Principals intend to keep a positive attitude in 2022 as they focus on relationships

'We have a long way to go to provide in-person educational equity,' a principal in Pennsylvania says
By: | January 10, 2022
Matthew Lewis, principal of Garfield Elementary School in Montana, says he and his community are determined to keep kids in classrooms in 2022.Matthew Lewis, principal of Garfield Elementary School in Montana, says he and his community are determined to keep kids in classrooms in 2022.

Strengthening relationships and keeping a positive attitude in 2022 are anchoring one principal’s strategy for establishing some stability in the face of COVID’s ongoing unpredictability.

“Everything we do is based on relationships,” says Matthew Lewis, principal of Garfield Elementary School in Montana’s Lewistown Public Schools. “Once we have that established, everything else comes pretty easily.”

Another priority for Lewis will be supporting staff and students through their own mental wellbeing. That starts, he says, with modeling a positive attitude by joking around and laughing with staff and students. “We have to keep looking for the good things happening around us,” Lewis says. “Watching kids learning and laughing is a great way to remind us of the positive things we do as educators.”

After the remote-learning experience in spring 2020, Lewis says he and the community are determined to keep students in their classrooms in 2022. In those classrooms, teachers will continue to rely on data to inform skills-based interventions when needed.

“Our staff has designed or found quick five- to 10-minute skill-based activities that are not only used as interventions but also allow us to help kids maintain skills,” he says. “We are utilizing a variety of push-in or pull-out settings, depending upon the activity to make this happen.”

On the social-emotional side, counselors will continue to deliver weekly lessons in classrooms as teachers incorporate SEL into read-aloud time and other activities. Administrators also intend to continue to take advantage of the improved communications with parents and families that developed during the pandemic. However, he remains concerned about staffing levels, funding and the impact of disruptions and uncertainty on students.

Principal Matthew Lewis says the focus will be on students in 2022, and not factors the school's educators' can't control—such as mask mandates and vaccine policies.
“Lately many of our school conversations have revolved around the idea of ‘we can only control so much,'” Lewis says. “We cannot get wrapped up in the things we can’t control, like mandates or others’ feelings towards masked vs. unmasked and vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. Our job is to focus on the students in front of us and give them the very best education we possibly can.”

Abandoning ineffective practices

Principal Mandy Ellis chose “RISE” as her focus word for the 2022-2023 school year at Dunlap Grade School in the Dunlap Community Unit School District 323 outside Peoria, Illinois. “We have spent a year reconnecting and reacclimating to our situation,” Ellis says. “Now it’s time to rise up and return to a better place than we were before 2020.”

While the school has been able to maintain in-person throughout the pandemic, Ellis will be expanding after-school tutoring and summer school to close academic gaps, though not all are attributable to the pandemic or quarantines. She also expects to expand the counseling staff and mental health services to support the social-emotional well-being of students and staff.

“Our students are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event that will shape many future policies and procedures,” Ellis says. “My biggest concern is that we forget the lessons we learned from the pandemic and return to the ineffective practices that were ingrained in our systems before.”

Elsewhere in Illinois, Principal Craig Beals says he will be using new funding to add an after-school program and strengthen summer school at rural Nuttall Middle School in Illinois’ Robinson Community Unit School District 2. The program will serve students who do not have an environment conducive to doing homework outside of school. Summer learning will be designed to help students make up credits so they can advance to the next grade level.

In 2022, teachers will narrow their focus to helping master fewer, more essential standards rather than covering a vast curriculum. “Part of my job as principal is working with teachers to meet students where they are at academically and build the students up from there,” Beals says.

The district also will hire a second school-based mental health therapist after hiring its first such staffer last year. New software will continue to allow Beals and the school counselor to conduct students surveys that identify social-emotional issues. The software is compatible with the student information system so it pulls in grades, discipline and attendance as well as the students’ responses to the surveys. “As students have returned to full-time, in-person learning it seems that many are struggling with motivation, grit, and optimism,” Beals says.”I have learned that making connections with students creates the pathways to address those issues.”

Prioritizing wellbeing

The physical and emotional well-being of students and staff is the only priority for the rest of this year and well into the next, says Jonathan Ross, principal of Lionville Middle School in Pennsylvania’s Downingtown Area School District.

Teachers cannot be burdened with new initiatives because they will need time to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Educators must also focus on ensuring students are developing in-person relationships with at least once caring adults in their school. “Even now, it pains me to hear that mentioned as a focus for kids who just went through two years of an experience that none of us adults can relate to,” says Ross, who is also president of the Pennsylvania Principals Association.

“On the flip side, just about every school in the country has noticed the social learning loss of children,” he says. “We must help them fill in those gaps in order to make sure that they are ready to address the academic gaps.

But no one should expect all students to make a quick recovery from COVID-era learning loss. Students will need both rigorous instruction and opportunities to adjust the pace of instruction. “Provide children with a voice so they can tell us when to ease up and when to accelerate,” he says. “The damage that was done over the course of two years will take at least two years to undo.”

Going forward, the COVID experience will continue to reinforce the importance of a physical school building and a face-to-face teacher are in the lives of children. “The biggest knock that I hear about kids is their dependence on digital forms of socializing,” Ross says. “In one breath we complain about how they always have their nose in a device and then we sit them down in front of a screen for a few months and expect there will not be social ramifications.”

Continued growth and learning around equity practices is one of Principal James Edmond Jr.‘s top priorities at Woodside Elementary in Wisconsin’s Hamilton School District.

Also at the top of his list are ensuring social-emotional wellness for students and staff, and continuing to provide high-quality in-person and remote instruction. The school uses a range of SEL-focused programs and its student services team communicates regularly with families, including by offering in-person and virtual life skills sessions.

In the year, administrators, teachers and parents will have to be patient with “each student’s educational journey.” He plans for his educators to combine rigorous instruction with additional supports and interventions. He also says the schools’ educators will increasingly rely on localized assessments—rather than standardized tests—to provide the real-time data needed to better inform instruction.

His biggest wish for 2022 is that students have as many uninterrupted days of in-person learning as possible. “It is imperative students be in classrooms with their classmates and teachers every day to ensure a more equitable experience,” Edmond says. “With that said, we have a long way to go to provide in-person educational equity as well.”