In early 2020, I sat in the revolving restaurant of the Calgary Tower on a cold January night to share a meal with a teacher and vice-principal from Tarui, Japan. We were celebrating the successful conclusion of a cultural exchange between our schools. Over the week, we had opened our school, billeted students in our homes, and shared rich cultural experiences. Through broken English and Japanese we told stories and forged bonds. Little did we know that within weeks, borders would close, and the COVID-19 pandemic would change all our lives fundamentally. Looking back, it is easy to see the ways we took that experience, and so many like it, for granted.
In early February, our school community would be thrown into disarray. One of our students returned from a trip to China and questions began to arise. Parent calls followed. What if the student had been exposed to this novel coronavirus? What if it came into the school? This previously distant disease became an unsettling and very present reality.
As anxiety rose, I worked with parents, staff, and my admin team to maintain calm while coping with crippling uncertainty myself. My responsibility to create a safe environment for children had never felt so challenging or elusive. Following guidance, we didn’t encourage the use of masks in our school, citing their limited effectiveness
(if only we knew!) and scarce supply for healthcare workers. On Sunday, March 15 in the late afternoon, we watched a news conference announcing the closure of physical schools effective Monday morning. We had no more notice of the closures than the families we served.
Overnight, we were thrust into this strange new reality. My wife was home sick with our three school-aged children who were suddenly distance learning. I felt I had no choice but to go in to work to help guide my community through those tenuous early days of remote teaching and learning.
Our staff met in-person the next morning as we had always done. I naively felt prepared to lead. After all, I had spent years researching instructional leadership. In our meeting I told teachers to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I am surprised now they didn’t walk out. “Uncomfortable” was a grave underestimation of how they were feeling. A teacher with a compromised immune system contacted me that night to say he could not meet in person anymore. In that moment, my perspective changed. I realized that the very lives of my staff would be impacted by my decisions from here on out. The gravity of that responsibility sat heavy on my shoulders.
We scrambled to provide professional learning and resources to our teachers as they moved online. We shared resources, PD was organized, and teachers worked together to troubleshoot new tech tools. In the end, our success pivoting to online learning was built on relationships rather than program. We worked tirelessly to reach out to families in those months. We reached out to one another. We focused on building community despite physical distance.
The pandemic has been one of the most dynamic, nerve-wracking, challenging, exhausting, and at times exciting experiences of my career as a school principal. From moving classes online overnight in the spring, to riding the wave of uncertainty and fear about school reopening through the summer, to reinventing school around safety guidelines in the fall, to the constant threat of contact-tracing and isolations this winter, this school year has been like no other. It has been said that leadership is a rainy-day job. In the 2020–21 school year, we are living through a monsoon.
On that cold January night with our Japanese counterparts, we compared our school systems in the hopes that this cross-pollination of ideas would lead to positive change. We dreamed of future trips to Japan and the celebrations and fun that would ensue. While those dreams now seem distant, I often think of our friends from Japan and wonder how they experienced this global calamity, how they adapted their school and family life, and when we will meet again. We will certainly not take it for granted when we do.
The pandemic has tested our resilience and fortitude as educators, parents, and individuals. I am proud of how my school has served our community and how all teachers continue to show commitment to their students even in the face of personal health risks. Let us move forward through this pandemic with hope for better things to come while celebrating the gift of a new perspective.
Photo: courtesy of Kirk Linton
First published in Education Canada, June 2021