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The Importance of School Culture During Social Distancing

Many school leaders and instructional coaches recognize the importance of culture in a school. It would be hard to overstate the impact of collective efficacy, positive culture, and social emotional well-being on student success. However, it can be easy to lose focus on these things when presented with the kind of rapid change many schools have just experienced. Much time and energy becomes focused on the technical aspects of the change--how do we even make this work? Unfortunately, it is during times of change that leaders (principals, coaches, department chairs, etc.) need to double down on their work supporting the culture of their now “virtual” building.

Not only are students and teachers dealing with the broader emotional impacts of the current pandemic, but they are also dealing with the uncertainty of how to engage in teaching and learning through a virtual or distance-based system. I’ve stated in a previous post how unbelievably impressive it is that teachers and leaders pivoted so quickly to do the best they possibly can given the circumstances. As leaders, we need to think about how to continue to create positive culture and supporting the emotional needs of everyone involved.

Here are some ideas:

  1. If you already have positive behavior and cultural initiatives in your school, DO NOT let them go! Find a way to adapt them to your new context. This brings a sense of continuity to the rapid change that has happened and continues to build positive social emotional well-being for staff and students.

  2. If you don’t already have a positive initiative in your school, now might be a great “excuse” to start one. You can leverage this as an opportunity to build really simple positive structures that provide meaningful activities for students as your teachers continue to design how to best provide instruction. For example, all students can write a thank you email to a staff member. You could partner older and younger classes and have older students read to younger students via skype (or whatever system you are already using). Students could record a video message to someone in their community group. The ideas are endless.

  3. Ensure positive messaging and set realistic expectations. Especially with the amount of communication that will now take place via email, it is even more important that leaders ensure the type of messaging they want to send to staff, students, and parents. How do you want those groups to feel during this time? Do you want to increase their anxiety or provide reassurance?

  4. Take a minute to evaluate (and maybe even probe) the needs of each individual staff member. We are all familiar with Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Which of your teachers really need more emotional support during this time? Who needs more technical support? Who is ready to really think through how to best provide instruction? Think about how you might differentiate your support as a leader to target those needs, even while you try to stay one step ahead of managing this new way of schooling.

I believe strongly that what we put out as a leader is what we get back from staff and students. We can add to the cycle of negativity or create a cycle of positivity, we have a lot more influence than we might think. While the pressures of ensuring the logistics of schooling (plans for virtual learning to the state, technology access for students, how to count attendance, etc., etc., etc.) are greater than ever, so too are the emotional needs of those we lead. As leaders, this is when we need to show up the most.

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