Imagine receiving a phone call that you have been appointed as a first-year principal in the midst of a global pandemic. You quickly realize that while your school leadership degree program has prepared you for a traditional “brick and mortar” experience, you are soon to embark on uncharted waters.
In July 2020, alongside seven principal colleagues, I accepted the responsibility of leading a school. I joined the ranks of a new generation of principals affectionately known as “pandemic principals.” Our experiences would be unlike any of our veteran colleagues: leading our first staff meeting from behind a computer screen, creating a virtual “lunch bunch” to build relationships with students, and building a positive school climate through shared virtual experiences.
Over the past three years, a wave of new principals has emerged within school leadership across the country. These principals have worked diligently to support students academically through tiered instruction based on their specific learning needs and behaviorally through the promotion of social emotional learning strategies. Yet these new principals continue to experience the aftermath of the pandemic and, in order to thrive, need differentiated support through strong mentorship, collaborative spaces, and opportunities to be creative.
Mentorship has always played an integral part in supporting new principals within school districts. However, district leaders should strategically consider the pairing of mentor principals with new principals who are beginning their journey during the pandemic era.
As a first-year pandemic principal, I often observed how my assigned mentor responded to challenges, adjusted to changes, and maintained a passion for coaching me as a new school leader while facing unprecedented challenges herself. Her leadership inspired me to adopt a solution-based approach to school leadership — even in the midst of a crisis.
New principals in the pandemic era benefit from having strong mentors who value the importance of supporting their mentees and being a sounding board for new and innovative ideas. From their first day of principalship, these new principals are tasked with closing the various learning, equity, and social-emotional gaps that resulted from the two years of the pandemic. This responsibility is demanding and stressful, and — to a new principal — could lead to expedited burnout. New principals of the pandemic should be paired with an effective mentor who is willing to listen, share, and guide them along the journey.
Principals have a natural tendency to foster informal and formal professional learning networks (PLNs) as a way to create collaborative spaces for sharing ideas. On July 1, 2020, my cohort of fellow first-year principals and I quickly formed a texting group for quick communication, reminders, and updates. And after one month as principals, it was evident that we needed each other to endure the road ahead of us. Our texting app evolved into regular virtual meetings and coffee chats that focused on problems of practice and how we were navigating the demands of school leadership in a pandemic.
Whether informal or formal, collaborative spaces with colleagues can support new principals in thinking creatively and critically about increasing student achievement and promoting positive behaviors within their buildings. School districts can provide these new principals with a structured setting that encourages them to brainstorm solutions to challenges that they are facing within their respective schools. These spaces would also benefit from the presence of district leaders, who can steer new principals in the right direction.
Opportunities for creativity
From day one, new principals appointed in the pandemic era were placed in situations where ‘thinking outside the box’ became necessary. During those first two years of principalship, I was challenged to create ways of bringing a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy to a pandemic setting. Our district leadership created opportunities for new principals to take risks, try out new ideas, and pivot if the ideas did not work. Under district guidance, I felt empowered to utilize my strengths, passions, and emerging leadership style to facilitate schoolwide events and implement new initiatives that supported academic and behavioral success during a crisis.
New principals benefit from serving in a school district that creates opportunities for creativity. These spaces are even more effective when principals have room to experiment through trial and error while also having the opportunity to reflect and improve. District leaders should capitalize on new principals’ strengths and interests to adapt towards a 21st-century learning environment.
The pandemic has influenced our thinking, creativity, and responses to addressing the various needs in our educational system today. It is important to recognize and value the unique perspectives and the shared experiences of principals who have only led in the midst of a pandemic. This new generation of principals will continue to pave the way for future aspiring principals, and it is important that we provide them with the tools they need to be successful.