When St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar announced to her school community on March 12, 2020, that the school was sending students home due to the growing spread of the coronavirus in New York, there was one question she couldn’t answer: when they would be back. The letter she sent—like ones all our principals sent—indicated that her school building would be closed through at least March 20, eight days later. That eight days, of course, turned into several weeks, and then the remaining months of last school year.
“That bothered me a lot at the time,” Jessica admits, “the number of times I had to say the plan has changed.” Like most teachers and principals, Jess’s work has long revolved around having the answers to questions—about math and language arts, about school practices—and certainly about basics like the calendar. Indeed, she reflects that in many ways, she defined leadership last March in this way: “somebody asks you a question, you have the answer.”
COVID has changed so much in our lives. This week, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the spring schools shut-down, there’s one group who have been the linchpin of navigating our school communities through those changes: our principals, who have found themselves shifting how they think of leadership as they meet the needs of this time.
In the summer, Mount Carmel-Holy Rosary principal Molly Smith shared insights she’d gained during months of leading in uncertainty—such as the importance of focusing on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. Now, Jessica shares four more lessons learned—ones that help us appreciate and nuance our understanding of just what this year has demanded of all our school leaders.
“Having the answers gave me confidence,” Jessica says; “that’s what I thought would help people respect me as a leader.” But as the pandemic and social justice protests rolled through the Bronx and Harlem last spring—as the school plunged into remote learning and then resumed in-person in September—she found herself repeating an uncomfortable phrase that doesn’t fit at all with that idea of leadership: “I don’t know yet.”
As she has kept leading through ever-shifting uncertainties, though, Jessica says, “I found that people respect you for honesty and humility, more than for having all the answers. A lot of my job,” she realizes now, “is to be humbly candid.”
The challenge of not being able to tell people the answers they wanted to hear was particularly apparent when it came time to prepare teachers to return for in-person learning back in September, at a time when evidence that opening schools could be done safely was available but not as ample as it is today. “People worried about getting COVID,” she says. “If you have a heart, you can’t look at someone feeling that way and dismiss what they are feeling. As a leader, though, you have to balance acknowledging that with not just jumping into what people first assume the solutions are.”
Candor, combined with competence and caring, became Jessica’s go-to dispositions. She summarizes her approach this way: “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure our school is the safest I can possibly get it, and when something happens, I’m going to tell you.” That combination has sustained the school through seven months of in-person learning.
A Clear Picture of Excellence
Such candor is only effective when leaders are using it to lead toward a clear, compelling, shared picture of strong learning and community. But there again, this year has posed particular challenges. “How do you have a vision,” Jessica asks, “when you don’t know?” A seasoned educator, Jessica didn’t know at this time last year what effective remote teaching entailed, or how to get in-person three-year-olds to keep masks on all day, or how to manage the eerie silence that children who have been socially isolating for months bring with them back into the building.
“I know what school is supposed to feel like, though,” Jessica shares. “Even in pandemic, you sense when it is not quite there, and you pivot to help fix that.” In this way, Jessica’s vision of excellence embodies the spirit of Nurse Darlene, one of our team’s favorite profiles in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better. A highly effective NICU nurse, Darlene is able to detect small warning signs that other nurses miss because she has a robust, detailed picture of what a healthy infant is like, and she absorbs individual data points in light of that holistic picture. A similarly full, unwavering picture of what a school is supposed to feel like drives the work of effective principals and provides a steady, fixed point for whole communities to spot their efforts around, even when the pandemic’s surprises may threaten to knock everyone off balance.
Jessica estimates that she spent an hour and half to two hours a day last March just communicating with families and teachers. “It gave people confidence from the get-go that we were telling them everything we knew.” And while much of that communication involved fact-sharing, such as long Facebook Live conversations in which Jessica strove to answer literally hundreds of parent comments and questions—it also involved her and her staff doing bedtime stories on Zoom lasts spring for families who could join in, and coming up with lots of reasons for families to share pictures on social media.
“I went a little crazy with remote morning assemblies,” she admits. “Let’s pretend to travel to India! Let’s make maracas, have a dance party!” Her school community joined in prayer as well, even when limited technology meant that they did services like an Easter vigil prayer asynchronously. “People feel connected to the school,” she says simply.
Families really did make maracas and share videos, creating a school-wide dance party.
Even now, twelve months later, the challenges persist. And Jessica has taken time to acknowledge that for herself. “There have been lots of times this year when I haven’t felt hopeful or optimistic, and it took a lot of talks with myself to give myself permission to feel human.” But she says, “as a leader, you have to fight through that and be someone who represents a hopeful attitude.”
To us as a network of Catholic educators, this seems like the very idea of free will that has been a cornerstone of Christian thinking since St. Augustine. To act with more hope than one may spontaneously feel—this is the very essence of faith, a challenge for all Christians in this time and a particular one for principals as faith leaders in their communities.
Even as she names these dispositions she’s relied on, Jessica admits that she, her dean Fiona Chalmers, and her Business Operations Manager Emily Ackerman “feel like a bunch of crazies three out of five days of the week.” Yet she watches as the school’s re-enrollments come in fast and plentiful, and she sees that “wow; even after a pandemic…they trust us.” Especially amid a pandemic, it seems, candid leadership in pursuit of a doggedly optimistic vision is exactly what parents crave.