9 best practices for adapting educational leadership in the age of virtual learning

Important lessons from an FETC session on supporting the work, upgrading the culture and practicing self-care during COVID
By: | January 27, 2021
Doug Konopelko, education strategist for CDW-G, built two-minute chat sharing sessions into his FETC talk (and kept things entertaining by dancing a bit to the countdown clock music).Doug Konopelko, education strategist for CDW-G, built two-minute chat sharing sessions into his FETC talk (and kept things entertaining by dancing a bit to the countdown clock music).

With educators’ jobs being so vastly different these days, it’s important for educations leaders to be able to support staff through these challenging times. In the FETC session “How to Adapt Educational Leadership in the Age of Virtual Learning,” Doug Konopelko, education strategist for CDW-G, outlined nine best practices for doing that, under the broader categories of supporting the work, upgrading the culture and practicing self-care. Konopelko—who has been a teacher, assistant principal, district-level administrator and state-level education department staffer—built the list of best practices in conversations with the leadership team at Clayton County School District in Georgia.

1. Let it go.

“The whole world has changed around us. We need to understand there’s a time and a place to hold on to best practices and a time to let them go,” he said before asking attendees to spend a few minutes sharing some practices they have had to let go.

2. Fill in the blanks.

The idea is to take some of the things we naturally do face-to-face and figure out how we fill in the blanks now that we are virtual.  And broaden the list so it’s not just classroom-related items. Think about ideas that are more on the SEL side of things, he said. For example, how can the in-school water cooler check in be replaced? “Staff need the benefit of those in-between moments,” he said.

3. Create rules for virtual meetings.

One is to establish routines, always sending invites. Another is to be consistent with tools and norms. Be ok with visitors who might wander in. And embrace the mute button if needed.

4. Use tools to maintain small group and one-on-one meetings.

“We all miss those big meetings that take place in a media center or auditorium where you get to see everyone’s face and greet people at the door,” he said. “Unfortunately, those same meetings really fall apart virtually.” The meeting host can utilize breakout rooms and screen sharing for example. “Don’t be a raid to mix things up and change up how done in past,” he said. That goes for the invitees as well. Instead of having meetings by grade level or PLC group, change the group makeup for more community-building.

5. Make learning visible.

This involves sharing the things we’re learning with staff, and making our learning visible so they understand we’re all in this together. It’s important to not just talk about making learning visible for students—“walk your talk,” he said.

6. Overcommunicate our successes.

Staff, students and parents should be told about the successes a school or district is seeing and experiencing. Use social media to share—and if a school doesn’t have a Twitter account, this is an opportunity to start one. Just be aware of any district posting policies.

7. Shift.

“Expectations are not the same as they were before,” Konopelko said. “We need to make sure we’re laying out what the new expectations are. We need to make sure we’re not making assumptions about expectations in place now vs. what was in place before vs. what they will be at evaluation time.” Staff should have as many “knowns” as possible, as opposed to those dreadful “unknowns.”

8. Stay connected but don’t forget to unplug.

Of course education leaders need to keep track of how their staff are doing, but they should also model the idea of unplugging. “Nothing is worse than having someone say you need to make sure to unplug in an email that comes out at 11:30 at night,” he noted.

9. Acknowledge discomfort.

“What we’re going through is uncomfortable and we need to make sure we’re saying that. Don’t pretend everything is normal,” he said. A study found that one of the worst things a leader can do with fear is tell people not to be afraid—as that actually negatively impacts their performance. Instead, say, “We can move through this. It’s ok to be afraid.” But make sure staff and students are aware of the supports the district has in place, such as IT supports and mental health assistance.

Konopelko tacked on an important bonus best practice, too: “Be sure you’re practicing self-care,” he said. “Create those in-between moments for yourself so you can continue to support your staff and students. Prioritize time to unwind.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.