Strong leadership matters: A principal’s perspective on leading through a pandemic

With the reopening of schools swiftly approaching, more than ever before, strong school leadership is essential. Change is coming; here are a few tips to embrace it
By: | July 29, 2020
Photo by Ross Findon via Unsplash.

Dr. Robin L. Coletrain, an educator for 22 years, is principal of W.A. Perry Middle School in South Carolina. She is the 2020 South Carolina Middle Level Principal of the Year.

The closing of schools in March was very surreal and unsettling. COVID-19 rocked the world and changed the reality of schools in general and the concept of leading in particular. Leading and operating in challenging and unpredictable circumstances is the norm for school leaders, but the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down with little time to prepare or plan.

The world as we had known it was disrupted and replaced with remote learning and a myriad of additional challenges. As the virus numbers continued to rise, the death of George Floyd shined a bright light on social justice and the role that education plays in equality and equity. With the reopening of schools swiftly approaching, more than ever before, strong school leadership is essential.

CHANGE is coming. Here are a few tips to embrace the change.

Communication is key

Communication is critical now more than ever. This is not the time to operate in a vacuum. It is important to consistently check in with teachers to see how they are doing and to keep them abreast of any updates. Likewise, communication with students and their families is equally important. Leaders must meet all stakeholders where they are through a variety of digital tools.

Health and safety are priority

A key component of strong leadership is looking out for the physical and mental well-being of teachers and students. The pandemic has made painfully clear that students and their families depend on schools for a multitude of needs. The importance of building relationships goes back to the age-old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” While curriculum, formative assessments, and learning loss are important, we must remember to “Maslow before we Bloom.”

Ask questions

Good leaders ask thought-provoking questions and open up space for others to think through decisions and develop answers. No one has all of the answers, and in the midst of a pandemic, there are no definitive answers to many of the questions being posed at this time. However, being curious and posing the right questions can yield the conditions for growth and innovation.


Read: Expect heightened anxiety, behavioral issues in returning students


Navigate with empathy

Empathy is one’s ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Eric Sheninger, award-winning principal and best-selling author states, “It is easy to knock people down. Building people up is at the heart of empathetic leadership.” Without a level of empathy, it is challenging to build a team or inspire loyal followers. Leading with empathy, especially during these times, will lead to more opportunities for teachers to share successes and concerns with colleagues and leaders; more collaborative relationships between teachers, parents, and leaders; and allow greater student voice.

Give support

Teachers are working under a crush of more personal and professional stressors than ever before. Support can look like time, resources, and professional development opportunities. Sometimes support is listening, allowing teachers to try new things, modeling, and showing compassion and empathy. Leaders must determine what resources are readily available and what resources must be acquired. As reopening plans are being developed, support should look like involving teachers in the discussion and decision-making process.

Exhibit strong leadership

The pandemic has caused leaders around the globe to simultaneously balance unplanned circumstances and plan for change. There was no template, no guidelines, and no precedent for leading through a pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic and the social justice movement, principals have learned valuable lessons to guide practices. While no one is able to predict the future, countless lessons have been learned thus far to transform teaching, learning, and leadership. Schools and educators want strong leadership to ease fear, confusion, and uncertainty. Because of the pressures to reopen schools, principals should not miss the opportunity to create the kind of educational system that serves ALL children. Now more than ever, it is critical for principals to accept the enormous responsibility and demonstrate courageous, strong leadership.


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Dr. Robin L. Coletrain, an educator for 22 years, is principal of W.A. Perry Middle School in South Carolina. Dr. Coletrain is the 2020 South Carolina Middle Level Principal of the Year. Twitter: @RobinColetrain