Ready or not, here they come. It’s that time again. It’s time for the students to return, and with that it’s time for the infamous back-to-school district kickoff meeting. It’s no secret that this year is so, so different than the kickoffs of years prior. Most years, administrators, teachers, and support staff return rested, having just come off a needed break and some well-deserved downtime. This year, anxiety is high, questions remain, fear surrounds us, and adversity can be seen in every direction.
Doing a number of openings for school districts each year, I’ve seen the complete gamut of how districts kick off a school year. From game shows and giveaways in one location to “here’s everything we need to improve” paired with death by PowerPoint in another, the ways districts elect to jump-start any given year is all over the map. Each year brings a fresh start and new opportunities. Some take advantage of them, others do not.
Over the past few weeks, school districts across the country have launched the school year, and for many they have done it virtually, for the very first time. Any rational human being can see the downsides to needing such a structure, as many challenges arise. What’s easy to do face-to-face, often becomes more challenging when the platform moves online. Yet, we must recognize that challenges always bring opportunities.
It’s imperative for administrative teams to remember that every time we bring people together it’s an opportunity to model what we’re looking for from staff. Each time we lead a faculty meeting, an in-service day, or district kickoff, whether in-person or virtually, is an opportunity to model the types of practices we want to see happening in classrooms, and the types of interactions that we want to see in our hallways, faculty rooms, or remote environments. Simply put, if we expect teachers to engage students virtually, we must model the same types of interactions and opportunities as administrators. Anything else is, well, hypocritical.
With that, here are five strategies for a great virtual meeting:
1. Have a Student Emcee
We can never underestimate what our students are capable of doing. If we spend our days talking about the potential of our learners, yet never empower them with real opportunities to lead, we’re saying one thing and modeling another. Unless the meeting is confidential in nature, consider asking a student to emcee the event, even deejaying throughout the meeting. Being learner-centered doesn’t mean we think that way when it’s convenient. Being learner-centered is a lens in which we do all things.
2. Enjoy a Virtual Student Performance
The talent that lines our remote classrooms is exceptional. Some students are incredible writers. Others can design and create like a professional. Others can memorize Mozart and capture an audience in a moment. Consider partnering with your music staff to kick off or wrap up your next virtual meeting. Highlighting the many talents of our musicians will never get old.
3. Launch a Game Show
Some of the best, most engaging openings or in-service days of which I’ve ever been a part happen when the team running the day leverages well-known game shows to highlight staff members, give away personal days, or even budget dollars for classroom supplies. What could your next virtual meeting look like with a Press Your Luck game show theme and staff members as participants? Consider adding a student host into the mix as well.
4. Leverage Breakout Rooms
We can never lose sight of the brilliance found within our district staff. Simultaneously, it’s easy for virtual kickoffs or meetings to feel like one-directional webinars, which often are not engaging, and certainly don’t include the brilliance of all staff members. Leverage breakout rooms, even for short time periods, to solicit feedback, dive into deeper discussions, or simply empower the voice of each team member, regardless of what their role might be. If virtual meetings are simply about compliance and control, asking teachers to do anything different in their classrooms is asking one thing while modeling another.
5. Prioritize the People
Each year, the best openings focus on two things: (1) students and (2) those who lead them each day—your people. What would happen if each virtual meeting, after a short student performance, kicked off with a support staff member of the month or something of that nature? How might that help build a culture where people want to be? The moment we forget that this work is about people—and stop prioritizing them, whether they are five or fifty—we have lost our way completely. Recognize your people authentically, early, and often. For districts that kicked off this year, without spending time to truly honor those people who have fed families (food service), made our buildings spotless (facilities staff), kept our teams safe (health professionals), and others in the midst of a global pandemic, have missed a tremendous opportunity to show appreciation to those that dedicate their lives to helping other people’s children.
There’s not a single superintendent, principal, teacher, or support staff member who has a clue as to what this school year will bring. For the foreseeable future, for many districts, virtual meetings are a reality. They are the option. Each time we pull people together virtually we have two options: (1) focus on challenges, or (2) focus on and model opportunities. Future Ready leaders, whether leading from a district office or from a classroom, will continue to choose the latter, regardless of the circumstance.
Tom Murray (@thomascmurray) serves as the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools® at the Alliance for Excellent Education.
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The new Future Ready Schools® (FRS) podcast series, Leading Through Unprecedented Times, looks at how teaching and learning have shifted online overnight due to mandated school closures across the nation. FRS leaders are simultaneously addressing and amplifying equity issues among marginalized groups as schools become the community hub for food distribution and human connection. Listen to powerful stories from school and district leaders who are overcoming adversity and offering their communities hope as they lead through unprecedented times!
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