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June 24, 2022

Setting the Tone for a New School Year

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Five ways for school leaders to lay a strong foundation for what comes next.
LeadershipSchool Culture
Setting the Tone for a New School Year (thumbnail)
Credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock
Right before schools broke for summer, I sat down at a conference table with a group of New York City teachers and school leaders to reflect on the school year and strategize about what’s coming next. The echoes of kids in the hallways, slamming locker doors, and the buzzing intercom became the white noise in between the thoughtful pauses in our conversation. At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the first full one after two years of interruptions, the same question hangs in the air like a thick fog: Are we back to normal?
In my work as the director of a professional development and research organization at Teachers College, Columbia University, I’ve asked new teachers, experienced teachers, teacher leaders, and superintendents that question—and they’ve shared the same response: No, there was nothing “normal” about this school year.
In conversation after conversation, though many educators said they embraced the return of in-person learning in 2021, they also reflected that this past school year was like waking up the day after an accident: We can’t truly assess the physical, emotional, or mental pain until it’s long over. We have to wait for the bruises to emerge and the dust to settle. Filled with uncertainty, and beset by ever-changing regulations, educators felt like they were just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

(Another) Different Year

When we made it to the end of 2021, many teachers and students began to exhale—and then, the Omicron variant hit. Schools again contended with widespread illness. Teachers covered for sick colleagues. Student attendance hit low points again. As the surge waned and spring emerged, the idea that students would soon be facing their annual high-stakes tests seemed out of sync with reality.
Teachers shared with me that the almost two-year gap in formal school structures led students to disconnect from school and from one another. The perfunctory transactions of assignments and submissions through tech platforms made it challenging for many teachers to convince students to engage in work during class time, or with one another.
Throughout the pandemic, modifications were made to federal, state, and district policies that lowered expectations for grading, attendance, and external accountability mechanisms, like high-stakes testing. These changes were necessary throughout the pandemic, but the long-term impact is that students have received the message that showing up is all that is required of them. This has made it difficult for many students to find purpose or motivation in their coursework.
This past school year, it didn’t really matter if a teacher had two years of experience or 20—everyone was new to the work. It’s not surprising that as we settle into summer, and educators are finally able to take a moment to breathe, they’re also conducting a damage report by asking, “How can we move forward?”

Laying an Unbreakable Foundation

For school leaders, charting that course forward is difficult. They have a clear memory of what we did before, during, and immediately after the pandemic, but knowing what comes next isn’t always clear. In my work coaching school and district leaders across our 30+ partnership schools, I’ve had the opportunity to listen, reflect, and offer some strategic advice so school leaders can lay a strong foundation for next year. Here are five recommendations I’ve shared.
1. Reaffirm (or revise) the school’s mission and vision: During these challenging times, teachers, students, and families have become isolated, disconnected, and weary. But school leaders can be culture creators by bringing stakeholders together around a unifying message. Reconnecting each group to their purpose and shared identity by reaffirming or revising the mission and vision is a great way to generate momentum.
Recruit stakeholders to review or suggest revisions to the mission and vision to increase community connections and update core values. Reflecting on the community’s collective experience may reveal that schools need to shift their focus to include more social-emotional supports for students, or focus on the importance of fluency with technology, or offer multiple pathways for success outside of test scores. Once the review or revision has been completed, consider a digital or print marketing campaign that reminds community members that the school’s mission and vision are touchstone values and aspirations. Whether this work memorializes a shift in focus or reaffirms long-held values, by collaboratively affirming the community’s core values, schools create a clear narrative for returning staff and new community members that helps them remember who they are, what they do, and why they do it.
2. Identify what is working: No doubt that through the rough and tumble school year, we’ve stumbled on some practices, protocols, and processes that actually work well. Take some time during the summer to identify these practices and affirm for the community why they’re working and how you’ll support their continued use. Whether you’re looking at practices for contacting families, submitting student work, or collaborating on data analysis, highlighting the successes of last year’s work creates bright moments in an otherwise foggy time.
3. Take a closer look at what is not working: It’s likely many teachers (and students) left the classroom this year with a long list of things that used to work, but don’t anymore. Maybe group work, for example, didn’t work because students didn’t know each other well or feel safe meeting new people. Maybe class discussions didn’t work because students couldn’t hear each other through masks and didn’t have grade-level social skills after prolonged instruction on remote platforms. Long-term projects may have been challenging because of waves of illness that disrupted attendance.
The landscape of the classroom has changed. We’ve changed, and we need to be honest about what’s not working so we can strategize about what’s next. Get feedback from students, teachers, and families about their concerns, challenges, and suggestions for the future. Work with collaborative leadership teams to assess the benefit of internal and external programs. Use focus groups and surveys to collect perspectives from each stakeholder group (students, families, faculty, leadership) about community challenges and concerns. Then conduct a cross walk to compare each group’s feedback and to begin identifying some strategic changes that can be implemented with fidelity in the new school year. Some schools and districts are using this kind of community feedback to develop a portrait of a graduate, or to establish new instructional policies.
4. Make what’s professional personal: Over the past several years, educators have been thrust on the highest of pedestals, then thrown off and tossed around. Hailed as essential workers in the early days of the pandemic, teachers were seen as a national treasure and schools were seen as the lynchpin to the economy. But public sentiment has since shifted, as schools have become a standard talking point in divisive politics: return-to-school policies, mask mandates, COVID safety measures, censorship, and the impact of mass shootings have positioned teachers as responsible for society’s challenges.
Teachers have made personal sacrifices to show up to work. Even teachers who’ve felt demoralized by their experiences report that they kept coming back for the kids. Teaching is a profession that requires a great deal of personal commitment and passion day after day. This coming year, leaders need to make the extra effort to personally support teachers. Small gestures go a long way—now might be the time to upgrade the coffee maker in the lounge, or provide snacks at the start of a meeting, or just send a quick, thoughtful note.
5. Model and reflect: With so much uncertainty in meeting the needs of students, we can’t rely on what we “used to do.” This year, it’s time to reset with clear expectations, modeling, and reflection. Lead professional development sessions with a focus on the core expectations for all classrooms. For example, it may be necessary to focus PD on designing highly effective lesson objectives, aligning objectives with instructional strategies and learning activities, foundational principles for group work, peer-to-peer discussion groups, or differentiated instruction.
Model promising practices and create time and space for teachers to reflect on their use of these practices, how they can apply what they’re learning, and what changes they see upon implementation. What may seem like a return to the basics will actually help to reframe and reposition these practices after the height of pandemic pedagogy pulled us out of routines.

A Fresh Start

As leaders prepare for the upcoming school year, they must remember that returning teachers have seen it all—the good, the bad, and the really bad. In a time when teachers are defecting to other fields right and left, those who are returning want to see their students succeed despite every challenge they’ve faced. And your new teachers? Well, they stood on the sidelines and watched how difficult the job was, and how personally demanding it was, and their response was, “Sign me up!”
Investing in the lives of students is about stepping into the future. Leaders can’t forget to invest in teachers to help them get there.
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