Rolling up in front of Liberty High School in Spangle, Washington was not like the traditional experience of which I was accustomed. For decades, if you pulled into any typical high school parking lot, you’d find cars parked everywhere and a busy scene filled with students moving about socializing in small groups. Not today. It was eerily quiet.
Instead I found a half-full parking lot, void of typical activity. What I knew however was that Liberty High School opened in a hybrid model and that students were definitely on campus, but only half of them. I also knew that Principal Aaron Fletcher, a 12 year veteran principal (22 years in district), was somewhere inside principaling. What I didn’t know exactly was what “principaling” meant in our current COVID reality.
Luckily, as I stood outside the school wondering if I should go in or not, an office assistant came out to greet me. After confirming my intent, she invited me into the lobby where I instantly witnessed one of the first changes Mr. Fletcher (and his team) put in place - the front lobby COVID Check-in Center. No one (students and/or adults) is allowed to pass the newly installed plexiglass station without a quick health assessment. What did it entail? Clean pens, health questionnaire with background information, temperature check, and an “all-clear for entry” badge. Every person…every day. Period.
To say I was totally impressed would be an understatement. Since when did principaling include health screening and temperature checks? I mean, I know principals and assistant principals have been increasingly doing a lot of everything over the years, but this was new. As I was filling out my health history and being forehead temperature-scanned, the silence of the lobby was changed with my favorite sound in the world, students. Out of a side door came a group of energetic, positive, upbeat and interactive teenagers. And, right in the middle of all of them, was Mr. Fletcher.
Can you picture it? It sounded almost like normal school except a much smaller group of students and all the smiles were covered by masks. And, just like normal school, a principal was principaling right in the middle of the pack of students. He was calling out names, asking specific questions to students, giving next step directions, and spreading his energy and enthusiasm into the group. Masks or no masks, Mr. Fletcher was doing what he’s always done best - create, lead and sustain culture.
Besides the surprise of me standing in his front lobby, Mr. Fletcher didn’t skip a beat. He quickly adjusted his plans with some students and took me on a quick tour of his school. What did I see? Students spread out in classrooms, students spread out in the hallways, teachers teaching half of their students live while the other half attended virtually, and all the other things that scream out school culture…friendly greetings, posters, signs, class pictures, school pride, etc.
What was new? Besides everyone wearing masks (of which Aaron said there had been no issues), there were traffic-flow lines taped to the floor that, of course, Mr. Fletcher had run throughout the building. There were tape markers next to all of the furniture in order to prevent the students from moving into small social clusters. And, there was a designated “COVID Center” where students would be immediately taken if any COVID-related symptoms surfaced while at school. He said it was essentially a temporary school quarantine area.
“How’s it going?” is what I asked. “I mean, really, how’s it going?”
His answer was what you’d expect, “It’s going. We’re doing it. We’re going for it. I’m learning a ton and never thought I’d see this in my career.” He answered that question with a gleam in his eye that said he was thankful to be back (even if in a hybrid model), recharged to be with students, happy to be with his teachers, while simultaneously carrying the anxiety and stress of “principaling” in this unknown.
In a recent survey of our members about “principaling” during COVID, the evidence was clear that mounting stress and anxiety continues to land on the shoulders of building leaders. Job satisfaction is dropping while desire to leave the profession is increasing. That should be alarming to everyone in the system. We simply cannot afford to lose incredible building leaders. It’s not good for anyone, especially right now. Principals and assistant principals sit at the crossroads of middle management and serve as the conduit of information to various stakeholders. Students, teachers, parents, coaches, community members all look to the building for answers, direction…and hope.
At AWSP we often refer to this crossroad as the center of an ever-tipping hourglass. Everything passes through the purview of the building leaders in the middle of the hourglass, even when we don’t know what the “everything” means right now. Are we coming back? Will we be in a hybrid? Will there be sports? What if someone gets COVID? Will we shut down again? How do I log in to the learning management system? Can you help me get my students to turn on their cameras? I’m worried about a student, can you go to their house and do a welfare check? Can you tell your teachers to assign more work? Can you tell your teachers to stop assigning so much work? Can my little league team use the gym? The questions are endless.
One answer we know for sure. Our principals need support more than ever right now. They need less added to the hourglass. They need to be able to focus on relationships and hope, and that’s about it. I know someone will probably pounce on me for not saying learning is a priority, but I can tell you firsthand from what I witnessed at Mr. Fletcher’s school. His kids missed his high-fiving in-the-halls relationships. And, they were starving to be back in the culture of hope he has created and sustained for years. And now that they are at least partially back with some face-to-face, safety-first interactions, they are continuing to learn.
If eyes can tell you someone is smiling under a mask, then I saw countless smiles at Liberty High School that day. I also saw renewed hope thanks to a principal “principaling” despite masks and six foot relationships. Principal Aaron Fletcher is not unlike every other school leader out there in the system right now fighting for kids whether in full remote or hybrid settings. Our school leaders are keeping the hope alive and our society needs to know it. It’s National Principals Month, but I think we should celebrate principals every single day.