Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 1 – 2020-21
in the time of
Exhausted? You are not alone.
Meg McGroarty
Principal, Cascade Middle School, Auburn SD
I’m exhausted. And I have professional whiplash.
Principaling in the time of COVID-19 may be the death of me. I am being dramatic, but, really, the last six-and-a-half months have been absolutely over-the-top. I have re-invented what I am doing every two to three weeks since we left in-person school on March 13, re-calibrated my and my staff’s expectations and re-framed our goals to families and students.
I know I am not alone in this feeling, but at the same time, this has been one of the loneliest times in my professional career. I know that I work for arguably one of the best districts in the state — I don’t take that for granted — but I just feel like we are spinning our wheels. I have been called into more meetings than I can keep track of only to be told that that whole system and way of doing things we built just weeks or days before? Well, we need to do things differently now because conditions have changed, so thanks but go ahead and scrap what you just built.
My role is to run the school building, not make the decisions that involve health authorities and have far-reaching consequences.
I have the most amazing team surrounding me and a staff who will do just about anything I ask them to (a miracle given that I have now spent more time as a virtual principal than a physical principal on my campus) but they are so tired; it is hard to have to go to them once again and ask for help re-doing work we just finished re-doing or to plan for something (in-person summer school anyone?) that we all knew wouldn’t happen.
We shifted the Student Support Team (our Tier 2/3 team) that we were building to a fully-responsive connection and basic-needs focused team. I personally coordinated food delivery to the homes of families impacted by COVID and in one case, the delivery of sanitizing supplies to a mother with COVID who was scared out of her mind that she would give the virus to her children. My team did so much more, conducting home visits, and delivering clothing, food, toilet paper and other basic needs to our families. We spent hours upon hours making phone calls, sending emails, scouring social media to try to find a way to contact students who just seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Two days before the last day of school we accomplished the seeming impossible: we made contact with the last of our 887 students – every single one in some form or another had some sort of connection to at least one staff member. It was a victory but we were all exhausted and wanted to have done so much more.
I started to look forward to summer so that I could rest and recover from re-building and reimagining so many systems. Then came the text. My superintendent asked if he could call me the following day. I quickly replied (and asked if I was in trouble, to which he replied ‘no’ with a smiley emoji) and we set up a time to talk. He asked me to co-chair one of five re-opening committees for the district and to serve on the Executive Committee for Re-Opening. I don’t think I’m alone in that I don’t say no to the boss, especially when he calls to ask something of me personally. On a professional level, I was honored, that level of trust and confidence, given that it was my first year in the district, is pretty awesome and humbling. On a personal level, I was exhausted and just wanted to crawl into my bed for about three weeks. I love the work I do, I love the people I work with, the students and families I serve and so I worked through the majority of my “month off” this summer.
I am not so naïve to believe that education is apolitical, education has historically been politicized, I just don’t know that I was prepared for how quickly public sentiment felt like it shifted.”
I watched as the news media began the great school-reopening debate. Over the course of the summer, from the end of June and throughout July, I watched as the national narrative shifted and re-opening schools became highly politicized. Now, I am not so naïve to believe that education is apolitical, education has historically been politicized, I just don’t know that I was prepared for how quickly public sentiment felt like it shifted. I’ve never sought to be a hero or be thought of as such, but to be so vilified is disheartening to say the least. I try to stay away from the comments sections when reading online articles and I’ve virtually disappeared from social media because I just can’t take the repeated venomous posts.
I think the comments that hurt the most are those accusing educators of being lazy and undeserving of our pay. I have never seen such dedication and hard work on the part of teachers, support staff, administrators and the outside agencies we work with to try to get students and families what they need. Teachers and support staff were hurting; we set up weekly then bi-monthly check-ins with staff just to see how they were doing, because they needed someone to care for and about them. These are not lazy people.
Our office staff had radically different roles during the spring, they became key members of our SST as we divvied up lists of students who were not connected to teachers. My amazing office and support staff went above and beyond again and again to stay connected with families and make sure that as many barriers as we could remove were addressed for each family. Were we perfect? Absolutely not. Was a single person on that team lazy? That’s a resounding NO.
My teachers spent time working with each other to create the best online lesson plans they could and countless teachers spent many, many hours beyond their ‘contracted time’ trying to figure out how to be a better teacher in the digital space. Did they sometimes miss the mark? Yes. Were they exhausted and genuinely trying? Yes. Were they lazy? NO. My administrative team has put in so many hours above and beyond what we would normally it isn’t even worth addressing. I read somewhere that the average worker who is working from home has been putting in an average of four hours more than they would if they were physically at work. Looking back, I at least doubled if not tripled that most weeks during spring closure and that has remained true throughout the summer.
Were we perfect? Absolutely not. Was a single person on that team lazy? That’s a resounding NO.”
I felt betrayed by our leadership at the state level when the message kept changing, in person, distance model, hybrid; finally we gained a small amount of stability when our local superintendents collectively decided to listen to our health department and commit to a distance learning model with seven weeks of summer remaining to plan. It was an example of courageous leadership that I will always remember and I gained even more respect for our district leadership. I worked harder because I saw the work they were putting in to ensure that our staff was supported and as prepared as possible to deliver high-quality and appropriate distance learning. There were countless examples of tremendous leadership that I have used to keep leaning into the work even when I want to throw in the towel.
I’m not complaining about putting in extra work; I knew that was part of the gig when I signed up to be a building principal. I just didn’t expect to put in that extra work and feel like I was under attack from our national leadership and the news media.
I get that the best place for kids to learn is in school. Really, I am an at-home learning failure of a parent. My seven-year-old didn’t do a fraction of what she should have during the spring. I worry about her lost learning and about her mental and emotional health. I want her back in school when the health authorities tell us it is safe. I am tired of being blamed for those decisions; I don’t think many people realize how little building principals actually have to say about the decisions around school closures.
I work in an amazing district, but the decision to open in a fully-online environment was made several steps above my pay-grade. I wasn’t in the room where it happened. I am lucky that my district has involved principals in many of the decisions that have been made, but that was not one, nor should it have been. My role is to run the school building, not make the decisions that involve health authorities and have far-reaching consequences. I happen to agree with the decisions being made, but even if I didn’t, it’s not my role to make those decisions but rather to figure out the nuts and bolts of how to function within the parameters I am given once those decisions have been made. That is what I did all summer and what I will continue to do as we open the school year.
As I look to what the next several weeks will bring I’m tired before I get through a fraction of what needs to be done. But here’s the sick thing, I’m also more hopeful than I’ve ever been in my career.
I have so much faith and hold so much hope in the ability of our teachers, our support staff and our administrative team it bowls me over. I have been interviewing and hiring teachers and I am so hopeful in what they are going to bring to our school and do for our students. I have the team that can get the impossible done; we did it once and we will do it again. I spent a glorious week with my staff preparing for the start of the school year and they proved once again that they are amazing; they are nervous and worried about our kids and delivering the levels of learning that our kids deserve, but they are more capable than they know.
I know that we will do better this time – a presenter in a training I was in recently characterized what we did in the spring as crisis learning, not distance learning. That is such an accurate depiction for what we did that I can’t help but have hope. If we did all of the really good things we did during a crisis, we can be absolutely amazing now that we have had time to prepare and plan for true distance learning.
I will hold on to that hope and the hope that one day, sooner rather than later, I will get to see the beautiful faces of my students and staff in person.
But, I’m still exhausted.
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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 1 – 2020-21