I spent nearly ten years of my career as a Building Principal in two schools. I loved that phase of my career. I loved the camaraderie of a dedicated faculty willing to go the extra mile for the students who attended the two schools each distinguished as school-wide Title I programs. I loved the staff who challenged me as much as I challenged them to go above and beyond for the students, many of whom saw a particular faculty member as the single most important adult in their life. We collectively relished in the rewards of the efforts of energetic and enthusiastic parents who volunteered their time in the classroom and on special projects, such as raising funds to build a brand new playground. I loved when they challenged school policies and advocated for a better way, instead of the traditional way. I witnessed the school operating as the essential heartbeat of a community, caring about the student experience on all levels - academically, socially, and emotionally. The catalyst for every interaction, decision, project, challenge, and hope was delighting in the prospect that students would thrive, meeting their potential then, and well into the future. My principalship experience was rewarding, but with it came some difficult situations even in those ordinary times. However, compared to the role of today’s principal, it was a cakewalk.
Today’s principals are leading through one of the greatest and most sustained periods of disruption ever in education, and society as a whole. With the backdrop of distracting and highly charged discussions about contact tracing, mask mandates, mandated vaccines for staff and students alike raging on, principals are pivotal actors in the restoration of “school” as an essential operating function of the community. Talented and connected principals have a keen understanding that their school communities have changed and are measuring and marking the ways that their leadership and involvement must change to align to the needs of the community, especially the learners attending the school.
They are navigating each moment without a playbook, the ability to draw on past practices or history, a clearly defined framework or a particular set of standards, or a roadmap on what to expect around the next turn. Yet, it's the principal at the local level who people look to for answers. They look to the principal who is the leader of the place where the community entrusts their children to be cared for and educated every school day. They want assurance that things are going well and that there is an aggressive plan in place to “pick up” where things left off in March of 2020 and accelerate students to where they should have been had there not been a COVID-19 disruption to school.
Not only does the school community focus and depend on the principal leader, but so does the central office. The principal, traditionally in the pinch position, is the central player in leading the charge to define the new normal in response to the impacts felt by the hearts, minds, and souls of the students, staff, parents, and the school community, at large. Neither the central office nor the community can achieve what each desire without the principal’s time, commitment, energy, and dedication. The principal is the intermediary - the intervenor, interceder, mediator, go-between, liaison, link person, peacemaker, or agent according to Oxford Languages. A savvy principal is guided by four Cs (communication, collaboration, coordination, and compassion) as they move the needle at the school level for many district solutions and programs funded by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) designed to restore losses and unfinished learning - as well as tend to the social and emotional needs of students and staff alike. All of this requires high-energy engagement on the heels of one of the most physically demanding and emotionally depleting periods in the history of education.
McKinsey and Company foreshadowed the work ahead for K-12 in a September 2020 article, “Reimagining a More Equitable and Resilient K-12 Education System.” As I revisit this graphic which piqued my interest at the time of publication, it represents the work led by principals at the school level now.
In my role as Senior Vice-President for District Solutions for Littera Education, I have the privilege of engaging with principals and selected members of their leadership teams. I am amazed at how their dialogue of concerns and questions follows this pyramid trajectory toward student success. Their school values shine through in these conversations. There is an urgency to identify with a high degree of validity the current state of their students academically, socially, and emotionally. They signal the need to re-engage in accelerated high-quality instruction by investing in structures that work rather than resting on systems and structures of the past out of convenience. They stress a theme of supporting the teachers’ classroom efforts through innovative design while also creating the space necessary for teams to work collaboratively to improve the likelihood of increases in student achievement, especially for the most vulnerable. Their discussion with the Littera team centers on sticking to the restoration and mastery of foundational and prerequisite skills necessary for student success now and in the future.
It is these operating principles that have led districts and school principals to Littera Education tutoring. Inherent in Littera’s innovative approach is exactly the operating strategies principals want for their students and staff including:
- Tutor Assignment: Littera offers the ability to match tutoring talent to students in a 1:1 setting or in the settings of one tutor to up to eight students based on their instructional and social-emotional needs. The assignment process can be a randomized match based on a set of predetermined criteria or an intentional tutor to student(s) match.
- Focused Whole Child Approach: Littera enables flexible program designs by ensuring students can stay with one tutor over long periods of time for relationship building and social-emotional learning support or the program can be designed for shorter periods of tutoring and a change of tutor based on students’ identified needs and the talent of the tutor.
- Expanded Time and Attention: The number and length of sessions each week over the course of the tutoring program can be differentiated and intentionally assigned based on the student’s instructional and social-emotional needs.
- Customized Learning Environment: Littera tutoring can facilitate online and face-to-face learning experiences within the school day or as an extension of the school day, enabling the school district and families to define optimal learning times for tutoring.
- Focused and Intentional Curriculum Support: Littera connects the tutoring sessions to the classroom experience by providing the option for tutors to plug into the school system’s core curriculum resources.
- Shared Ownership: Littera’s platform promotes design options that connect the tutor, the classroom teacher, and parents in supporting the student’s needs.
Littera’s platform is built to support tutoring programs with equity as a core design principle. To meet the needs of diverse populations, including special education and ESOL students, Littera enables strategic program design implementation.
I applaud the districts that involve principals in the design and implementation of new district-sponsored initiatives early in the acquisition and planning processes. These districts understand the power that can be leveraged when they use talented principals in the beginning stages of planning innovative approaches in the context of now. Districts tap the influencers, the principals who aren’t afraid to leave the comfort zone of reverting back to what may or may not have worked from a different time in education. It is evident that these districts respect the role and responsibilities of the principal leaders - the ones that can build and sustain the flywheel necessary to create greatness in outcomes. In “Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great,” Jim Collins points out that “great organizations understand the difference between their core values and purpose (which almost never change), and operating strategies and cultural practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).” This is all the more reason principals must be engaged from the beginning to determine the path forward. They have a large stake in the outcomes. Principals must, in turn, articulate the purpose and value of each operating strategy to their school communities as a means of developing the momentum of the flywheel, intent on achieving greatness in outcomes in a time of great change and even greater demands. This is a tall, but necessary order for the school principal.
As I reflect on these many conversations, what comes to mind is familiar advice being lived out loud by these principals. Advice credited to Theodore Roosevelt with versions of the message used by Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy, and others. School principals are clearly “doing what they can, with what they have, where they are.” They are taking the mission of creating innovative schools seriously in response to new and different problems. For this, I am grateful, as the future walks the halls of their school buildings every single school day.