Now that our 2020 PIC Summer Institute programming has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on the past few months. The end of June is usually a bittersweet time for our PIC team. Typically, we have just wrapped up our busiest few weeks where we host ten days of programming. Those ten days of Summer Institute are a time for PIC principals to deeply engage in learning while students are away and there are fewer campus distractions. When Summer Institute comes to a close, our team is usually grateful for successful sessions (and candidly a break to recover from the long days!) But we are also saddened that June marks the end of our monthly sessions and we will have to wait until the fall to see and work with our principals again. I know I can speak for our whole team when I say that our time in workshop sessions with the principals is what we live for. We love seeing the connections that the participants make with each other, how eagerly they absorb the content presented, and the enthusiasm with which they take their learning back to their campuses.
However, this past Summer Institute was different for obvious reasons. When COVID-19 led to school closures and stay-at-home orders, our team swiftly made changes to our delivery model and curriculum. We knew we could not execute our original plan, because the world around us had dramatically changed. We needed to present topics that provided comfort and strategic guidance at a time when work and life felt out of control. Then, in late May and early June, the social unrest and racial equity protests created another critical issue to address. Our leaders were navigating a pivotal moment in history and likely one of the most challenging of their careers. Now that Summer Institute has ended, I am proud to say that PIC not only delivered a quality learning experience through a virtual platform, we more importantly, adapted to meet the complex needs of the leaders serving our high-need communities.
First, we ensured that the principals’ social and emotional needs were supported by giving them time to reflect on their own mindfulness and emotional energy. As we often say at PIC, “So goes the leader, so goes the organization.” After end of year focus groups with our leaders, we heard how much stress they were all carrying as well as a lack of time and space to process their own emotions. The school re-entry ambiguity they were juggling was exacerbated by the emotional toll of missing in person connections with their staff and students. It was imperative for the principals, particularly our newest cohort, to have a time and safe space for reflection on their own well-being. This included an opportunity to look inward, to name their personal values, and to become re-inspired by called them to this work. At the end of the day, this work is hard, and principals deserve an opportunity to “put their oxygen mask on first,” so they can support the social-emotional needs of their staff and students.
Second, we doubled down on our design thinking curriculum so principals could utilize the human-centered design process to create re-entry plans for the fall. All principals have the enormous task ahead of designing and re-engineering daily processes, like lunch time, hallway transitions, and bus pick-ups and drop-offs in a post-COVID world. However, our design thinking sessions reminded them that at the core of all these processes, principals have the more important challenge of designing a safe and supportive environment in which each daily process exists. The school building is often a haven for children, especially when their home lives might present more toxic and scary realities. However post-COVID, it will be even more important for the school environment (whether virtual or in-person) to continue as a place of refuge and safety. This has become much more complex and nuanced, so principals needed time to think about the human needs to create a safe space for children and families. While we could not resolve all the challenges, we are humbled that principals found the design thinking process and time to work with peers as an invaluable opportunity to start chipping away at the challenge and design a re-entry that puts their students and families at the heart of the plan.
Lastly, we focused on the transformative leadership skills that are needed to guide campuses through so much change. We have always known change management to be a critical skill for school leaders. Now, life is throwing constant uncertainty and change to our principals, sometimes on a daily basis. These are not typical “school improvement changes” like integrating a new school wide software or curriculum, which alone can be large and complex initiatives. But rather, principals are juggling massive overhauls to the education system and campus processes, and even had to consider a world in which they might not see their students in person anytime soon. To support this need, we adapted our session and focused on leading change in crisis. We heard from principals that this was critically timely, providing tactical and strategic guidance for navigating and supporting staff through change management skills and processes focused on leading in crisis.
After Summer Institute, I am grateful for the time to reflect on the implications going forward. On behalf of the PIC team, we are eager to embrace the challenges ahead, because as “designers”, we always see challenges as opportunities. We are actively re-designing our 2020-2021 curriculum to adjust to our principals’ needs as we continue to uphold our value of providing and adapting curriculum to be human-centered. Now we embrace the challenge to go even further in a post-COVID world to also support our leaders as they build more racially equitable schools. We see this moment as an opportunity to re-define leadership development for urban school leaders. We are inspired by this article from Transcend and are committed to pushing our content and programming to new levels. We seek to provide a learning experience that empowers our talented leaders to use this pivotal time in history to re-invent their schools, not just to respond and recover. In the coming months, our team will continue to lead focus groups with principals and research new curriculum topics, so that our principals will be supported in leading even more equitable and extraordinary schools.
Please stay tuned as we share more later this summer, and please reach out if you have ideas or recommendations for our programming… we welcome our partner and peer insights and expertise!
PIC Executive Director