How principals can re-energize this summer after a difficult year

Principals should use summer to reaffirm their school's goals and vision after a few turbulent years.
By: | June 17, 2022

Summer is the ideal time for principals and other school leaders to reset and focus on self-care. That’s particularly important in the summer of 2022 as educators look to establish a new normal and families adjust to life with COVID, says Angela Allen, the incoming superintendent of the Toutle Lake School District in Washington.

“Given the nature of what COVID has done to us, we’re just encouraging principals to get back to the vision and mission of their school,” says Allen, who is wrapping up a stint as the director of secondary instruction of Battle Ground Public Schools, also in Washington. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on the logistics of managing school, we’ve gotten away from what our values are and getting those back in the forefront for teachers.”‘

Part of the preparation for the new school year will be embedding some of the practices that got students and staff through the pandemic’s disruptions, says Allen, who also serves on the board of trustees for AMLE (the Association for Middle Level Education). That means expanding the scope of social-emotional learning to teachers, who have emerged after the last few years as the most stressed-out professionals in the workforce. “We need to make sure the systems we’re creating serve students and staff so we can all be well together,” she says. “We also have to look at climate and culture and how to get back to the fun, togetherness and relationship-building of school.”

Principals should now be planning team-building activities to hold with staff before school begins and during the new school year. That includes shared meals and “meaning-making” conversations that reaffirm a school or district’s mission statements and slogans. But perhaps the most important work principals and other administrators can do is to take some time off for themselves. “Good leaders are well-prepared and well-rested—they are the support system for their entire building,” Allen says. “As leaders, we tend to be giving all of the time, to everyone who comes to us—parents, teachers, students. You need to shut down and care for yourself.”

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Data for opening day

Filling vacant teaching positions is Principal Brian Cox’s priority this summer at  Johnson Junior High in Wyoming’s Laramie County School District 1. At the beginning of June, Cox said he had no applicants for six open positions. “That’s the big barrier we’re troubleshooting,” Cox says. “The experience of the last two years pushed a lot of folks out of the profession, and the shortage of folks entering over the last 10 years has finally hit a tipping point.”

Staffing in the coming years will require having some backup plans and remaining flexible. Three teachers left Johnson’s school in the middle of the year, leaving a 7th-grade English classroom vacant for three months. With no one applying for the job, even from the local university, Johnson and his team had to look a little harder until they found that one of the school’s social studies teachers was certified to teach English. Then, an academic interventionist with a degree in history was transferred into social studies. Cox is also working with the state to grant provisional licenses to potential teachers who have degrees in relevant fields, such as psychology or other life sciences.

To help get instruction and learning off to a quicker start, Cox surveys teachers over the summer about what motivates each student and what might trigger traumatic responses. He combines that feedback with academic and assessment data and uses the school’s master schedule to help teachers get a jump on classroom management for the coming year. “I can furnish every single teacher on day one with an itemized student-by-student, period-by-period breakdown of what they’re going to walk into,” Cox says. “This isn’t used to pre-judge kids, and it’s been very helpful in advancing achievement scores and making teachers feel more comfortable.”

‘The scores are promising’

Principals are burned out and unsure if they can continue at the pace of the last few years, says Stephanie Patton, a principal leadership coach at Columbus City Schools in Ohio. That makes it essential for central office administrators to restore their confidence by instilling hope for the future. For instance, the district recently received promising results for third-grade ELA assessments, which means principals can be shown that their students are bouncing back due to the efforts of educators.

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“If we continue to provide enrichment and interventions, I believe students will get back on track,” Patton says. “The scores are promising. We’re not where we want to be but we’re heading in the right direction back to pre-pandemic achievement levels.”

The district celebrated the achievements of its building leaders by holding an end-of-year cookout. A similar event will be held before the upcoming school year begins. The key is to remind building leaders they are making a critical difference in meeting the needs of students. “Sometimes principals think the central office has forgotten what it’s like to be in the schools,” Patton says. “We ended on a high note and want to begin on a high note. We don’t want them to return in August feeling a sense of dread.”

Staff shortages remain a major source of stress for principals. The district is looking at creative ways to update its recruiting efforts with new marketing and branding strategies. “This generation selects jobs on values, not so much on money,” Patton says. “You have to align culture and climate and values with the teachers you’re trying to recruit. That’s what will attract them to your school.”