Lessons In Leadership: How a first-year principal navigated pandemic disruption

As a Feb. 1 transition to hybrid learning approaches, Principal David Brown is continuing to implement and improve supports for students, families, and staff.

Like many of his peers, David Brown’s first year as a principal was far from ordinary. Where the school leader at Hillcrest Heights Elementary — a pre-K to 5 schools serving just over 400 students in Prince George’s County, Maryland — initially set out to improve metrics like assessments and attendance at his school, he ended up helping students, families, and educators adjust to a pandemic that shifted most of the nation’s schools to distance learning for at least the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

The fall, too, has begun remotely for Brown, though Prince George’s County plans to transition to hybrid learning Feb. 1. In the meantime, there’s still much work to be done in preparation.

We recently caught up with Brown to learn more about how he weathered a school year unlike any other, his approach to maintaining staff morale, and his advice for other first-year principals.

EDUCATION DIVE: Let’s starts with the big overarching question: What was it like having an emergency scenario like this come up during your first year as a principal?

DAVID BROWN: I guess the best answer I can give you is “challenging — but with ample support.” Of course, I had my mentor who continued to support me, Dr. [Rodney] Henderson [who leads the district’s Comprehensive Principal Induction Program], and also my principal mentor, Mark Dennison from Fort Washington Forest Elementary.

They were instrumental in ensuring I could navigate the perils of an emergency of this nature, so I lean or yield to their wisdom on a lot of things to make sure my plan was effective before I rolled out it out.

It was a lot of checking in with mentors and [working with] support systems or structures Prince George’s County has put in place for novice principals to navigate the everyday work of sitting in the principal seat until we’re kind of fully prepared to move on our own.

What are some of the lessons learned from the spring that have shaped your approach heading into the current school year?

BROWN: Assessing student engagement and how we engage our scholars and how we vary those representations, giving our students opportunities to move and engage in some work that is independent while balancing that with synchronous live learning that takes place over the platform regularly.

So the biggest takeaway is how do we continue to engage in making sure they come back every day with the same zeal that they entered on the first day?

How has the disruption to the school model and the transition to virtual learning affected how you and your faculty are approaching ongoing work toward reaching goals you’ve set on various accountability metrics?

BROWN: When we transitioned to distance or remote learning, many of the testing platforms we had used in the past, the statewide assessments that have been administered over the years, they had kind of been postponed due to the uncertainty of where we were. It just shifted our focus to school-created assessments, informal assessments created by teachers, and also the assessments that are embedded in our curriculum.

We use the same models, just our focus shifted from MCAP and MISA to curriculum-based assessments, quick writes, and then more qualitative data and looking at students’ performance. And then, just figuring out how we can do it better, looking at — instead of reteaching — focusing on corrective teaching to kind of identify some of those misconceptions that students had.

In terms of student performance on assessments, if you look at the metrics, we talked about previously, the assessment we use to guide our work just shifted from a state assessment to a local assessment that could be administered throughout the County based upon curriculum.

The other big focus was attendance. With the onset of distance learning, we began to track the submission of assignments, students’ activity on the various platforms — we do [Google] Classroom, Seesaw, and some other things — and also looking at the check-ins that took place between teachers and students to gauge understanding, follow up about missing assignments, and to just prepare for next steps instruction in the following day.

What steps have you taken during all of this to also maintain teacher morale and line up various professional development needs they might have as they adjust?

BROWN: I’ve always been really big on checking in with staff, seeing where they are. Last year, we did [Gallup] StrengthsFinder. I met with each staff member for about 45 minutes to an hour to talk about the strengths identified. It was then my job as an administrator to find opportunities to place them in settings where they could be most successful regularly.

A lot of that has led to the practices we’re engaging in this year. The first plan was PD. I sent a form to each grade level where they can identify the areas where they need support. And then, I utilized the skill set of the staff members to make sure those PDs happen.

Actually, today, our 1st-grade team engaged in converting PDFs into documents that were editable. And they also worked on exploring the benefits of what Seesaw has to offer because that was something the previous grade used, so we need to leverage their understanding of that platform to continue to move the instructional needle this year.

So, reaching out to teachers to figure out exactly what it is they need, from their perspective; adding the things I feel, or the instructional leadership team feels need to be implemented on a daily basis, merging those two; and then delivering PDs that are actionable and they can turn-key tomorrow to augment the quality of instruction taking place.

I have found through addressing a lot of the perceived deficits that teachers have, and that I have identified and shared, that is a great start to managing wellness during this trying time. I also try to make myself available to teachers via email, phone call, or virtual meetings through Google Meet, Zoom, or Cisco — whichever platform works best for them.

I’ve found my availability and willingness to help teachers talk through their concerns, whether they be personal or professional, have been essential to helping me support them, and to ensure through my support that students are effectively supported each and every day.

I’m finding in this time; we’re having more conversations about concerns about the wellbeing and safety of kids, the wellbeing and safety of educators, and then also their families as well. So I’m trying to manage all of that new normal, all while managing my household and making sure that I am readily available in the home to support my wife and my 2-year-old son’s development, as well.

How much more important has strengthening communication between parents and teachers become during this time?

BROWN: It’s paramount, to be honest because so much discord can be created through a lack of awareness. We really have leveraged the social media platforms we have available to us to just remain in constant contact. Each week, I facilitate a robo call to the parents of my school. And that’s also coupled with an email. I understand that in trying to utilize all the avenues of communication, for some families, an email is better.

So we have a platform, through Blackboard Connect, where we’re able to email, call and also post to Twitter. So it’s [a lot of] just trying to flood the media streams with information, so every parent is made aware through an avenue that works best for them.

As next year gets closer and you approach a transition to hybrid learning, how are you alleviating concerns families and your teachers and staff might have when it comes to safety?

BROWN: Prior to my communication, I think credit has to be given to [Prince George’s County Public Schools] CEO Dr. [Monica] Goldson and her executive cabinet for their reopening plan was shared with the community. The work of the executive cabinet and the CEO has eased my work as a principal.

My job, a lot of times, is just pointing people in the direction of the reopening plan and unpacking that. I think many of the concerns that have been made are allayed by our delaying of reopening, and then us coming in, in a hybrid setup, in February. So it was just making sure we pull out pieces of that plan, because it is quite robust, and give it to parents at times where they’re ready to receive it.

The first two weeks of school have been exceedingly challenging because they’re just getting accustomed to the new normal. And now that we’re there, I’ve started to unpack sections of our reopening plan to parents. I do my best in this time to respond to emails as quickly as I can to allay concerns about technology [and] about interactions in the virtual classroom.

I would imagine as we get closer to February, we start to have more conversations about what returning to school is going to look like. And then I think my primary job as the administrator is to ensure I keep my teachers and parents well-informed and make sure we can keep everyone’s concerns minimized by being transparent about what we’re doing to keep everybody safe.

If you had one piece of advice for other first-year principals going through the same experience as you, what would it be?

BROWN: That collaboration is key, and there’s power in bouncing ideas off of others. Establish a group of trusted individuals — some of them should be seasoned, and some should be [other] new principals — who will support you with this because you can’t do it on your own.

You need the support of others — their perspective, their thoughts on the process, looking at what the pitfalls may be down the road. You don’t want to make all of these decisions on your own. You want to rely on the wisdom of the individuals in your building and other leaders of schools within your district or county for success because there are so many decisions that have to be made at a moment’s notice.

While many schools are unique, there are similar concerns or issues that need to be addressed from school to school. They may just occur at a different time. The problem I’m experiencing today, another principal experienced last week, and they can share their successes and some of the mistakes that they made.

The only other thing I would say is to be accountable to who you are and your mission and vision for children, but give yourself some grace because we’re going to make mistakes. Nothing is perfect, but when you do make a mistake, stand on it and understand that your staff will always support you and will always be there for you if you are out in front and give them credit when they do things well, take most of the blame when things don’t go right, and then fix it behind those doors.

Understanding that we are a team, I am no more important than anyone else in this building. And if we all work together for the sake of children, things will always turn out the way they’re supposed to be.