The Inventor’s Mentality: Four Leadership Strategies for Reopening School

Our students have been witnessing racism and violence on top of the uncertainties of the pandemic and its daily impact on them. We educators are calling on our communities to act for racial justice, while students are being constantly and starkly reminded of the inequities and injustices that the black and African American community faces every day. This all feels heavy just as we recently concluded an especially challenging school year. We wanted to celebrate all that our students have accomplished and to acknowledge their successes in distance learning this spring. Yet they are certainly experiencing a complex mixture of feelings, as we all are. It is really hard for educators not to be there in person to support students and families.
One parent recently told me that 2020 has been a “beast” so far. It’s natural that parents would feel unsettled. Summer is different than expected—travel is complicated, extended family gatherings present health and safety risks, there is great uncertainty about what lies ahead, and more. We school leaders cannot put a finger on how exactly we’re going to reopen school. Something so natural for all of us is now an elusive topic because of changing circumstances, emerging health regulations, and many other unknowns. There are dozens of questions, yet we lack straightforward and precise answers.
Within this context, our school communities continue to need crisis leadership that is aspirational, intentional, and decisive. As we look to the new school year, I want to offer four leadership strategies for scenario planning that I have found helpful as the head at Phillips Brooks School (CA). All four strategies require an inventor’s mentality. The goal is to keep my community focused, inspired, and action-oriented as we prepare to reopen school—however that looks. The inventor’s mentality also needs to be modeled for teachers so they will feel motivated to bring their creativity, resourcefulness, and resolve to our preparations and planning for August.
State and restate our goal and intentions. I believe it’s essential to clearly state that we believe in having students in school as much as possible, and that we are therefore working toward the goal of reopening campus. As communicators, it seems important to state it and plan for it. My school has three intentions behind reopening school:
  • being back together as a community,
  • keeping students, faculty, and staff safe, and
  • optimizing our learning environment to deliver our curriculum
I acknowledge that it’s difficult to accomplish all three intentions equally and at the same time. As one parent asked in a recent survey: “Can we balance safety with an appropriate educational experience without overtaxing faculty”? Indeed! And by clearly stating our goal and intentions, we keep everyone focused on what we’re aiming for and how we’re addressing all of the challenges through scenario planning.
My school’s three scenario-planning teams have clear directions for their development of educational models, operational protocols, and campus preparation plans. I’m also trying to paint a picture of the complex realities we’re facing. Parents appreciate our acknowledgment that we don’t have all of the answers and that plans may change between now and August. By stating the goal and intentions, we demonstrate the value of our education, put students at the center, and stay focused on our mission and values.
Put faculty wellness at the forefront. In mid-March, the unexpected and abrupt transition to distance learning was a heavy lift for faculty. Now our teachers need to be ready to reopen school in an entirely different way. Think about it: For almost three months, distance learning has been one learning mode (online) with a built-in safety protocol in one location (home). Reopening school will require our educators to be even more inventive. It will require more adaptability, more flexibility, and more scenario planning. Our teachers will need to ensure that students adhere to health protocols, and they’ll most likely lead classes on campus as well as in the distance learning format. Someone at my school said it’s like a sprint (spring distance learning) leading directly to a marathon (August reopening). This is exhausting and takes an emotional toll on educators and students alike. We must therefore do everything we can to provide tools to support self-care and help regulate the trauma of this pandemic.
With all of this top of mind, my team and I are constantly discussing our workplace culture, faculty-staff wellness, and how to care for the team. We’re saying “thank you” in a variety of ways, setting aside time for individual conversations to ask how they’re doing, using surveys to capture their feedback, asking them to use their inventor’s mentality by joining our planning efforts, giving well-timed gifts to boost spirits, hosting celebrative activities as rally points, and more. One essential priority now and through the summer is to offer expert-led sessions for faculty emotional health and well-being.
Design a schedule. Daily academic schedules organize people and time. As an organizational framework, schedules are an important anchor for faculty, students, and families. This fall at my school, the schedule cannot simply replicate regular on-campus learning because of regulations for health, hygiene, physical distancing (occupant load), and stable cohorts (limiting interactions among classroom groups as much as possible). We have prioritized schedule design because other decisions follow from it, and we need an organizational framework to reopen school so that teachers can start planning their August curriculum delivery right away, already in mid-June. We’ve developed a draft design that uses what we’re calling a “phased approach” for early childhood and elementary education. Recognizing that things can change, here’s where things stand today:
  • For preschool and prekindergarten, we’ll plan to offer on-campus learning with morning cohorts (half of the students) and afternoon cohorts (the other half) to optimize daily academic and social development in school, not online.
  • For K–5, we’re designing a rotation of two student cohorts per classroom that alternate between on-campus learning and distance learning to amplify learning continuity, consistency, momentum, and routine.
  • We’re creating daily synchronous connections between both cohorts to create a unified classroom experience.
  • We’ll likely set aside one day each week when all K–5 cohorts do school online to create time for small-group work, virtual field trips, teacher-to-student feedback sessions, parent check-ins, and teacher training and planning.
  • We’re reframing aspects of our emotional intelligence curriculum to ensure we address children’s traumatic experiences during this pandemic and fine-tune it for online delivery.
  • There will be an option for families to elect 100% distance learning, based on specific family needs. We want to keep siblings together in the same rotation to support family planning.
  • We’re developing a Back-to-School Onboarding Program for students, teachers, and parents to build new relationships and establish trust before the first day of school.
  • Other areas of focus: adding faculty training days before August 1 to plan for reopening school; supporting child-centered curriculum with videos to teach health, hygiene, and safety routines on campus; working on solutions for childcare support; and sharing FAQs on Reopening School to keep the community informed.
Enhance distance learning. As we plan to reopen school, we’ll need elements of distance learning for our cohort rotation in addition to the possibility of returning to distance learning full time in the event of another shelter-in-place order. It was invigorating when teachers at my school came together last week for professional training days. We discussed our distance learning model without being required to create it and implement it at the same time. To focus these sessions, I developed seven key performance indicators (or attributes) for distance learning in early childhood and elementary programs. The goal was to have a clear definition of excellence for online school in support of these important discussions:
  • Schedule: Common elements and common anchor points to ensure routine, predictability, support, and schoolwide cohesion.
  • Connections: Balance of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to build learning relationships, create high-touch interactions among teachers and peers, and optimize opportunities for independent work.
  • Teacher-Guided: Balance of live and recorded instruction to meet the needs of a range of learners and assess their progress in the curriculum.
  • Independence: Amplifying small-group and project work to deepen student motivation and engage students in building essential executive function skills.
  • Individualized: Multiple avenues for teacher feedback, assessment, and individual teacher-student interactions so that students understand their progress toward meeting clear academic expectations.
  • Rigorous: Delivering excellence in academics and emotional intelligence by a high-qualified and skilled faculty so we maintain our high educational standards.
  • Rally Points: Designing intentional and occasional “exciters” or rally points to break the monotony of screen time and energize student enthusiasm. 
I hope that these strategies will continue to generate an inventor’s mentality at my school. It is also important to view them as a framework for creative scenario planning, effective communication, and informed decision-making about reopening school. Best wishes for an inventor’s mentality as you tackle the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us.
The author recently presented an NAIS webinar, “The Inventor’s Mentality: What-If Scenario Planning for Success in Early Childhood and Elementary Online Learning.” Listen to it, and a follow-up and open forum, here.
You can also hear Erickson speak on the topic of governance in the NAIS Member Voices podcast, episode 29, where he talks about how he's worked hard on "issue-spotting" and communication with his school and board, as well as how he uses his training as an ordained minister.
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Scott Erickson

Scott Erickson is head of school at Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park, California.