PMP191: Reflections on Leading from a Distance

If you’re like me, you’re probably still adjusting to a new normal.

Photo by Andrew Neel – Creative Commons No known copyright restrictions

Each morning I still wake up, walk the dog, or go for a run around the neighborhood. I login to my email and check my calendar for the series of meetings via Zoom or Google Meets. But life still doesn’t feel normal yet.

School has always been a place marked by milestones. Normally, high school students would be celebrating prom and looking toward graduation ceremonies. Elementary students would be enjoying Spring field trips.

Leading those same students from a distance is not the kind of “normal” anyone expected when this school year began. And like you, I’m still trying predict what’s next. I’m also curious what it has been like for you to lead from a distance?

A Chat with Jen Schwanke

In this week’s podcast episode, I had a chance to catch-up with Jen Schwanke, Principal of Indian Run Elementary, and the author of the books, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders and The Principal Re-Boot: 8 Ways to Revitalize Your School Leadership.

We spent time reflecting on what it is like to lead from a distance, including challenges, encouragements, and ideas for staying connected.  Here is a quick summary of our conversation that may resonate with your own experiences:

5 Challenges with Distance Leading

  • The falling price of oil and spiraling economy will mean difficult choices for state governments, which in turn means schools, in months ahead. How do we stay positive even when anticipating more difficult times?
  • Distance learning has taken away what most students love about school but left them many with what they hate most about it. How do we still encourage them?
  • Educators are grappling with the reality of what it’s like to be given a completely different job for fourth months. Are we giving them the credit and grace they deserve?
  • Schools are presently unable to be on the front-lines of protecting student well-being. What can we still be doing to reach out to those most in need?
  • Communities are relying on food services and facing technology inequities – we’ve taken the lid off of essential supports schools provides. How can we advocate for those services to continue for all students?

5 Encouragements in Distance Leading

  • Educators have done amazing work delivering services in a very short time frame. We should be celebrating them.
  • Teachers are shining with their professionalism during distance learning, especially when leaders choose not to micro-manage.  Let’s remind our teachers they are still the most valuable asset for student learning.
  • Teachers must be trusted, and this time is no different. Yes, accountability still matters but leaders must show trust if you expect trust.
  • Look at your students and what they need, and let that be your focus in leading. When unsure what to do next, keep that focus in mind.
  • Do not compare your remote learning to someone else. Do what works for your school community and fits your strengths and abilities.

5 Ideas for Staying Connected with Students

  • Stay away from assumptions of why kids may not be connected. Every student and family is facing unique and different challenges and situations.
  • Give grace now more than ever and assume the best. People need encouragement in situations beyond their own control.
  • Use technology that works for you. Whether that’s Google Meets, Pen pals, Flip Grids, Pair Deck – find ways for students to shine.
  • Think ahead, but don’t fret over what is next. If we live in the ‘what-if’s” too much, we may burn up the emotional energy that is best used right now in serving people in the moment.
  • Communicate frequently with your school community in whatever forum works best for them.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Jen wraps up this episode with a story from her dad who remembered growing up during the U.S. polio outbreak. He reminded her that although the outbreak brought our nation to its knees, we recovered and grew stronger again. I hope you’ll listen to the entire podcast episode for that story and more takeaways!

Now It’s Your Turn

This week as you lead from a distance, remember to show gratitude. Promise to not overdo it, so you have the emotional energy to encourage others. Do not compete with what you see other leaders doing. And do what YOUR students and teachers need by being yourself! Thanks again for doing what matters!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker