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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Leadership Through Crisis: A Framework for Choosing Joy

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The superintendent of Selma City Schools shares the collective steps her district took to embrace change during the pandemic.

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Credit: PHOTO BY LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON
Photo: Avis Williams works with a Selma City Schools student.
For school leaders, the last two years changed everything. Leading during a pandemic has required a level of agility and flexibility unlike anything most school administrators have ever encountered. More important, it has required strategic thinking and decision making with little to no guidance or previous experience to draw on.
As the superintendent of Selma City Schools in Alabama, I am used to helping my district adapt to challenges. When I first arrived in 2017, taking over in an area where most students face economic disadvantages, the district had low graduation rates and students struggled to keep up academically. We improved in all academic-achievement areas with a lot of hard work and openness to change, using a five-year strategic plan created by a team of teachers, families, community members, and elected officials. We focused on goals in four areas: teaching and learning; culture, climate and community; leadership, management, and governance; and facilities and technology. At the time, our plan seemed bold.
Then COVID-19 hit. Our district's needs changed as we moved through lockdown and remote teaching and back to in-person classrooms this year. I knew we needed to adapt—and we needed to figure out ways to be resilient, optimistic, and embrace joy where we could find it.
This was no easy task. We have made mistakes and started over. But one of the most pivotal lessons I've learned over this time has been the importance of continuing to help every student and staff member embrace change with an open mind. While the most successful strategies will look different for every district, I'd like to share the steps we took during this crisis and the distributed leadership required to make them happen, in hopes that these kinds of adaptive practices will spread.

Don't Be Afraid to Pivot

If a long-term plan is in place, it can be a challenge to think about adjusting. When we began the 2020–2021 year remotely, a project team consisting of teachers, administrators, students, and community members had created our "Return to Excellence" reopening plan that included a safety roadmap for schools, including cleaning protocols, testing, social distancing guidelines, and, later, vaccine clinics. We updated this plan often—sometimes weekly—but it became clear to me and my team, as we saw the many issues our students faced, that our efforts would need to reimagine more than reopening if we were to return to our pre-pandemic progress levels. Our needs were greater than what the original strategic plan and our reopening plan called for, and funding from the federal CARES Act provided resources to improve what we offered. During a cabinet meeting in early 2021, we decided to relaunch our entire plan, which was originally supposed to be active through 2023.

There is no magic formula for being adaptive to change. Intentional but flexible strategic planning, robust communication, and making the daily decision to choose joy have worked best for me.

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Avis Williams

A major impetus for this switch was a shooting incident in spring 2021 on the second day of in-person learning. One student fired a gun into the lunchroom of our high school after a fight. Though no one was hurt, the teachers and students were shaken. We were already grappling with almost two years of learning disruptions and concerns around mental health and wellness, and now we had additional safety concerns to address. As a result, the new strategic plan, which runs from 2021–2024, includes far more whole-child support and restorative practices than the original plan did. Over several months, we reestablished our project teams for the original four areas and added a fifth area: safety and wellness.
Educators and administrators were understandably preoccupied with understanding where students were academically. But our community discussed how we could not limit our focus to academic data. Learning recovery would mean nothing without considering social-emotional learning, mental health, and overall wellness from a holistic standpoint.
So, in addition to an academic support team with instructional coaches, reading and math specialists, and a virtual learning specialist, we now have an SEL coordinator, mental health coordinator, and social workers. Classroom teachers get a read on SEL with perception surveys given to students at the beginning, middle, and end of the year, which ask questions around whether students feel connected or valued at school, whether they have a trusted adult at their school, and if they need help with specific home concerns.
Last summer, I also led a Safe Community Alliance group that included the police chief, mayor, and leaders from the Selma Center for Non-Violence. Together, we hosted healing circles at our high school and a local church over the summer for all those who were impacted by the school shooting. There is a lot of gang violence and infighting that affects our community, so the goal was to talk through people's needs and traumas and find common ground and better ways to communicate—and ways to move forward together without violence. Our district-level team contracted an additional therapist to address anger management and did a thorough audit to improve consistency related to mental health supports.
The advantage of having a living, breathing plan means that it can change as a district's needs change.

Involve All Stakeholders

Never underestimate the power of including staff, parents, caregivers, and community members in the planning and execution of a districtwide strategy. I always advise beginning with understanding the needs of your community—and the only way to do that is listen. At first, the work started small: Each of the five areas of our plan had a team lead who met with the district's strategic planning director. From Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analyses to detailed data reviews, the teams reviewed previous goals and strategies and made recommendations for adapting them to our new reality.
Then we gathered feedback from everyone and showed them what we proposed, to see if it met their needs. I met virtually with small groups of students in what I called "Chat and Chew" sessions, where scholars shared their insights with me on clubs and activities they wanted, improving school lunch, and dress code policies before the school made official decisions. We also held a strategic planning summit using Facebook Live and shared a link to a survey document where families, teachers, staff, and leaders could give input on proposed goals.
Understanding what implementation looks like to all stakeholders is a critical part of the strategic-planning process. The community should know what your focal points are and have opportunities to share what you may have missed. You need concrete steps and monitoring to track progress. We use a score-monitoring system to make sure that how we're spending resources aligns to our plan.
For example, our families explained that we needed more transportation options and access to technology resources. As a result of that feedback, the project team purchased new buses; added kitchen, cafeteria, and bathroom renovations; and pushed up our timeline to start a virtual academy for students who want to work more independently.
While communication was more challenging than ever during the pandemic, a social media hashtag #TeamSelmaConnected provided information to reassure families and caregivers that our main goal was to keep everyone safe. We held virtual parent sessions (sometimes twice a day) on Facebook Live, which we also posted on our YouTube channel. These covered topics like testing and vaccination sites and sports updates, as well as developments on our district's COVID dashboard, which allowed us full public transparency around schools' transmission rates.
It also helps when leaders communicate personally, rather than having faceless messaging. I do so using a weekly local newspaper column and a weekly podcast called "Talk Sup't."
To make sure families had a way to communicate with us about students' needs, which can change daily, our academic support team established a hotline we call "Handle with Care." All families now have one cell phone number they can text that team members monitor. If they need to let teachers know that their child is struggling, had a tough night, or has a family situation unfolding, families can text their child's name to that hotline (no details required) so that teachers know the student's learning may be affected the next day, or simply so they don't jump to conclusions if a scholar is falling asleep in class or acting out. The more ways families have to let the district know what they think and need, the better.

Prioritize Supporting Teachers

Big changes can be especially stressful for teachers and staff, so it's vital that district administrators stay in frequent, transparent contact about what's happening and give opportunities for teachers to weigh in on changes. Principals attended district leadership meetings, and teacher advisory groups provided insights about what they were seeing in the classroom. To mitigate stress during virtual learning, we created breakout rooms with comedy, yoga, Zumba, and karaoke, and we used a wheel-of-fortune app to give away door prizes. Now that we are in-person, all schools have added self-care rooms to replace teachers' lounges, with massage chairs, calming scents, and music donated by community partners. We have wellness teams who share weekly tips. We have also partnered with community organizations to provide catered lunches and special treats to say thank you.
Stress prevention is just as important as stress relief. To help with academic recovery, our schools have added math coaches after seeing students needed extra supports in that subject, as well as a director of elementary education and literacy and a coordinator for virtual and nontraditional learning. Given the national teacher shortage and low employee morale, our leadership, management, and governance project team created a program where employees can earn financial stipends of up to $3,000 for work time outside their contract, and the team is working to boost the district's leadership pipeline through an Aspiring Leaders Academy. We've also been hiring interventionists—often retired teachers or those who want to work part-time—so that burned out teachers have more staffing support.
One of my leadership lessons of this past year was to stay in the moment. Multitasking is a myth, yet during the hardest part of the pandemic, I would have two Zooms and a phone call going at the same time. Now, I try to practice what I preach in terms of self-care—putting the phone down, making eye contact and asking others how they're doing, following up if I promise information to someone, being mindful of how I'm being received and what others need.

Find Moments of Joy

Over the last two years, choosing joy—one of Team Selma's core values—was a non-negotiable for me as a leader, even through the most tumultuous event of my career. This meant modeling resilience while also giving team members space to know that it was OK not to be OK. Joy and optimism are not about pretending that everything is great and aren't a substitute for a strategy. They're not about looking at life through rose colored glasses, but about remembering there are better days ahead.

One of my leadership lessons of this past year was to stay in the moment. Multitasking is a myth, yet during the hardest part of the pandemic, I would have two Zooms and a phone call during the same time.

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Avis Williams

As one way to communicate my mindset, I send a daily email I call "Morning Joy" to team members, the board of education, and many other Team Selma supporters, with encouraging quotes, funny cat memes, and specific information about self-care, health, and mindfulness. I rarely leave a school without a teacher chasing me down and saying, "I was going through something, and your email really made a difference." In every meeting, I start by asking participants to tell me something good that's happening in their school or personal life right now (what we call a "Team Selma" moment). You're not looking for big wins—you're looking to impact one individual however you can.
When I walk into a building or board room, I know we don't have constant joy by any stretch of the imagination. Early on, when we launched the strategic plan and discussed our core values, I heard someone say, "She can't give me joy." That's true, but I am trying to share mine. Some people appreciate it and need it and others can take it or leave it. But teachers deserve to work in a school system where safety and joy are intentionally lifted up.
There is no magic formula for being adaptive to change. Intentional but flexible strategic planning, robust communication, and making the daily decision to choose joy have worked for me as a leader. Education will never be the same. Leaders must be realistic and willing to adapt to our changing world.
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