their learning this year. This is where she feels the most vulnerability and needs the most courage to continue to lead.
It goes without saying, that student learning is why we teach and lead. Ensuring each and every student learn at grade level; in other words, have every opportunity to develop the skills needed in each grade to successfully move to the next grade is what our learning goals are based on. And, I am confident as I write this, educators, school and district leaders are extremely worried about many students who are struggling this year. COVID can not be an excuse but the reality is that learning has been disrupted and for some students, this disruption is creating an even steeper uphill climb. The good news is, when teachers come together to truly understand the needs of their students and collaborate to plan next steps, that steep climb is not so daunting. This has been my experience as a school improvement coach this year; where districts and schools have continued to support a professional learning community model; in other words, focused on collaboration, learning and paying attention to results, it has been less of a challenge to stay the course and focus on the needs of students. In schools that I haven’t seen as strong a commitment to shared ownership that develops through collaboration, schools are less successful in prioritizing learning during this pandemic.
As we move in to 2021, how will you courageously increase your focus on student learning despite the distractors? What can you do to know where your students are, right now, on their learning journey, and most importantly, what are next steps to help them succeed? What action can you take, to engage or reengage them in their learning? Will you find the courage to look at the data; despite what it says the current reality might be, and create a plan to move each and every student along as learners? Can you be vulnerable enough to seek support and guidance when you do not know what to do next in the service of your students?
Improving schools is about saving lives of students. With my heart wide open, I thank you for doing so much to serve and protect students this year. It has been a challenging year to teach and to lead. It is ok to say that you are tired and need a break. It is really just fine to say it is a difficult school year. And, it is admirable to courageously be vulnerable as you go about the business of deciding what needs to be done next. We don’t always know but together can figure it out.