Principals Leading Through the Pandemic

“School is like an iceberg,” said Gregg Wieczorek, principal of Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wisconsin, and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). “What the parents see is the tip of the iceberg…all that stuff that goes on underneath—that they never see—is what we do to have a successful school. We need to do a better job of showing that, showing those results.” 

As part of the celebration marking October as National Principals Month and highlighting the work of school leaders across the country, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), NASSP and the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA) sponsored a webinar, “On the Front Lines: Principals Leading Through the Pandemic.” The session touched on the professional lives of three school principals, each telling their story, sharing their insights and giving their own personal perspectives on their experiences as a leader in education during a global pandemic. 

Joining Wieczorek on the panel were Eric Rowe, principal of Prep Academy and president of Denver School Leaders Association (DSLA), AFSA Local 136, and Paul Wenger, principal of Jordan Creek Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa, and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). The webinar was led by Denisa Superville, assistant editor of Education Week. Contrary to a typical interview-styled webinar, the online event was an open conversation about many issues the pandemic has caused, but also included solutions and realizations. 

As has been well documented, the pandemic brought on a decrease in the feeling of community. Many kids are facing the difficult task of returning to an in-person learning environment after getting used to remote learning. 

“Students have not been in school, really, for a year and a half,” said Rowe. “We’re having to reconnect and find one another, and then place a premium on social and emotional learning.” 

Alongside the struggling community aspect comes the problem of responding to students' social emotional learning (SEL) needs. Rowe discussed the importance of prioritizing social and emotional learning before academics, while Wenger talked about the complex changes in schools from before COVID-19 to now. 

“The term relationship building is more crucial now than it has been ever before,” said Wenger, adding his words in the conference. “If we don’t have a connection with those kids, it doesn’t matter how much time we have or don’t have. They are not going to be focused and they’re not going to learn nearly as well.” 

While much attention is paid to the mental health and well-being of students, panelists ask, what about the mental health and well-being of principals? The burdens of too much work and having to deal with all of the pressures of this unprecedented time while trying to keep the composure of a calm leader can take a toll. 

“We often don’t talk about the principal's social and emotional well-being, but we know that adults have to be well to take care of students,” said Superville. 

Rowe talked about this being a problem even before the pandemic. 

“I think we just need to have an honest conversation, that what was normal before COVID wasn’t necessarily healthy or effective,” he said. “The fact that working a 50–60 hour week was normalized…we normalize that as a profession. That the stress and all the things that come with being an educator are normal.” 

“There was a crisis, but there’s also an opportunity to reflect and think through: how can we do this differently and better that is sustainable and equitable for all?” he added. According to Rowe, a new normal starts with relationships and by using the pandemic as a tool to grow and learn, instead of succumbing to it.

Aside from students and staff getting accustomed to being back in the classroom, another issue these principals face, like many others across the country, is the difficulty of finding workers. Not only finding educators to fill teaching positions, but also substitutes, nurses, custodians, school bus drivers, and other personnel that are essential to a functioning system. What can be done to fix this issue?

Wieczorek talked about his solution. He shared his thoughts about the lack of respect for the profession and changing the narrative about what it means to be a teacher and what is going on in schools. To change the narrative, he talked about wanting to make the profession more attractive to young people and showing results. Rowe pointed out there was a funding issue, with people not being offered long-term positions due to budget issues. 

If school is like an iceberg, then the webinar was the first step to showing what is underneath the surface.