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Framework Leadership: Lessons from Pandemic Principals

Recently, Kent Ingle, president of Southeastern University, and Michael Steiner, the university’s chief of staff, interviewed Partnership superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee for Framework Leadership, a podcast on principle-driven leadership.

Their wide-ranging conversation covered a number of topics concerning leadership and education. But the heart of their talk comes from their discussion of leading during the pandemic. We’re sharing here a few of our favorite reflections from their chat, moments that highlight how our principals and other leaders continue to purse that mission of helping their students and communities thrive as the pandemic challenges continue. For the full conversation, click here.

This was a major leadership challenge. What are some of the things you did to tackle these changes, help your systems, and help your schools adapt? And what were some of the principles you have taken away as you’ve had time to reflect?

Well, I never knew when I went into education that I was going to have to be an amateur epidemiologist.

It was a very humbling moment for school leaders; we always knew and said we couldn’t do it alone, but when it came to COVID, we for-sure couldn’t do it alone. So you had to make sure that you were reaching out not just to health and safety experts but other leaders across the field to inform decision making, because there was no playbook for this.

The second thing is that you had to spend time really building trust within your community. This is where being a faith-based institution set us up well for success, because we are community-based and community-driven. We had a foundation of fairly strong trust; it was tested this [past] year for sure, so we had to be very, very intentional about making sure that we were transparent about the decisions we were making–not just the what but the why. We had to make sure that we were communicating, because that’s really the only way to build that trust and maintain that trust. And if we made a mistake, we had to be ready to really own it and nimbly adapt on a dime.

Is there anything you wish you could go back and change about how you handled the pandemic as a leader?

Oh, goodness…If I could go back and really think through everything, I’m sure there are a lot of mistakes we made and a lot that we would change with the 20-20 hindsight we have now. In general, though, I feel really proud of our communities—the courage that our principals and teachers showed. In August, 2020, we made a commitment; we said we were going to open five days a week for in-person instruction; and our teachers and leaders were rightly fearful. When I think back on the courage that they showed this year, it is deeply moving, and deeply humbling.

In the midst of this pandemic, how did your principals inspire courage among the people they were leading?

I give all credit to the principals and teachers. They were really the front lines, and they did yeoman’s work to make sure that our schools were serving our kids and communities. There are two things our principals did: when we made a decision, we solicited a lot of input, but then we made decisions—and they were very decisive. That was actually really important. In a moment of so much uncertainty, I do think there is a point when you have to draw a line in the sand and say, hey, we’re going to take this leap of faith. We’re going to do this.

The second thing that they did was they put their money where their mouth is. They did everything that they asked their teams to do. And that was really important as well.

How can school leaders inspire excellence with their students? 

We are so fortunate; we have some of the best teachers ever. When I think of real models of that, when I think of teachers in our network who exemplify excellence, a number of teachers come to mind. One—Zoraida Hernandez, who just retired this year after I think it was 47 years teaching—she saw it all. She was a model of bringing out excellence in her students.

She did it a couple of ways. One, she got to know every single one of her students—made the time. Knew them by name, obviously, but knew their families, knew things about them as people, not just as students.

Two, just having the fire and that passion for the content. She taught history and literature. I had the privilege of observing her over the course of seven years…[every time] when I left, I wanted to know what she was reading, and wanted to read it myself.

Third, which she also excelled at: You’ve got to believe that excellence is possible for your students. Every kid who walked into her classroom—she knew that they could do great things, she knew they were made for greatness. And she drew it out of them, and it was inspiring.

What are the keys to building a positive culture within an organization?

The right mix of hubris and humility. You need to know that excellence is possible. You need to have a vision of something great. But you need to have the humility to be building a team who is going to achieve that with and for you.

If you had to choose one characteristic for educators, what would that be?

Love of kids.

What advice do you give to new teachers during their first year?

Seek out those veterans in your building—the Zoraida Hernandezes in your building—and understand why they have stayed with it, what they love about it, and what actually makes them so effective in the classroom. There’s a lot we can learn, particularly about community connections, from the veterans in our building.


You can find the full Framework Leadership podcast here