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School Leadership During Crisis

Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman ponders what may be on the minds of school leaders in these difficult times, and advises on how they can stay grounded and plan for the future.
Deborah Jewell-Sherman speaking
Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman participates in the Leading Systems for Excellence, Equity, and Impact panel in Askwith Hall, January 2020
Photo: Jill Anderson

There is no guidebook for school leaders as they make decisions and try to move forward during the pandemic. With more than 55 million children out of school right now, Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman knows that the uncertainty is a challenge for school leaders who are often used to orderliness and control. “Every school, and every school district has a crisis plan. But a crisis of this magnitude has been unimaginable,” she says. “In anyone's worst case scenario, we didn't envision something like this.” In this week’s Harvard EdCast, Jewell-Sherman offered advice for school leaders navigating to a new normal in the COVID-19 crisis.


  • Revisit frameworks to get on top of the work. Jewell-Sherman recommends the book, Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal as a helpful guide that outlines change in an organization while offering four frames for school leaders. The four frames – structural, human resources, symbolic, and political – can help devise areas to work through so you don’t become overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done.
  • Forego top-down decision-making. Make sure key players are involved in the planning process, even though district administrators often are tasked with setting things up. As a superintendent, ask yourself: How do we set up schools for success knowing the building leader is critically important? “What we model from the system level to the building level will be replicated from the building level to teachers,” Jewell-Sherman says. “So if it's an inclusive process done with principals, they are far more likely to model that same behavior in problem solving with their teachers.”
  • Focus on professional development. How do we help teachers build capacity? Build on what they’ve already had to learn in this new phase of virtual learning, but also consider how to increase their capacity on the first day back.
  • Build networks, collaborate, share best practices. If you are not already connected to other districts, then now is a great time to develop that network. Because what happens at the state or federal level might vary tremendously, it behooves superintendents and principals to collaborate and share best practices across the district and beyond.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast. Superintendents and principals are going to face a lot to get schools up and running to a new normal whenever the pandemic ends. Harvard professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman says, "School leadership during the pandemic is the adaptive challenge of all time." With more than 55 million children out of school efforts to get students learning online varies tremendously across districts. And that's just one of the many challenges facing school leaders. I asked Deborah what it feels like to be a school leader right now.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: I think that all of us are feeling a lack of control. I think that as leaders, we prioritize an orderly school day, in which all of the needs of students, and staff, and teachers are taken care of. And that ability has been taken away from each and every one of us. What I'm hearing on the ground is concern about children. That's a large number of young people, it's an unbelievably large number of young people.

And schools are charged today with doing so much more than just educating young people. We provide a safe environment. Teaching and learning is our priority. But along with that, we're providing nutrition, we're teaching them how to interact with other young people, we're teaching them civics. Just so many things. And that is, at best, difficult to do virtually with planning. None of us were prepared for this reality.

So people are trying to fly this plane as we build it, or knit this sweater as we are wearing it to the degree that they are able to collaborate with others. I think they are feeling emboldened, and more assured that they can do it. But many are feeling a sense of isolation. They're not getting guidance from state or from local jurisdictions, or at least not the guidance that they would like, because none of us really know all that we would like to know to make good decisions.

So it's a time of uncertainty, but there's the old adage that we're like teabags, you don't know how strong we are until we're put in hot water. Well I think that all of us are figuring out just how strong, and how resilient, and how nimble we can be as we learn on the go.

Jill Anderson: There's no real way to prepare for something like this as a leader, right, no real way you can borrow from some other situation you might have been preparing for?

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: I don't think so. Every school, and every school district has a crisis plan. But a crisis of this magnitude has been unimaginable.

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: In anyone's worst case scenario, we didn't envision something like this. And the ramp up time was relatively short, in some instances, almost nonexistent. You found out within a very short period of time that, like on a Wednesday, that this Friday was going to be the last day of school.

So no, I think that what people are doing is knitting together best practices using an appreciative inquiry kind of mindset, this worked in this setting, maybe it'll work here, bringing groups together through Zoom and other technology so that people can problem solve together. I think that this is the adaptive challenge of school leadership for all time.

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: I really do. And I think that it has caused us to think together about how we're going to do this. We are the people with the problem, and we have to solve it.

Jill Anderson: [inaudible 00:04:13] so how do you advise leaders in this scenario right now? What are you telling leaders?

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: One of the things that I've been sharing is, asking people to revisit frameworks to help you have a mental model for the work that you're about to do. And one of the frameworks that seems to resonate with many people, especially school leaders, is the Bolman and Deal Four Frames From Reorganizing Organizations, Reframing Organizations. It's about change in organizations, and that's certainly what we're experiencing now.

Bolman and Deal were Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty many, many years back. Their book has gone through numerous editions. When I was a doctoral student here in '91, I had the book, and my students today are using the book. It's very, very relevant. The reason that I suggested people think about it is, the Four Frames help you think about the work that you have to do.

The first frame is structural, what are those basic building blocks that you have to put in place? I.e scheduling, hiring, those nuts and bolts kinds of technical things. Bus schedules. If the buses don't run, if the food isn't ordered for the cafeteria workers. I mean, when schools open, those people are going to have so much work to do getting back into buildings, and getting everything ready. So thinking about those structural underpinnings that are critically important, the ordering of school supplies, and the like.

Another framework is the human resource frame. And that has to do with hiring. I mean, right now, people are attempting to hire teachers and staff virtually, but that's really challenging. So once we can get back into buildings, or there's some semblance of order, people are going to have to think about staffing for the upcoming school year. And that's everybody from teachers, to bus drivers, and the like.

And that's just one of the functions. I think that human resource function will also address, or have you think about, how do you address all that people have gone through in the ensuing months since you were last together? There are people who will have been impacted directly by COVID-19, people who have had loss. Certainly we've been alone for a long time, sequestering in place, so how do you build in time for people to reconnect, and what are the activities that you do so that people can do that?

Another one of the frames is the political frame. We have a new normal. When we come out of this, it'll be a new normal. There are things that we've historically done that we won't do anymore. How do you codify best practices? What are the policies that need to be put in place? How do you help people see the need to stop doing some things, and begin or continue doing others? I think that collaborating with unions, and governance boards, and parent advisories, all of that work will need to be done. I think of the political frame as negotiating. So how do you negotiate with people to get things done?

And then the last is symbolic. And that is front and center, the leader's role. In the book, Good to Great, the author talks about facing the brutal facts while remaining optimistic. And as the leader, you have to hold those two tensions. You are keenly aware of the time that we've lost, and all of the challenges that we've had, and how hard it has been, and how hard it's going to be to get back on board. So you're going to be honest about that, but you have to be perennially optimistic about our collaborative ability to get this problem solved.

I've heard of instances in which superintendents are crying to principals, "This is so hard, I'm not ..." No, no, it doesn't work that way. You're the superintendent, you talk to your spouse, your partner, and your dog about all the problems. But public facing, you've got to stand strong, and be the person that says ... That's there for other people. That's leadership. You've got to keep that optimistic, upbeat kind of mentality as you facilitate the learning, and understand that this is an instance where you are not going to have all of the answers, and that is okay. The answers are going to come from working together.

And that may have been far more information than you wanted. But the Four Frames helped me think about the work going forward, and can maybe help people bucket the work so that it's not as overwhelming as if you just say, "Oh, gosh, what do I do first?" So I'm thinking that these frames allow you to think strategically about not doing one thing first followed by a second, but at least placing the things that need to be done in different spheres, and then figuring out how you're going to organize.

This is all on the principal's plate. I mean, I think that district administrators have the task of setting things up to make the life of the principal doable optimally. If I were still superintendent, everything that we would be doing would be focused on, how do we set up schools for success? But the interaction happens at the school level. So that building leader is critically important. And I hope that school district administrators will keep principals in the planning process as they're thinking about the restart of school, so that it's not a top down decision.

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Deborah Jewell-Sherman:  Because we're not in the trenches. We need to hear their voices. We need to give them a chance to tell us what they're experiencing. If I may say so, Jill, what we model from the system level to the building level will be replicated from the building level to teachers. And so if it's an inclusive process done with principals, they are far more likely to model that same behavior in problem solving with their teachers.

Jill Anderson: I know a lot of this is moving pieces, and parts of a puzzle, and no one really knows how this is going to shake out, especially in the coming weeks, months. But in terms of the right now, and instruction question, I'm hearing about some districts being ready to go with online learning, some districts not doing much of anything. And so what do you have to say about that, in terms of getting through the next few weeks, or maybe to the end of the school year? As we know, quite a few schools have already decided to close for the year.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: Yes, they have. And I think that others will be making that decision. It is a mixed bag. We often focus on the importance of networks, this is a time when it is so important. If you are fortunate enough to be getting clear directions from your state, and from your district, great. But even with those clear directions, you have to figure out how to implement it, how you're going to operationalize it.

So my advice to principals would be to form networks. Codify those relationships if we're in the same attendance zone, or figure out how you want to do that if the district isn't doing that with you, and problem solve this together going through all aspects, because we're hoping that virtual learning has taken place to some degree.

We think about the learning lost during the summer, well what is the learning loss over these months? I'm sure that that's something that's keeping school administrators, and district administrators up at night. How do we make up for six months? Four to six months of learning if we're able to start back in the fall.

We can't count on the use of technology, even though in some instances, districts have been sending home lessons, too often they're busywork, and even when they're not technology is not equally available and accessible. So I think that one of the things that people are going to be thinking about, hopefully in teams, is, how do we determine what students know as they are coming back? We cannot make the assumption that they are where we would have thought they would be in a regular school year.

Were I still in a district, I would be hoping to set up summer learning opportunities. I think that parents would welcome them, I think that students would welcome them. Usually they don't want to be in summer school, but I think that they would welcome it now to try and ameliorate that loss of skills.

Another thing that I would be focusing on my groups, with or without direction from central office, is professional development. How do we help our teachers build capacity? Build on what they've had to learn in this new normal of virtual learning. But how do we enhance their capacity so that they're prepared on that first day for all of the challenges that they're going to face. I don't think that there's a district that isn't trying to come up with some of the answers.

I hope that there'll be collaborations even among districts, a willingness to share best practices. I think that many organizations, like the principals associations, or superintendents associations, and other learning groups are trying their best to come up with venues for people to share best practices, and also to identify some of the best practices. We're doing that at our own school, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Jill Anderson: I know you can't necessarily see into the future, but off the top of your head, is there anything that seems really obvious to you that is definitely going to have to change?

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: Well one of the challenges that I am experiencing, as a teacher at HGSE, is the need to come up with asynchronistic learning options for my students. I think that we will all come away from this experience with a heightened understanding of how debilitating it is to have our face glued to a screen for hours at a time. Part of the new normal will be thinking about how we use technology better.

I taped or recorded a lesson for my class so that they could watch it at their convenience, because we have students on the West Coast, and we have students on the East Coast, and some in the middle. Asking people to get up at six o'clock in California for a nine o'clock class is not conducive to having people really involved in the learning.

But there's a different mentality to thinking about online learning versus using technology to virtually try to teach what you teach in person. They're two different things, and I think we're going to have to get better at online learning, which means that we have to figure out pedagogies that work, we have to be sensitive to the time that people can stay focused, it is not the same three hour block that you can have, or 45 minute block in a classroom in a K through 12 school.

But I think that we've been dropped in the ocean. So we had no choice, we've had to sink or swim. And most of us are swimming, not Olympic swimming, but we're staying afloat. And so we're going to capitalize on that learning so that we can enhance the learning in schools. If I were a first grade teacher again, which I loved, I would probably come up with some lessons online, and have them on computers around the room so that I might come up with some enrichment activities that, if students finish something, they could go to these stations, and they would see me, but in another setting, and I would ... I just think that it would be fun.

I think that we could use those kind of learning opportunities to engage our parents. Parents are often asking, especially in middle and high school, for help with math. So are there things now that we've become more adept at teaching online? Are there ways that we can send weekly clips to parents and say, "Your child's going to be working on this next week, and here are some resources for you to be able to help."

I just think that once we get over this, I hope that we'll capitalize on what we've learned, because I think the future will be brighter. I'm certainly learning. I was as green as grass. If my students didn't help me with Zoom, and all of the other things, I would be in trouble. Learning in this environment has humbled all of us. I think that there's a desire on the part of principals, and superintendents, and different kinds of leaders in the ed sector to really be on top of everything, to really know everything. Well this has shown us that that is not the case. And I'm thinking that that may be a good thing.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. Words of wisdom going forward for some of these leaders and educators.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman: Just know that you were made for a time like this. All of the preparation that you've gone through in your professional life has prepared you to step up and do this work. You don't have to know everything going in, there's no way, as we have said throughout, that you could have prepared, but you are resilient, and you have the adaptive, as well as the technical skills needed to plow through this. Do it in collaboration with others, and we'll see you on the other side. I envision great success.

Jill Anderson: Deborah Jewell-Sherman is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the former superintendent of Richmond public schools. I'm Jill Anderson, and this is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening, and please subscribe.

About the Harvard EdCast

In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities.

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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