Starting THIS School year: Perspectives of school leaders

It’s true — we are past the initial COVID crisis mode. And, yet, we aren’t quite back to normal. For school leaders, this in-between reality has presented a unique set of challenges.

Following are some of the biggest issues school leaders in JNTP’s Administrator Support program say they are grappling with this year. These leaders are part of JNTP’s two-year program for early-career Jewish day school administrators. To date, JNTP has worked with over 100 administrators from schools across denominations and across the country, either one-on-one or as part of cohorts.

Staffing. It’s never particularly easy to find the right people to fill every role in a school, but it’s now becoming almost impossible to do so in many places, especially outside of the New York metropolitan area. Administrators report that their schools are short-staffed, with teaching and assistant teaching spots remaining unfilled even this late into the school year. Some faculty may have left due to COVID vulnerability, while others may not be willing to teach in a school that does — or does not — require masking. In a bind, administrators are having to step in to teach, which removes them from their administrative duties and has them teaching without adequate preparation. The result? Administrators are less available to support teachers and help students and families who may need more attention. They are busy managing the daily needs of the school and don’t have time to plan or think beyond the immediates. Simply put, administrators are tending to more classroom details than they should be. Everyone loses when the right faculty isn’t in place at the start of a school year.

COVID policies. As we’ve all experienced over the past 20 months, there are competing and passionately strong opinions around COVID. School leaders have shared with us that they feel challenged to balance different constituencies across the school community who may fall on opposing sides of the masking and vaccine debates, while also following government mandates. In some cases, school medical committees along with lay leadership have implemented defined school policies around masking, quarantine, travel, and other COVID-related issues. But in some schools, policies and protocols may not be entirely clear, which can lead to confusion and more strong reactions that need to be managed by school leaders. School leaders say that they often find themselves having to respond, “I don’t make the rules,” to upset parents and teachers, which can undermine their authority. With many conversations focused on these policies, the critical relationships between parents and administration can also be strained and damaged, creating further challenges. 

Setting boundaries. One of the hardest parts of teaching and learning last year was that teachers and administrators had to be ‘on’ and accessible to their constituents at almost all times of the day and night. In cases of video classes, families had access to teachers’ and administrators’ personal spaces as well. For those with their own families at home, there was little time for self-care during ‘crisis mode’—both in their professional roles and as parents. This year, teachers and administrators need to take steps to re-establish normal boundaries and protect their personal time. Our participants have shared that this is hard for all involved when everyone is used to more fluid and increased access all the time…and when students, teachers and administrators alike are craving and excited about renewed in-person social interaction.

Social-emotional needs. It’s probably safe to say that everyone in every school community suffered last year one way or another when it came to their social and emotional needs. This year, students, teachers and administrators (and parents!) are feeling hopeful and excited about being back in person, but we are hearing from the field that there also is a sense of caution and apprehension about the future. Everyone is experiencing fatigue around wearing masks and/or policing mask wearing. There may be morale issues for teachers who have been overworked and, with staffing challenges, continue to lack the support they are used to and need. Teachers may also be missing colleagues who left due to COVID. Finally, there may be students and faculty who were truly negatively affected by the pandemic experience and continue to suffer emotionally.

What administrators are doing to address this year’s challenges

Administrators in our program express that they have been working to motivate and excite students and faculty to propel the year forward. Some of our participating schools invested in painting and updating spaces over the summer so that the buildings feel fresh and new. Many administrators share that their schools had special morale-building events to kick off the school year like concerts, trips, parties, creative programs, special lunches and so on. One school even featured a “Save Your Sanity” party for teachers, with a featured speaker and a festive atmosphere, including exchanging “gifts” of favorite teaching strategies. Other schools used the opportunity of a fresh start after the intensity of last year to introduce new procedures and programs, including one school that shortened the length of its school day and is piloting un-timed testing for all students. 

Ultimately, even with this year’s challenges, our administrators have kicked off this year with flexibility, empathy and cautious optimism for a slow return to normal.