PMP208: New School Year Celebrations and Challenges

This is the time of year when the green stalks of corn begin to brown and yellow, and the once moist kernels begin to harden into dry grain.

Photo by Arne Hendriks – Creative Commons Attribution License

If you’ve ever shucked corn, you may know the difference between the sweet smell of corn-on-the-cob versus the drier, dusty smell of corn harvested in the fall. When I was a boy, my granddaddy would pull an ear of corn from a nearby stalk and peel down the feathery husks. Then he’d hand it to me and say, “Take a bite. When it’s young like this, it’s kind of sweet.” I’d take a bite and be surprised by the little bursts of flavor even in kernels that had not yet been cooked.

Later in the fall, I’d climb into the cab of his John Deere combine tractor, and watch as the rows of stalk and corn were combed into the bowels of what I thought was a magic machine. With rumblings and racketing sounds, the combine would cut and thresh the grain, shooting clean piles of golden corn into an awaiting tank.

Seasons help us keep time. And this time of the year, I not only miss memories of watching my grandad at work, but I’m also missing the normal rhythms of school. During normal times, buses run in lines down community streets. Family vehicles line up in front of schools to drop off children. Boys and girls wrangle thick backpacks, band instruments or sacks of lunches while weaving and stumbling their ways into buildings. 

During normal times, principals stand out front to wave at parents and say hello as they deposit these motley crews of treasured love and labor at the school house doors. Teachers stand proudly outside their classroom doors to greet them with high-fives or fist-bumps. Crossing guards move them across busy sidewalks, and cafeteria workers usher them through long lunch lines.

Remember those times? When life seemed so normal with the rhythms of schools, work, business and activiites all intertwined into what we used to know as life in general? And during those past seasons, you saw lots of faces without masks or shields.

Changes Rhythms

But this year, our rhythms are not all the same. Some schools have opened for in-person instruction with a variety of protocols involving masks or disinfectants. Others are providing remote learning options. Some families have their children in full time virtual learning. Even schools that have started back in person are doing so with various levels of success and challenges. But whatever choices they have made, they cannot stop the arrival of the start of school – in whatever form they are experiencing.

Some schools are cancelling band programs while others are moving forward with specialized bags over instruments that can be sanitized between classes. Many schools have set up lanes in hallways so traffic only moves one way. Others are concerned about safety protocols for outside activities. As more teachers want students in outside places, school officials wrestle with how to ensure adequate supervision. Some districts are cancelling extra-curricular activities all together while others are still on schedule for after school events. 

I’ve talked to high school principals whose lunchtimes mean students are staggering times so fewer kids eat together. Others in middle and elementary years have students eating in rooms with teachers and assigned classmates. Some schools are extending advisory periods so that the incremental time increases allow longer times for students to begin their days with just one teacher. 

Keeping the Enthusiasm

In whatever ways schools are beginning, some changes cannot alter the enthusiasm of welcoming back teachers to a new year. Welcome-back signs and chalk drawn sidewalks are still boasting “We love you” messages to educators re-entering their schools for professional training or for first-time returns to their classrooms. Students are waking up early again, some logging into Zoom meetings while others are showing up on campuses to re-engage with old friends. 

I bet it is safe to say that no matter what hybrid or in-person approaches you have chosen, no one has been able to suppress the energy or enthusiasm that comes with the return of school. Even kids with at-home lessons have been busy organizing school supplies. Others are writing out schedules to tape to walls or refrigerator doors. Students are nervously logging in and texting quick messages to friends about which teachers they’ve been assigned.

The school season is here — even if the crop looks different this year than any other we’ve ever witnessed before.

Welcoming Back Teachers

And how are principals facing both the celebrations and challenges of this new season? Just like in “normal” years, principals are staying creative. At a recent virtual Mastermind meeting with principals from across the nation, I asked them how they are welcoming back teachers. They shared several ways they are keeping spirits high with their own staff. 

Here are a few ideas they shared:

  • Buying T-shirts, and handing out 1, 5, 10, 20 year recognitions, pins, hats, mugs, and sweatshirts
  • Dividing staff among the admin team and making phone calls to every person on staff
  • Creating a Padlet so that staff can drop in ideas, questions on any topic
  • Using digital chats before school starts – voluntary meetings that rebuild community
  • Being a liaison to new teachers, creating welcoming moments by inviting them to ask questions and providing time to give them answers
  • Writing personal notes to staff to welcome them back
  • Using humor – like wearing goggles or funny costumes in virtual meeting or in-person meetings!
  • Thinking ahead – using social media campaigns to introduce teachers to their community with photos or “five things to know” sections in newsletters about each teacher
  • Setting up a chocolate station for teachers who are back in-person by making a bowl of chocolates available anytime they want to stop by!

What about teachers afraid to return? Principals have told me: First, follow protocols for human resources or mental health support if needed. Second, just listen. Support and validate their thoughts, feelings, and let them know you are in this together.

Celebrations and Challenges

Just today I reached out to several principals who are already back in school or whose students have begun remote learning. They have experienced both celebrations and challenges in their first days. Here are responses from principals in different opening scenarios here in my home state of Oklahoma:

Middle School In-Person with At-Home Option Instruction:

“Our middle school has had 0 positive cases reported at school. We only have 6 out for exposure, but these were away from school. Adding an extra lunch has reduced the time in cafeteria and number of students within 6 ft. of one another. Our teachers have done a fantastic job presenting instruction on Canvas. At minimum, we have two direct instruction lessons for our online learners (Zoom, Canvas, YouTube, iPad). Significant improvements! Challenges: We struggled earlier with how to code absences, how to handle a report of exposure, how to legally tell teachers that kids would not be gone due to exposure, contract tracing. We have addressed those concerns, and we are now in a good spot!” — Kyle Hilterbran, Clinton Middle School

High School, Beginning with Remote-Learning Instruction:

“Hey Will. Overall, lots have been accomplished and I’m proud of our staff, students and community. Since we’re in distance learning, our biggest challenges have been communications (always difficult to reach everyone regardless of how many methods you use), overwhelming parents with emails and schedules from multiple teachers for the same student, SPED placements and accommodations, and EL needs where distance learning isn’t appropriate. HOWEVER, I’m super proud of how our teachers have been leveraging Canvas, Loom, Google Meets, and other online applications. It’s been impressive.” — David Beiler, Jenks High School  

High School – Hybrid (In-Person and At-Home Options)

“It’s great. Celebration is definitely having kids back in the building. I think they are as glad to be here as we are. The mandatory mask has been a non-issue for kids. Challenge is supporting overwhelmed teachers who are teaching virtual as well as in person classes. They are accustomed to being great at what they do and it’s frustrating for them to have so many new processes and unknowns. I’m also grateful to work in a district with amazing leadership and community support. Thanks for checking in!” — LaDonna Chancellor, Bartlesville High School

Let’s Wrap This Up

As a boy, I really enjoyed when the combine tractor pulled up beside the grain truck to empty its tank into the open bed of the truck through an extended pipe. The grain would shoot out in streams – a golden blur that bounced off the metal floor, the sound of ricocheting corn-bullets, ting, tinging until slowly changing into a softer muffle of growing piles of yellow. When the tank was finally emptied, if I was lucky, my granddad would let me climb the ladder up the side of the grain truck and slide my feet into the awaiting mass. To him that grain meant money. To me it was a treasure hoard for climbing and digging.

As you think about the start of school, I bet you feel both the excitement of the challenges and celebrations that are ahead. Perhaps you’ve already begun classes. Or perhaps you are days away from launching. Either way, my guess is that no matter what happens, no amount of protocols or hybrid approaches can muffle the excitement in store for you – the treasure store of students and teachers, the relationships that make school meaningful. When you reconnect with your school community, you rediscover the joy and the reason you worked so hard this summer.

Now It’s Your Turn

I’d love to hear feedback from how you and your school community is managing the start of school. What ways can you share out those positive moments with your school community even while managing the difficult ones? I would be honored to hear how the start of school is going for you. Could you email me a quick heads message of the celebrations and challenges you are experiencing? Thanks again for doing what matters!

Free Video Gift

An encouraging message for education leaders starting a new school year!

Several days ago, a contact at Ohio’s State Department of Education reached out to see if I’d be able to share a welcome-back video with principals. Since I provided it complimentary, I wanted to make it available for Principal Matters friends as well. It’s called Why Your Leadership Still Matters. You may recognize several of the stories and examples from previous podcast episodes. If you find it helpful, please share it with other school leaders!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker