Leading and Learning in a Remote Setting

By Thomas C. Murray
Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.

The pandemic of 2020 has amplified at least one thing that school and district leaders have always known: Expect the unexpected. 

As the pandemic began to scale up in March, superintendents were tasked to quickly weigh their options while prioritizing the safety and well-being of the students in their district. As governors coast to coast began to mandate school closures, principals continued to work tirelessly with their teams, leveraging all possible resources to redesign the educational experience, to ensure students got fed, and to get connected.

While some districts were forced to pause completely due to a lack of needed resources, many dived headfirst into “emergency remote learning.” Initially, social media feeds were filled with memes from overwhelmed parents showing appreciation for educators and their work. That appreciation was warranted, since educators again rose to the challenge and redesigned all that they’ve ever known—seemingly overnight.

As the uncertainties continued, however, frustration with the remote student experience and questions about its effectiveness began to arise. With the focus shifting toward the new school year, some parents demanded a reopening and in-person experience, while others felt uncomfortable sending their children back to a school site. Most districts began with some combination of the two scenarios.

Lessons From Cyber Startup 

After spending much of my career as a principal at the elementary and secondary levels, I moved to a school district office in Pennsylvania to become director of technology and cyber education. The year before my arrival, the district had launched a K–12 cyber education program allowing students to take any combination of virtual (remote) and face-to-face courses at the secondary level, or if they preferred, receive their education in a fully remote setting alongside a parent “learning coach” for those families who preferred this option at the elementary level.

The district had been losing students who preferred remote learning every year, to competing schools with more advanced cyber programs. And when the students left, so, too, did their funding. By law in Pennsylvania, the district has to pay for each of these students to attend an online virtual school of their choice, causing massive budget restraints for the sending or home district. External circumstances forced us to alter our mindset and systemically change how we provide a student learning experience.

Ten years later, we’re having similar conversations. This time, though, it’s not just a few public schools trying to look at things differently; it’s an entire world of educators being forced to do so. As districts continue to implement some form of remote learning, either full time or in a hybrid model, school leaders must remain very intentional in their decision-making and focused on their priorities.

As I reflect on leading a remote program and the many failures—and successes—we had along the way, I’ll share some things to consider as you move forward in supporting your students and staff.

Tip No. 1: Ensure equity in access. Remote learning doesn’t create equity issues; it amplifies the disparities and inequities that have always existed. Remote learning is not feasible when those on the other side of the experience don’t have or can’t access the needed tools or resources. COVID-19 brought equity in opportunity and equity in access into the spotlight—something that was long overdue.

Principals must help develop action plans for learners who don’t have connectivity at home, a problem that has long been referred to as “the homework gap.” Simply asking families whether they have a device and access to the internet at home is not enough; asking families whether they have enough devices and sufficient bandwidth to support all learners in the household simultaneously is a different question.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that children can access whatever it is we ask them to do outside of our school walls. Gazing into the gap does not support the learner, but finding ways to demolish the gap can. Check out EveryoneOn (www.everyoneon.org) to help families look at low-cost options in your region.

Tip No. 2: Ensure equity in opportunity. Although access and opportunity issues often go hand in hand, principals—as the instructional leaders of their buildings—must continually evaluate which students are receiving what instructional experiences. Comparing relevant data (enrollment in higher-level courses, discipline, etc.) to school demographics can point to great experiences for some and poor experiences for others. If you aren’t intentional about remote learning, it can exacerbate experience gaps. That’s why we need to shift the conversation from achievement gaps to opportunity gaps for those we serve. 

Tip No. 3: Lead with empathy. Never forget that many of your students have very different life experiences from yours. Things you take for granted might be things your students long for at home. Leading with an “empathy lens” is always vital as a principal, but helping your teachers do the same in a remote setting is a key to success, especially when dealing with issues around attendance, grading, and homework.

Tip No. 4: Keep privacy at the forefront. Stay-at-home orders turned students’ homes into classrooms last spring, not only amplifying equity-​related issues, but also increasing privacy concerns. In the first months of the pandemic, educational technology companies quickly launched free services to support teaching and learning, while simultaneously raising additional privacy concerns about access to student information.

With remote learning being a critical component to most return-to-school strategies this fall, school districts must have a detailed plan and provide the training necessary to help educators be successful—and safe—in a remote learning environment. Regardless of the details of the district’s plan, remote learning must be conducted in a manner that respects students’ personal information and complies with the many privacy and data security laws and regulations impacting how education technology should be used. Bottom line: If you are not sure, ask for help!

Tip No. 5: Lead with heart. “Social distancing” is likely the most inaccurate phrase to come out of the pandemic. We need physical distancing, but we must be even more social and provide more opportunities for connection than ever before. As in a face-to-face classroom, social-emotional learning must remain at the core of remote learning.

Teachers should work diligently to make time for students to connect informally with peers, and principals should model these interactions with their staff. Every staff meeting is an opportunity for principals to model the type of instructional experiences we’re looking for staff members to lead in their in-person and remote classrooms.

Tip No. 6: Take care of yourself. Educators—especially principals—are people who give and give and give, sometimes until they have nothing left. Doing whatever it takes for the kids doesn’t mean that you run over yourself in the process. Taking care of you is not selfish; it’s necessary.

Educators working in a remote environment can easily find themselves working many more hours than a traditional school day. Emails, questions, and assignments are turned in at all hours. Setting boundaries and maintaining balance are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and as principals, you must model this understanding to your staff.

The work of the principal is difficult. It’s emotional. It’s exhausting. That’s why I encourage you to connect and network with other principals who are working through similar challenges with NAESP and Future Ready Principals (www.futureready.org/principals). 

As we move forward, we must continue to expect the unexpected. Guidelines and expectations will change, but our mission to serve kids must always remain the same. The work is hard, but the kids we serve are worth it.

Thomas C. Murray is director of innovation for Future Ready Schools in Washington, D.C., and the best-selling author of Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime.


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