In what seems like eons ago, I used to visit classrooms and take pride in asking students  “what if” questions, “What if the South won the Civil War?”; “What if the world was flat?”;  “What if money cannot buy happiness?” But it never occurred to me to ask,  “What if there were a pandemic?”

That’s the question that not even the adults know the answer to.

In searching for an answer, perhaps we should listen to our youth who will forever be changed by this trauma, to people like the national Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman,

In this chaos we will discover clarity,

In suffering we must find solidarity

For it is our grief that gives us our gratitude,

Shows us how to find hope,

If we ever lose it shall ensure this ache was injured in vain

Do not ignore the pain,

Give it purpose, use it.

Allow students to make sense out of all the chaos, all the pain, and give it purpose. But to do that, districts need to radically change their mindset. Ironically, we have been attempting to teach growth mindsets to students but forgot to teach ourselves and our organizations. To navigate a post pandemic world, I suggest that school leaders do four essential things:

1: Build a nimble culture that cultivates leaders who acknowledge and embrace ambiguity, knowing that change is necessary, fluid, and often messy.  In charting the way forward, nimble leaders recognize that information is often incomplete and that change involves risk, so some failure will always be part of the calculus but critical learning, insight, and growth will also be the result of failure.  Leaders must operate knowing the difference between the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and the unknown unknowns.  Prior to COVID-19, most educators were concerned about the known knowns, stuff that we know, e.g.-traditional metrics.  Now, organizations have to be focused on the other three domains, stuff that we don’t know.  The danger is what MIT professor Fred Koffman, calls leadership based on “ontological arrogance,” when one is not aware that he doesn’t know, but unfortunately, thinks he knows.

2: Learn three dimensional chess.  I am a big Star Trek fan and I used to marvel at the three dimensional chessboard that Spock and Kirk played on. I use that analogy to help onboard our administrators who need to understand the importance of what the late business guru, Russell Ackoff called, “dynamic systemness”, which we emphasize is much more than just managing a school site; it’s about having fluid systems that allow for stakeholder engagement and voice that support nimble decision-making.  The first level of the board is embracing system leadership for leaders at their own school site, supporting leadership teams, as well as parent, teacher, and student engagement; the second level is connecting and collaborating with the central or district office, ensuring that communication is two-way and built on trust and vulnerability; and the third, which is often neglected but vitally important especially now; navigating and connecting with community stakeholders, including higher education, potential corporate and non-profit partners, as well as religious organizations. Each of these levels requires strong emotional and relational intelligence among site and district leaders.

3. Change mindset from reactive to proactive. Being proactive means seeing the possible implications and consequences of events occurring now, asking questions like; “What does this mean for already marginalized students?”  “What will happen to the job market for young people? ”What are we learning about changed behaviors resulting from sheltering?” “Can we create a new educational model that better prepares students for the post pandemic world?” For over two decades, educators have operated in a reactive mode, building our systems and structures based on state and federally defined “academic” metrics.  Sadly at this critical time, we have an entirely reactionary education culture driven by accountability metrics rather than focusing on what skills students need for life.  Literacy expert Kelly Gallagher says that “we have prepared students for a multiple choice rather than an essay world.” It’s time to move forward and change the system.

4. Integrate the 5Cs-collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and compassion. These are the essential skills that students need to navigate a world that no longer offers a secure future. More than ever, these skills will develop their EQ, emotional and relational intelligence to engage and succeed in a world of uncertainty, economic hardship, ever-changing job prospects, and rising social tension.  The fifth C-compassion, especially self-compassion, love and empathy will be vital. Ultimately, students will have to learn to innovate, and create solutions to the massive problems ahead which will lead to new jobs and industries. School leaders must change systems to better prepare students for this new reality.

Although we do not yet know what a post-pandemic world looks like, if we create a nimble culture, play three dimensional chess, develop a proactive mindset, and integrate the 5Cs, we will be able to stay above the water and flow with the current.

Ultimately this journey is not about taking the road less traveled, but forging ahead into the wilderness, into a great unknown, and creating a new path forward, not in isolation, but tethered together with a common human spirit so that we will emerge as Ms. Gorman triumphantly states,  “as one and defeat both despair and disease.”

Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, is a nationally recognized 21st century educational leader known for innovation, entrepreneurship, and building creative collaborations with private, public, and non-profit sectors, which have extended and transformed educational opportunities for students. He has been honored as one of the twelve national “Leaders to Learn From” award from Education Week Magazine, the “Visionary Education Leadership Award” from Cal State University Fullerton, and the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) 2017 Administrator of the Year award.  

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