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Leading amid Uncertainty

The challenges facing American school leaders right now are matched only by the uncertainties. Leaders at Catholic schools serving large numbers of working class families carry added burdens: faith compels them to do more, by serving whole families and functioning as communities of faith in the absence of traditional parish life; yet parents’ job insecurity challenges many schools’ finances and the very viability of some of our institutions.

The lessons school principals are learning during this time have implications for leadership more broadly, and for education even after we return to “normal” in-person schooling. The reflections of one Partnership principal–Molly Smith–provide insights into the art of leading amid uncertainty, and may stimulate further reflection.

Molly Smith has served as principal of Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School in East Harlem since 2017. A graduate of Fordham and an alum of PLACE, a nationally recognized Catholic teacher service corps in Los Angeles, Molly returned to New York to dedicate her time to serving schools in Harlem. She taught at St. Ann’s School in East Harlem and served as assistant principal in the charter sector before leading Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary. 

What did you learn about leadership this spring?

It was jarring at first, for teachers and for me, because we are so used to being able to control students’ environments when they are in our schools–what they are hearing, where they are going–and we lost all that control. Everyone was in such different circumstances–some kids had parents who were still working, some working from home, some in crisis–and those things that are usually in our control were gone.

So the biggest lesson, not just about leadership but about education in general, was: have a clear sense of what you can control and what you cannot. Those things you can control, do that with full effort to the best of your ability. That’s more important than focusing on the variables you can’t control.

So we shifted to thinking of the things that we could most control to help students and families, rather than trying to replicate a classroom in hundreds of different homes across the city.

What did you feel like you did a good job of controlling?

A lot of our teachers tried to give a variety of access points. Our Kindergarten teacher, Chyrise Raysor, is a great example: She had live sessions; pre-recorded lessons parents could play at any time; office hours where families could access her via email; and even baking videos. And for some of her students who were really struggling being out of the classroom, she did one-on-one sessions, particularly so they could keep practicing phonics and foundational reading skills. For kids who were thriving doing this work independently, they could use the pre-recorded lessons and then join the live instruction for social interaction. For Kindergarten, it’s mostly parents managing learning, so she gave them options to keep their children engaged, and it met students where they were.

There were also lots of challenges to keeping students on the same pace. So I think we did a good job of being sensitive to the different timelines families are in; some of our students were still finishing fourth quarter work after the year formally ended. For students who were able to keep up, we kept due dates. But we made every attempt to be responsive. Our families really appreciated that. By not adding one more stressor, families really felt like we were on their side.

What do you understand better now about leading in uncertainty than you did on March 12 (the day before we transitioned to distance learning)?

Something I learned–and that this experience amplified–is something we know to be true about kids and adults: if someone is in a challenging time emotionally, it makes it much harder for them to be successful academically or professionally.

Particularly in the beginning, when so little was known about COVID but the spread here in New York was so rapid, some staff members were really struggling emotionally. And all of distance teaching was new to our teachers; just learning how to use Google classroom was stressful. Our instinct when someone is late to a meeting or turning in lesson plans–particularly when you are doing big changes and you need everyone’s attention and effort–well, your instinct is to follow up and tell them what they need to change to be accountable.

But we had staff members who had parents who were sick, some who were alone, others who were high-risk, and some who were at home with their own kids. I reminded myself that it is important to put people first–not just the kids and families, but teachers and staff, and to let the struggle be the first thing we talked about, not the fact that they were five minutes late to a meeting.

When we are educating students, we are thinking about the whole child; with teachers and staff, we also had to remind ourselves that they are whole people. Their work is important, and it’s essential that they do their best, but if we are not understanding that their needs might not be met in other ways, then that amplifies a challenge, rather than lessening it. Even if they are still going through a crisis, just being seen or heard helps them refocus.

What leadership decisions did the Partnership network take on, what did you keep, and how did that work out?

Some of the roles the network took on–identifying the teaching points and materials, making sure we had tech–enabled us as principals to do more of the people work. In school, we are divided between academics, people management, and community support. During closure, the “people needs” were so much higher–so as a principal, being able to take a step back from academics enabled me and the other leaders to lean in harder on teacher, student and parent support. We still did a lot with academic implementation, but the network leading on content and teaching direction freed up a lot of time to work more directly with our community.

The COVID relief was also just huge for our families. Within days of closing, I had emails from twenty parents who had lost their jobs, so being able to pause tuition enabled the bulk of our families not to have to worry about educational expenses and focus on food and shelter. And for families who were dealing with job loss or sickness, they were able to support their families. That was crucial.

How do you think you may lead differently moving forward, even in “regular” in-person instruction, as a result of this spring? 

I’ll probably be able to see that more clearly next year. We’re still in it now. But this has pushed me to have to look at some aspects of teacher effectiveness and student learning differently.

I also notice how many of our students who have struggles in a traditional classroom had moments of thriving in distance learning. So I have insights now into more ways to help them thrive in the traditional settings–which still has a lot to give them in terms of socialization and preparation for high school. But the more flexible time frames and the online learning platforms really helped some students thrive, so I think we’ll be more intentional about accommodations for some students.

For my own leadership: I struggled this transition to remote learning to be OK with taking things slow–it is OK to be really intentionally paced.

When you are making a change, it’s not just the logistics that are different; people need to change. So I had to resist the pressure to make big changes when I could and instead make small, incremental changes that give people time to adjust. That can be really beneficial and can help you as a leader learn how to manage best.

One of the challenges of this spring is responding in new ways–and at a distance from teachers and students–to long-standing racial injustices. What are you learning that is important for Catholic educational leaders to consider?

As leaders, especially for me as a White leader of a community that is predominantly comprised of families of color, there is nothing more important that I can do in this time than show up for them, listen, unequivocally show my support, and follow that up with action.

One of the clear messages that is coming out now is that these biases are in everything; as educators, it’s in our curriculum, and that’s one powerful way we can take an action step. For example, we don’t teach our students about the real history; we teach them a carefully crafted history that avoids some of the more complex and painful parts of our history, and that robs all our students of being truly informed and educated.

We as a network are thinking critically about what action steps like these need to be. This isn’t new for our families. So taking action steps is going to be essential to making systemic change this time, because this movement has had attention before and then been put on the back burner.

Finally, what saint or holy person inspires your work, and why?

My senior year of college, I went on a trip to El Salvador and took a course on liberation theology. I had an opportunity to stand in Oscar Romero’s home and in the church where he was assassinated saying Mass, and it was a powerful experience of someone who was so passionate about his message he was willing to die for it.

Continuing to speak out in El Salvador about the oppression of the poor; to call out the torture and execution of people who were speaking out too…I have continued to be inspired by his heart for justice. For me, I am such a feminist that to have my deepest faith connection to a male has always been a little uncomfortable! But I have always felt a deep connection to him.

If the opportunity for a few moments of quiet reflection emerges, we may all benefit from reflecting on the same questions Molly did, like:

  • What did you learn about leadership this spring?
  • How do you think you may lead differently going forward as a result of the challenges of this year?
  • What are you learning about how to respond to racial injustices?

And may we draw strength from holy men and women who have come before us, leading through the challenges of their own times to inspire us all. 


Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.