Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

COVID-19 Diaries: Leading in a Time of Uncertainty

April 22, 2020

Dilhani Uswatte morning news report 3

By Dr. Dilhani Uswatte (AL '09)

Dr. Dilhani Uswatte (AL '09), the principal of Rocky Ridge Elementary School in Hoover and Alabama's 2020 National Distinguished Principal, wrote this article for the Alabama Association of Elementary School Administrators newsletter. It is shared here with her permission.

“We are making history!”

“These are unprecedented times.”

“This is uncharted territory.”

By now, we have all heard these phrases expressed by our government, our school systems, and friends worldwide. But what does it mean to us, as educational leaders?

I believe it means that we must be stronger leaders than ever before! I believe that we must continue to practice all those leadership skills we have learned over the years, but just deliver them in new ways. Ongoing reflection has prompted me to ask the following questions and develop the following ideas:

How can we maintain the culture and climate of our school?

  • We are built on relationships, relationships, relationships. I will keep a list of all my staff and personally call or text each one of them at least once a week. If I expect each teacher to make personal two-way contact with each child, I must also model that behavior with my staff.
  • We are a community that celebrates each other weekly over broadcast. I will create a special digital broadcast each week to share news, showcase student work, share shout-outs (collected using a Google form) provided by our various stakeholders, etc. Click here to watch my first show.
  • There are certain events that define my school. I will collaborate with my staff to create our first digital talent show, Facebook Live (or other format) fifth grade graduation and Honors Day, and online field day.
  • Our schoolwide “R.O.C.K” expectations are still important. We will share with our community how we still need them to live these expectations at home. They can Reach their goals by completing assignments daily. Students can Observe the 3 R’s by respecting their parents (new teachers) at home, being resourceful by not wasting food and toilet paper, and being responsible by still maintaining a health schedule. We hope they will Care about their community by practicing social distancing and washing their hands regularly. We hope they remember that Knowledge is power, knowing that how they live and learn these days will greatly impact their future.

What are the critical professional development needs of my staff right now?

  • With less than seven weeks of instruction left, we must ensure all staff understand the critical standards that need to be taught. I will collaborate with my instructional coaching team to share and discuss the framework provided by our state.
  • We will use the digital platform Google Meet to host regular staff meetings and weekly team meetings. A meeting agenda will be shared each time, and participants can type in questions; this will be critical for meetings with multiple participants who cannot all talk at one time.
  • With digital learning taking place, I will collaborate with our technology coach to create digital meetings to discuss important tech tools needed for videoing lessons (FlipGrid, Screencastify, etc.), housing lessons (Google Classroom), and providing tips on tech use for parents and students.

How will we maintain social distancing but still enable teachers to get materials and permit students to pick up their belongings?

  • I will purchase bags for teachers to help pack up student belongings. We will then create a system of “carpool pickup” for parents to come to school to get items.
  • A schedule will be created for a few teachers to come to school at a time to get teaching materials.
  • In high traffic areas such as workrooms, we will mark off six-foot waiting lines.
  • Hand sanitizer, gloves and masks (where possible) will be provided for staff as they enter the building.
  • We will create a system of pickup and dropoff of materials needed by students who do not have a device and/or internet access.

What are the inequities that will be created during these times? Who will need special assistance?

  • This is definitely the time I will take advantage of all the community connections I have created over the years. I will collaborate with local businesses and churches to provide financial assistance (where possible) for families.
  • I will work with my school district to promote the locations available for food pickup.
  • We will review the ongoing state and federal documentation regarding the support of ELL, 504 and IEP students. I will meet specifically with all support teachers and aides to discuss how we will hold meetings, coordinate learning with classroom teachers, document learning, etc.
  • I will work with my central office to provide internet access in our parking lots. We will also share information on free wifi provided by various companies in our area.

How will we bring closure to this school year?

  • We will plan a digital faculty party where we can still celebrate the staff who are retiring. One teacher will collect notes from the staff to create a Farewell Journal that will be sent to the retiring teacher. A gift card to a local restaurant of choice will be given to the family of the retiring staff person to purchase dinner for the family.
  • A team of teachers will organize a Neighborhood Drive-Thru Party, where all faculty will drive through our neighborhoods with signs to say goodbye to kids at the end of the year.

It seems with each passing day, I create more questions for myself. What I have found, however, is that I have a great support system within my school, school district, and professional organizations like CLAS (Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools) and AAESA (Alabama Association of Elementary School Administrators). This is the time to collaborate and share ideas. This is the time to read the news and professional literature to learn important information that needs to be shared and/or learn new skills. This is the time to be fearless leaders and provide strength for our stakeholders. Yes, we are making history! Yes, these are unprecedented times! And yes, this is uncharted territory.

It was an honor to be named National Distinguished Principal just weeks before that life-changing Friday in March when our schools were closed, but I believe we will all be “Distinguished Principals” after this year. We may be leading in a time of uncertainty, but we will certainly lead with love for our students, staff, faculty, parents, and community. We got this!

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