School News

Reflections on School Leadership During The COVID Crisis

Kim Ridley, Head of School
Back in February of 2020, I was attending the Heads Network conference in Jacksonville, Florida where I spent several days listening to various workshop speakers present about the role of women and People of Color in independent school leadership. From there I headed to Philadelphia to present at the annual National Association of Independent School conference. I was eager to participate with a panel of both seasoned and new school heads from across the country. The focus of our seminar was on the work of being a head of school and contract negotiations. We were sharing our war stories about the toll headship can take on one’s physical, social, and psychological well being.
Looming in the background, during the conferences, was my own thoughts, as well as murmurs from other Heads of School about the COVID pandemic crisis. At that point, it seemed so far away---it was in China and California, after all. Little did I realize in three weeks from that time, our in-person school would not exist for the rest of the school year and beyond. Where we are today was unimaginable to me and to everyone. Charlie, our Director of Finance and Operations, and I often reflect on this time shortly before the COVID crisis landed in our laps, with great horror. We both lamented, “I can’t believe we had a full fledged fundraiser at the beginning of March, without masks, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, and eating with reckless abandon!” It became abundantly clear, that the week after the fundraiser, the Biogen conference COVID spread was the beginning of the virus rolling into Boston like a runaway train.
I spent an entire weekend researching online education and came across the idea of choice boards and learning menus. This inspired me to create templates for staff to create our own version of learning menus that would include assignments that students and families could choose to work on. I gathered the School Leadership Team and discussed plans for closing school. Our Director of Technology, Ray, quickly swung into action and began figuring out how we would best utilize our technology for teaching and learning. Words such as synchronous, asynchronous, mute and unmute, Google Meets, Zoom, distant, remote--all become a significant part of my vocabulary. During the week before we closed in-person school, our former Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Lucy, scheduled several afternoon meetings with teams of teachers who worked feverishly to complete the learning menus, while thinking about how to transition their curriculum into virtual spaces. I think we were all in shock for several weeks/months, as we thought this situation would be temporary. I remember saying to teachers, “we should be back to school by late March.” When that did not happen, I told myself we would be in school by early May. Clearly that didn’t happen so I found myself in meetings with the Director of Advancement, Ann and her team, to plan for our first virtual graduation, and school was done. Surely we would be back to normal in fall!
It wasn’t just the academic program that had to be considered, but the fundamental way we all do our work in schools had to transition and transform into virtual spaces. What should virtual school look like in a PreK to 8 program, especially within a school culture that had a tepid relationship with technology at best! What is the impact of virtual school for the PreK to 2 demographic? How can we best effectuate learning in a virtual setting? What did we learn from the past few months that can help us to better meet the needs of students? We constantly pondered these questions while we continued to plan, experiment, fail, experiment again, question, adapt, and pivot throughout the summer into the fall. The hybrid model was born in the late summer, and our new Assistant Head, Micheal along with Rob Lee (Facilities Manager), measured our classrooms, estimated what furniture was needed, cleaning supplies, and so on. I still marvel at the nail biting anxiety, collaboration, planning, outside the box thinking, preparation, blood, sweat and tears that it took for us to pull this off.
What I am learning is that my position as the lead learner of Fayerweather is to maintain a strategic mindset even in the face of uncertainty. This means constantly asking questions like, what are we learning about ourselves as a school during this period of time? What are the practices and the “sacred cows” we should leave behind? What is essential for students to learn and to know that will support their forward social, emotional and cognitive development? Are there instructional practices that we have discovered during this time that we want to continue? How do we leverage our investment in technology to better meet the learning needs of our students? How can we create more access to a Fayerweather education? I am thinking about how we bridge and leverage our perspectives and learnings between all of the stakeholders impacted by this crisis.
No matter the learning scenario we want our mission to be heard and experienced. Our engagement with students needs to demonstrate our understanding that relationships are key to students’ engagement in purposeful and meaningful learning. We want all students to be and feel visible, and to learn the power and value of showing up as one’s authentic self. Our community is our greatest asset. Our upcoming board and leadership retreats will provide space and time to think, identify, and reflect on our core values and mission and opportunities for evolving and growing our school’s reach into the community. Fayerweather has always been a small school that has a big impact on the lives of our students, teachers, and families.
This notion of the importance of community was further reinforced when I ran into a parent outside my favorite coffee shop. I had on my Fayerweather blue Jacket. She pointed at my jacket exclaiming, “I know that school, we are applying for 6th grade for the fall of 2021, are you a parent?” “No, I am the Head of School, I say proudly.” The parent replied, “I have heard so many wonderful things about your school, I hear it is a special place.” As I headed home I found myself thinking, securing the future of Fayerweather is my most important work and my purpose during this time.
In partnership,
Fayerweather Street School | 765 Concord Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 | 617-876-4746
Fayerweather is a private PreK, kindergarten, elementary and middle school. We engage each child’s intellect.