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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Ruminations on post-pandemic schooling
Best practices to strengthen engagement
By Kevin Skelly | September | October 2022
After 40 years as an educator and nearly 15 as a superintendent, I’m retiring in a few days. While I’ll miss the students, it’s the colleagues I have worked with whose absence in my life feels like the most impending loss. As I think about what I’ve learned from the people with whom I’ve labored to create transformative experiences for students, here are some thoughts as I move to the next chapter of my life.
1. If you want to lead, make time to be on campus
In August, every principal I know pledges to spend more time in the classroom in their goals for the year, and in June, virtually all of them lament falling short of this aspiration. I made similar pledges to go to sites and fell short, so I adopted some strategies to help me spend more time where the action is. My administrative team and I committed to observing every non-permanent credentialed staff member once a semester. It’s remarkable what we learned. I also brought ice cream to staff at the sites at least once a year at lunchtime. Yes, I also wanted to know when PTA luncheons or other events took place because I loved to eat, but also because it was a chance to see and be seen. There’s nothing like breaking bread or sharing an ice cream drumstick to stir a conversation. I also created a section in my weekly memo to the Board entitled “Visits to Sites.” This created accountability that my absolutely important but often not urgent goal needed to be tended to.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant a dire shortage of substitute teachers. District office staff and I rolled up our sleeves to sub as often as we could manage. This made a world of difference to show our support to schools. I realized I wish I had substituted in schools a lot more. It’s amazing what you learn by doing the work of someone else. When I subbed, I was made aware of what students needed, where my administrative colleagues at the site were or should be putting their time, and how district initiatives didn’t always hit the mark. Site staff really appreciated the fact that we district folks were “eating our own cooking” and honoring their work by being in solidarity with it.
2. Help your best classified staff become credentialed staff
Every school has classified staff members, particularly instructional aides, who would make wonderful teachers. And all over the state, there are efforts to make this happen. It seems to me that the biggest issues facing folks who would like to make this change is time and money. Working with local state universities, we’ve had success having instructional aides transition to part-time teachers who work on intern credentials and take classes at night. By teaching roughly 60 percent of full-time or so, they made a comparable salary to what they were making as instructional aides and had the space in their lives to take credential classes. They had the time and the financial resources to begin a teaching career. In our district, we help pay for credential courses for members of our classified staff through an agreement with our classified union. It is money well spent. In addition, we offer a program to encourage our staff to pay down their student loan debt. It’s remarkable how crushing student loans are for many people. Since our instructional aide ranks are more racially diverse than our teaching staff, we’ve increased the diversity of our teaching corps in the process.
3. Help the young (including your students) apply for positions
Many young people, particularly those from families with no white-collar work experience, do not have experience applying for jobs. The first cover letter and resume a student creates may be for a job in our district. It’s not, perhaps, typical for employers to help prospective employees with their job applications, but the present times are not typical, and our efforts to diversify our staff call for new efforts. Further, it seems there are always financial costs to new jobs in the form of fingerprinting, TB testing, licensing and the like. These are impediments some of us with family resources have never faced. It’s time to take a look at some of these issues with fresh eyes and eliminate these barriers or support applicants through these barriers wherever possible.
4. Having staff demographics that resemble our student populations may get harder, but this goal is more important than ever
California’s K-12 students have a different, more diverse demographic profile than does the state’s adult working population. This makes it more difficult to create a staff that have the ethnic and racial backgrounds of the students we serve. If we’re going to make inroads in this area, we’re going to have to redouble our efforts. And it’s going to be a challenge. Most schools rightly give existing staff members input into who joins their school. In our district, we have built an expectation that every staff member participating in the selection process to fill a vacancy go through training in an attempt to eliminate as much explicit or implicit bias as possible.
A looming challenge to diversifying the school staff will be the wave of declining enrollment that is crashing down on most of our districts. It’s pretty darn hard to diversify when you are laying off or not hiring. There are few people left who remember the Baby Bust or the effects of Proposition 13 when schools were laying off all their younger, less experienced staff. It’s not out of the question that such a time will return, and the effects on schools will be dramatic. It’s entirely possible that declining enrollment could make some districts less racially diverse than they are today because our most senior staff are often the least diverse in our districts.
As we recover from the pandemic and the alienation from school that many students feel, having role models and educators who can relate to their life experiences and culture is more important than ever. The task is more urgent, and perhaps more difficult, than ever.
5. Working in schools may become less attractive
When I was a student in school in Virginia, some of the most impactful teachers I had were the Black men who taught math and science in the schools because careers in other fields were cut off to them because of the widespread discrimination they faced. Similarly, many women traditionally became teachers because other fields were less welcoming of their talents. More recently, the dot-com crash in the early 2000s brought people, whose prospects in the tech industry evaporated, to teaching. Like any profession, the supply of educators is part of a complex web of differences in pay, benefits, lifestyle opportunities and family dynamics.
I fear that the unprecedented changes happening in our society are going to have the net effect of making a career as a teacher or school employee less attractive. The heralding of remote work may be the biggest change. In the past, a parent would strongly consider becoming an educator because the school day and the school year for a teacher matched their own children’s schedule. The pandemic has altered the expectations around work. Far more careers appear poised to have flexible schedules and opportunities to work from home are becoming the norm. This means that parents can join professions where they can be present to their own children in new, and perhaps better ways than they could have if they were a teacher. Said another way, members of the workforce don’t need to choose a career in education to match their own children’s schedules. Further, why risk catching the flu or other sickness that’s going around. In short, many of the best educators I’ve seen are drawn to the attractive rhythm and features K-12 schools uniquely offered. It seems those advantages may not be distinctive anymore.
Like many other employers, we’re searching for ways to allow more working from home when possible and reducing the punishing night work expectations for our high school administrators.
In response, policymakers, school boards and district leaders are going to have to become more flexible about what they expect from staff. Like many other employers, we’re searching for ways to allow more working from home when possible and reducing the punishing night work expectations for our high school administrators. Teaching has intrinsic rewards that almost no other profession can match, but it may take higher pay to compensate for more attractive opportunities outside the schoolhouse walls.
6. When you identify the best talent, find a place for them
In 2001, Jim Collins wrote the best-seller “Good to Great.” It’s full of important lessons and is a great read for any leader. The piece that struck me was his idea about talent. Nothing is more important to a business than the talent it employs — what Collins calls, “getting the right people on the bus.”
Sometime back, I met an amazing woman through a mutual friend — well educated, from an immigrant family, with experience at a top management consulting firm, poised, personable, humble and eager to make a difference. She shadowed our organization for a bit, and I wished I had any position to offer her, even though her background didn’t check the typical boxes schools look for. Since I knew that many of the district superintendents had openings on their teams, I sent her resume out to my superintendent colleagues. I wasn’t surprised that my most forward-thinking colleague jumped at the chance to talk to her while more traditional districts could not move outside their hidebound structures to consider the potential she had to offer their organizations. She is now thriving in a district leadership position, her superintendent was ecstatic to have her creative ideas during the pandemic, and she has an incredibly bright future serving students in public schools.
There’s a common saying: “If you want to know what schools will look like 10 years from now, take a good look at what they look like today.” As I move on from my position, the winds of societal change feel stronger than ever. While schools have traditionally been some of our country's most conservative institutions, it will be the wise educational leader who is thinking about how to adapt and adjust. Flexibility and a finger to the wind may be more prized than ever.

Kevin Skelly is retired and formerly the superintendent at the San Mateo Union High School District.
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