Intentionally Creating our Next Normal

For two years, our nation has been in critical response mode to the COVID-19 virus. We’ve shut down, masked up, and been vaccinated. Science has evolved, we all adapted and adjusted to fluid health orders and guidance.  

While there are divergent opinions on mitigation strategies, there is a nearly universal desire to return to normal. The current school year has been challenging because everyone had anticipated a return to normal. Just as the school year started, the Delta variant, followed by the Omicron variant, forced us to continue to implement and debate mitigation strategies.

As we look to the future, it is clear that we aren’t “going back” to 2019. Our path forward requires intentional action to build the future we want. The “next normal” will include:

  • Providing extra support for mental health challenges.
  • Adjusting our pacing plans based on student data.
  • Living shared cultural norms that support our community values.

Let’s be proactive and intentional in our actions. If we act with purpose and skill, we can build the environment we desire. We will get a default teaching and learning environment if we do nothing. We get to shape the future and we get to serve our communities. Now is the time for elite, skillful leadership; let’s step up to the challenge.

Recalibrating Public Discussions

We are living and leading in turbulent times. The Covid pandemic has disrupted our lives in incalculable ways. Schools will be working to close the learning gaps created from the virus for a decade; this generation of students will be forever changed because of Covid. In addition, the political and racial angst in our country have sparked divisions in our communities that are unparalleled in recent times. Even in our schools, we experience fear, hate, vitriol, and extremism. 

It’s time for us to recalibrate how we engage in public discussions. The people who email dozens of times per week are part of the problem, not part of the solution. No real problem will be solved in a Facebook group; the common ground isn’t located on a cable news station. There is so much more that unites us than divides us. There are few absolutes in the most intense topics today – there is much room for conversation and discussion. Absolutists – those who want to win at any cost – are the loud minority on both fringes of any debate. Those who fan the flames of hate or who live with paralyzing fear aren’t the peacemakers.

We will recalibrate the discussion by listening to all positions, seeking opportunities for common ground, and creating a safe space for the majority in the middle to communicate. We can’t lead school districts from a place of fear or with a scarcity mentality. We must be intentional in our response to each event, and we must be skilled and focused on our mission.

Writing as Cultivation of Beliefs

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to write simply for the sake of writing. For years, dating back to 2016, this Life in Focus blog has provided an outlet to share ideas and beliefs. I first started writing messages to encourage building principals to maintain an instructional focus between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. For some time, I was writing and posting every day. Later, the cadence of the posts settled into once a week. In 2020, over nineteen thousand visitors took the time to read Life in Focus with twenty-six thousand views. 

Like many school leaders across the country, Covid and other politically charged issues have monopolized both my time and energy. Whenever we put our ideas out in public, someone is quick to criticize or attack us with hate. I stopped writing; I was reacting rather than growing. As a public servant, I appreciate the diversity of opinions, and I enjoy smart people who push our team to be better. The climate today seems different – it’s unhealthy and bad for our communities. We must actively build the society we want for our children.

With all of this in mind, we must be undeterred in sharing who we are as leaders. While the Life in Focus blog is a personal journey, it is impossible to separate me from my role as Dublin’s Superintendent. As a leader, writing allows the sharing thoughts, ideas, and values, and creates the time and space to cultivate thinking. Writing is cathartic. 

I am humbled you have taken the time to read this post. I hope you will check in each week, knowing that I don’t profess to have answers or global solutions. My personal and professional goal is to be better today than I was yesterday and to be better tomorrow than I am today. My friend Tim Kight defines ELITE as being the best version of you. If we begin a “journey to elite” by committing to growing and learning every day, we will make a positive difference for others.

The Winter Solstice – Growing Light

Today is the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice is today. From today until mid-June, the light shines longer. As we live through the challenges of Covid-19, there is also light at the end of the tunnel. This weekend, Dr. Fauci once again shared vaccinations will be available to the general public by June.

I have great faith and hope. As the days grow longer, we draw closer to the end of this global pandemic. There is hope we will be reconnecting with family and friends in the first part of 2021. I have faith we will create an academic recovery plan to close gaps caused by a year-long disruption for our students.

We still have a couple of long, cold months ahead of us, but we see the light. We will continue to support each other, lift those in need, and provide encouragement to our team. The days are getting longer . . . the warmth of spring is just around the corner . . . we’ve got this!

The Edge – Journey to Elite

“It isn’t about pride; it’s about being moved.”

It’s easy to say “I am proud” of our district’s Response to the Covid-10 challenge. The Events of the past ten months have demanded our very best; we’ve been purposeful in our efforts to achieve the best Outcome available to us. Our E+R=O training with Tim Kight prepared Hilliard for challenges; we’ve been training for demanding events.

For me, it isn’t about having pride in what we’ve done; I am moved to continue to push my edge. When we face real challenges, we are driven to achieve results. Those who are forced to their edge, who perform under pressure, are on a journey to elite. Covid has pushed me; it has pushed our team to our edge. We’ve persisted, enhanced our Response, and built new skills. It’s not about being proud; it’s about being moved to be elite.

Accountability is Essential

An angry parent recently asked me, “where is the accountability in public education.” I responded, “public education has many layers and levels of accountability.”

When school districts are strong, property values are higher. Successful schools are desirable for young families; it also means established families have the option to sell their homes at a higher price. The community elects the Board of Education; tax levies require voter support. Accountability is part of our culture; it is critical in high performing districts.

Covid-19 has increased engagement with school leadership. We’ve had thousands of people on Zoom Meetings and attending virtual Board Meetings. This crisis has increase conversations and debates about our learning modality and safety protocols. The community’s feedback is short-cycle accountability; we read every letter, listen to each phone call, and appreciate the shared resources.

Support Leads to Results

“If support is missing or neglected, the team will not have the tools, resources, or confidence to do their job,” Tim Kight.

Support comes in two functions – the resources needed for success and the inspiration to get the job done at an elite level. In Hilliard, we were well-prepared, with the requisite technology, for eLearning which forced to transition last March. Thanks to the leadership of our technology team, our students have iPads and have experience in Canvas. Our teachers have utilized technology as a tool for many years.

While the physical and technical resources have been available, emotional and behavioral support is require continued development. Yes, every student has an iPad, but it is much more complicated. For many students, eLearning isn’t the most efficient instructional mode. Most teachers didn’t go to college to teach virtually. Leadership requires emotional support and inspiration. We must continue to support our teachers, students, and parents during these difficult times.

Clarity precedes Excellence

“Great leaders communicate clearly and constantly,” states Tim Kight.

Clarity begins first from the heart. Leaders don’t just say words; they create feelings with their words. When we lead with clarity, the “why” is the motivator for belief. It isn’t only about what is said – it is how it is communicated and the leader’s energy.

During Covid-19, more than ever, communication has been critical. Even during Community Zoom Meeting with over a thousand people, I haven’t used a scripted. I haven’t tried to hide my emotions or struggles from the community. As a team, we’ve been clear with our goals, our process, and our why. Yes, we’ve adapted and adjusted our plans to new data and health recommendations, but we’ve been faithful to our core principles since March. Our current situation is difficult; we must acknowledge this reality. We must also instill confidence that “we’ve got this together.”

Authentic leaders, those who care deeply and earn trust, achieve results. It’s not a strategic plan or mission statement that motivates people to perform at a high level. It’s clarity of purpose and confidence in the team. It’s a leader who creates a “We not Me” approach and builds a supportive culture.

Competence is Technical Trust

“Competence isn’t about what you know. It is about how you use what you know,” shares Tim Kight.

Earning technical trust is the difference between inspiring and managing. We’ve all worked with leaders who simply manage. They handle the day to day operations by the books. In a school setting, managerial leaders do no harm; they stay the course every day.

Inspirational leaders, those people who earn our trust and move organizations forward, facilitate learning and growth. We’ve all worked with, or for, leaders that motivate us to perform at a higher level. We’d run through walls for these people. Great leaders aren’t always right – they don’t have all the answers. Elite leaders acknowledge what they don’t know. They build credibility through humility and authenticity.

To earn technical trust, leaders tap into the knowledge and experience of the entire team. Covid-19 has expanded our teams; school leaders are working with health commissioners and epidemiologists daily. Not only do we listen to these scientists, we ask questions and share our expertise. We’ve built teams – teams balancing details about infectious diseases with the social-emotional needs of students. When elite leaders from different fields come together with a common purpose, everyone benefits. 

A Connection is Personal Trust

“There is a direct relationship between the level of connection people feel with their leader and the level of effort they are willing to invest in achieving goals.” – Tim Kight.

Building connections is essential for effectively serving any district as Superintendent. There are reasons district leaders live in the communities they serve – building trust and relationships. With my children attending and graduating from our schools, I’ve had the honor of interacting with hundreds of parents. During levy campaigns, I directly engaged with thousands of community members. At Giant Eagle on Saturday morning or the Rusty Bucket for an evening dinner, talking with community members is part of the job – it is critical in cultivating connections.

During Covid-19, building connections is different. We haven’t had Football Friday Nights or Winterfest; personal interactions have been limited. We miss personal communication, but we still strive to connect and engage. We act with empathy and care for each other. We give each other grace. We listen to understand; We adapt and adjust to what’s safe and prudent.

From Community Zoom Meetings with thousands of community members to personal phone calls instead of an email response, to care deeply and listen carefully is critical. I still have much work to do. I need to be more concise in my written responses and pause to hear more when in person. I will live with a growth mindset and continue to create opportunities for connections.