Wearing All our Hats at Once
The idea of sharing a reflection is always daunting. Attempting to organize my thoughts at a time like this, however, is near impossible. Like all school leaders, I wear a variety of hats. Most of them I am able to put on and take off in quick succession, but seldom am I expected to wear my full collection all at once. Now, I am constantly negotiating the varying personae I embody and attempting to stay authentically connected to each one.
The challenges this creates is uncharted territory. As a mother, I pride myself on compartmentalizing work as much as possible so that I am present for my family in the evenings. As a staff member at a high needs school, I try to keep my love and support localized in vital face to face engagements that show kids I am there and that I am present. As a principal, I work to juggle the various needs of staff members who are all trying to balance advising, teaching and mentoring within the given timeframe. As a leader in the second largest district in California, I constantly think about how I could push the limits and encourage more traditionally minded leaders to think outside of the box. On any given day, that is a lot to balance. These days, it feels like everything is competing and asking for my attention at the same time.
My phone incessantly alerts me to the fact that many of our students, whose home lives are less than ideal, are struggling. I have always cherished the time I get with students. Attempting to channel and repair their problems from afar, leaves me constantly worried about the troubles written on their faces, that they are afraid to articulate, and that I can’t now see in their eyes. This makes the digital divide so much more evident and devastating. During a recent online morning staff meeting, I was struck by one teacher's observation that she has learned so much just looking at the home interiors behind the students who have Zoomed with her. I couldn’t dig into the comment in the moment but I just thought, “WOW.” What did she see in those spaces? How will this push our thinking about the reality of what our students deal with? How could a student who lives in a one bedroom with 10 people possibly find a safe corner to engage in online learning and what does their world look like right now? I was reminded of the safe space we are; the haven. And I couldn’t help thinking of the intrusion online learning presents to learners who might not want anyone to see their space. I hadn’t even thought of that.
My interactions with staff have also shifted. The accessibility I offer, in being able to walk into their rooms and support their non-traditional efforts, is interrupted by trying to coach online skills while simultaneously talking about how to make learning and loving happen when we aren’t in a room together. The technical skills it takes to move to online learning really illustrate a strong difference in teaching approaches. From the teacher who lovingly said, “I guess I shouldn’t have rolled my eyes to all this computer stuff,” to the one who has taken time out of his day to teach his colleagues how to use online tools, I am not even sure how to handle this multi-leveled challenge. I am blessed to work with a staff who are all in it for the kids but none of that prepares us for the learning that has to happen now.
All of these worries are piled on top of being present for my teenagers and my 22 year old, who is processing the news that she will not celebrate a traditional graduation ceremony with her classmates at UCLA. My children are sad and anxious all on their own. I have chosen not to give them a long list of things to learn. I have chosen to ask them to read, write, think and make every day. I have asked them to focus on things that make them happy and that they are curious about. I try to connect with my 13 year old who cannot fathom months without her friends or teammates and who spends hours in the backyard hitting a ball off a tee preparing for the tournament trip to Nashville I suspect will not happen. I look at my 15 year old -- a student at my school, who landed a second semester internship with a filmmaker, now gone. She’s worried about her classmates and what all of this means for her future. So we do some test prep although I hope this chapter will convince colleges that the SAT is a worthless measure of students' readiness. It seems to make my daughter feel like she is doing something meaningful and, for a teenager who is always searching for meaning, that is enough for me. As for my college graduate, she will not have the mantle pictures of herself in a cap and gown, all in Bruin blue and yellow. She mentioned this the other night. It is a hard way to culminate four years of college that were genuinely hard for her and that asked her to fight academically, for the first time in her life.
My learning curve is steep. I am blessed with a capacity to love and problem solve so I am figuring it out, but the helplessness I feel in not being able to be more present is a weight. While I always considered myself a decent master of the internet (credit to my Gen-X status), online learning and web based tools are newer to me since relationships and connections have always been my main focus. The people. The teachers. The students. My family. They have always been the key, so spending time culling through lists of websites now FREE for my use does little to quiet the anxiety and worry. Certainly, I acknowledge that all of it matters, on some level. And yet, I acknowledge that working to master online learning, while constantly thinking about how that integrates into a school we have built as a safe space full of connection, is a challenge I never saw coming. I am learning that there are enrichment and content based tools online that will engage students in exploring the academic side of school, and yet, nothing can replace the people or the experiences that are lost.
So, inevitably, questions about internships and assignments take a back seat to the Maslowian needs that present themselves at every turn. When school is your safe space to escape a chaotic reality and a life full of hypothetical questions, those hours are not easily replaced with a Google Classroom or a Canvas interface. I have found support and solace in leaders who are facing similar challenges. From the school that is sharing vital funds to ensure I can buy food and toilet paper for my most at-risk and undocumented families, to my fellow leaders who are voicing both the struggles and the much needed victories around which I need solidarity, I am finding new ways to create community from afar. I could not have expected that fellow principals in Los Angeles, Durango and Reno could feel so close so fast. And who knew an online happy hour could give me so much relief?
As instructional leader, I can’t ignore the pressure I feel around the learning that is supposed to happen at school. In a space where learning takes place in the real world, what happens when that space shuts down? I am not interested in coming up with an assignment to replace an experience that is irreplaceable. We are not interested in reverting to a vision of school that checks boxes and focuses on compliance. However, there is a silver lining. For the first time, I have the luxury of working free from the pressure put upon schools by state testing. How can I test the waters and push our traditional thinking to explore the possibility of learning free of those constraints. And how do I navigate these new constraints that present challenges I never considered before?
Even though I can’t help but to feel like I’m building the plane as we are flying, I accept this new challenge and all of these unique questions by reminding myself that I am equipped with a staff and a system that are also doing everything in their power to make it through this chapter. As the daughter of a Colombian-American immigrant mother who supported us as seamstress, I am reminded of a lesson I learned in sewing many times. Perhaps, my challenge is not to wear hats made by someone else’s pattern, but instead, to create entirely new ones.