Extended school shutdowns, mental health crises, and a lack of coordinated leadership support are not new to me. While serving as a high school principal about 100 miles north of San Francisco, our rural community was plagued annually by massive wildfires. This was a terrifying and traumatic time where many lost everything -homes, businesses, and livelihoods. Reiterated each year, like a cruel joke, the physical, emotional, and educational landscapes were changed – each year surpassing the last. The California Department of Education reported that the graduating Class of 2019, at the school where I served as principal, commenced with the distinction of having not gone a single year of high school without wildfire-related shutdown.
As site principals, naturally, we looked to district leaders for details, directives, and instructions on how to respond. What we learned was: there were no answers from above. We heard echoes of our requests as they were relayed to the county, state, and in some cases to the feds. After feeling our “wheels-spin” my fellow site leaders and I turned our energy, focus, and response inward. We made our school community the priority.
What helped me was applying spheres of influence (or locus of control) to my anxiety and unanswered questions. This concept suggests that the things we’re worried about or that we complain about fall into three domains: things we have control over, things we can influence, and things that are outside of our control and influence. When I realized that my own leaders were just as confused as we were, and in some cases had lost everything in the fires, it was never more evident that I had to identify my own reach and protect my energy.
I asked myself and my team daily, ‘Where do we focus our energies? Where can we have the greatest impact?’ Three areas became most important to exercise and monitor; communication, connection, and community.
What we learned as leaders:
- We had to be comfortable with uncertainty and ever changing directives.
- We needed a strong plan that was flexible enough to meet rapidly changing contexts (Theory of Action).
- We gave ourselves permission to plan incrementally – we thought of the year in quarters and monitored/adjusted often.
What really mattered was connecting with every family giving special attention to our most vulnerable. When the internet was compromised -we picked up the phone, and when it was safe, we visited homes. We were shameless in asking for help from triage organizations and local businesses and connected families with mental health assistance and supplies.
What we gained was community, these disasters pulled the community together. Everyone added something to make things better and our area of influence grew. Disasters and crises require a lot of leaders, this was one way to help manage stress and avoid the drain of complicated misunderstandings, lack of coherent response, and frustration. It helped me focus my energy where it mattered most- my students and school community.
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Aguilar, E. (2014). Spheres of Control. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2014/01/spheres_of_control.html
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Student and Family Engagement for Multilingual, Exceptionally Abled, & Culturally Diverse Families post-pandemic and beyond
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