January/February 2021

From the Field: Lessons Learned in Leadership

By Nakia Hall

They say the impact of something like COVID-19 only happens once in a lifetime.
However, 2020 wasn’t just impacted by a health pandemic, but also racial, economic, meteo­rological, and political pandemics. 2020 was a year of change, change, and more change. It was a moment in time that felt as slow as a turtle while soaring as fast as an eagle all at the same time. I heard Super­intendent Michael Merritt from Gardner Grade School District 72C state that 2020’s impact on education was like building a plane as you learn to fly the plane. I am sure many will agree with these sentiments.
As challenging as the year was, it was also thought-provoking and eye-opening. The year forced leaders to rethink policies, proce­dures, processes, and even personal and professional beliefs. As school districts were forced to focus on new ways of addressing old, exac­erbated issues, leaders also found themselves attempting to conquer that which is unprecedented, while self-reflecting and re-evaluating what has been classified as essential in the world of education. In this article, I will share three lessons learned by leaders in the midst of the whirlwind of 2020.
Change is inevitable, uncontrollable, and also a breath of fresh air.
In education, there is an extensive focus on objectives and data-driven decisions. However, what happens when the data gath­ered has to be thrown out the win­dow? Leaders are trained to prepare for the possibility of change, how­ever, no one saw the issues of 2020 coming. Unexpected changes occur and sometimes it is exactly what we need to get the gears turning or begin looking at situations more closely and purposefully. Though changes being made were exhaust­ing, leaders also discovered creative and more innovative ways towards approaching solutions. Leaders have been stretched, prodded, and pulled past what they thought was their highest potential. The year raised the bar and many not only reached it, but jumped over it like a track star in the high jump. So while we continue to expect the unexpected, we can also expect to grow as a result of the unexpected. Many les­sons have been learned that will stay with leaders for years to come.
A house divided cannot stand … and deliver.
When Abraham Lincoln stated, “a house divided against itself cannot stand” in 1858 at the Republican Convention while standing in the same city that now houses the prin­cipal location of IASB offices, I am pretty sure he was not referring to relationships amongst school board governance teams and school boards with superintendents. However, his words rang very true in 2020. As a Field Services Director, I have helped numerous boards develop school board protocols and board/ superintendent agreements. One thing that has been evident is that many school leadership teams with concrete relationship foundations steadily weathered the storm of 2020. It is important to have a solid foundation of leadership, under­standing, and cohesiveness as we do not know what is waiting around the corner (or around the world) to test those relationships. The year 2020 has shown the importance of solid, working relationships and how they greatly impact district success and the ability to deliver effectively. Strong relationships amongst school board members, boards and their superintendent, and school districts and their communities have helped create a “we are all in this together” support system. I have heard sto­ries of districts collaborating with community entities with whom they have rarely collaborated. I have heard stories of churches, levels of government, parents, and more stepping up to assist districts in their times of need. Districts rethought how they can support families. We hear of newly devel­oped consortia that most likely would not have been developed. The year brought greater meaning to teamwork making the dream work.
There’s no perfect answer.
There may not be “no crying in baseball,” but there is definitely crying in a pandemic. Much of the crying is due to feeling helpless, hopeless, and all types of less-es, at times. In the world of education, we have a tendency to strive for that 100% and in addition to that, we want extra credit. However, many are finding that sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can’t quite reach that A-plus. We are realizing we truly cannot please everyone, and that’s okay! When addressing unparalleled situations you will not always have a perfect answer. Although 2020 seemed to be full of the worse “first times,” the truth is our lives are regularly full of first times with imperfect moments; imperfect moments are not unprecedented. Think about the first time you had a child. Your first job. The first time you moved out on your own. The first time you attempted to roller skate, ride a bike, or sing in front of others knowing your voice probably wouldn’t win you the title of Amer­ican Idol. I’m sure there are some stories you can think back on and laugh about. You can also look back on those times and realize they were teachable moments. What we can learn is that an imperfect world full of imperfect people produces imperfect moments. It is okay to say you do not have the answers and may not know when one will exist. Think of the kind of world we would be living in if we all signed a permission slip that 1) gives others permission to not be perfect, and 2) gives ourselves the same permission. There would be a little more understanding, patience, and gratitude as we become thank­ful for what we are able to do instead of focusing mostly on what we feel we have not done.
Leaders are constantly learn­ing. 2020 was an ongoing lesson plan for everyone. The best thing about this is that lesson plans aren’t etched in stone and can be adjusted, as needed. As we start the New Year with a new slate (sort of) and a new beginning (a little), let’s take in a breath of fresh air. Let’s celebrate the fact that we survived 2020 (Woohoo!). Let’s be hopeful that 2021 is better because we have learned lessons from the former year that have taught us how to survive in the midst of chaos, make the best of what we have, and value the core of the partnership. These are lessons of a lifetime.

Nakia Hall, Ed.D., is IASB Field Services Director for the South Cook, Three Rivers, and West Cook divisions and the Chair of the Association’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.