Leadership in Crisis

Jamie Williamson, Head of The Windward School

On September 9, 2019, I began my first year at The Windward School, fully committed to Windward’s mission and energized by the challenges I knew lay ahead. At the time, I was unaware that the transition would be defined by its unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, both for me personally and for us as a community. The start of the 2020-2021 school year finds us stretching into our eighth month of navigating the COVID-19 health crisis, and its full impact and lasting effects are becoming increasingly evident. Now more than ever, it is paramount to look to our compass for clear direction: to the Windward mission and its values, to finding opportunity in adversity, and to grounding ourselves in our commitment to our children. 

Now more than ever, it is paramount to look to our compass for clear direction: to the Windward mission and its values, to finding opportunity in adversity, and to grounding ourselves in our commitment to our children.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently shared a news release emphasizing the importance of reopening K-12 schools for in-person instruction. It noted, “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention…. Schools should prioritize reopening for grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction” (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020). For Windward, we knew that there would be dual priorities for reopening: both to expand the instructional spaces available so that we could offer in-person instruction for all students and to ensure that students who opted into remote learning (either part- or full-time) received the same quality and breadth of instruction as their in-person counterparts. Any changes made to facilities, protocols, and health and safety measures had to remain guided by the core elements—comprehensive, multi-sensory, and language-rich direct instruction—that provide the backbone of our instructional model. 

In times of crisis, people’s anxieties about widespread uncertainty can manifest into less-than-productive conversations and sharing of incomplete information, and invisible armies emerge. These are the times when it is critical to stay on course, and we at Windward were led by our vision of a world where every child with a language-based learning disability is empowered to achieve unlimited success. In practical terms, that meant crafting a reopening model that provided our students not only with new health measures to keep them safe but also with robust academic supports, tools, and social and emotional resources to help them thrive. It also meant stretching ourselves to grow within this moment. “[Right now,] we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to course-correct, to take what we have experienced and learned and create a vision for education that is more inclusive, responsive, and purposeful than it has ever been” (Edutopia, 2020). 

Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I’ve been considering those words seriously these past several months as we reframe what our educational environment looks like in a post-COVID-19 world. When we transitioned to remote learning last spring, it was immediately clear how important fully integrated technology would be to the program, both in the near and long term. Realizing on day three that our content management system would not be sufficient for our new needs, we pivoted, secure in the knowledge that we didn’t need more time with a broken system. In the short term, this switch presented additional challenges; however, in the long term it has presented an amazing opportunity to think about how technology can fit it into the framework of Windward. 

A large part of the success of the remote learning program can be attributed to the adaptability of our families and their willingness to trust the leadership team with the major changes required. Our families’ confidence in Windward during this health crisis underscores what is most special about our community—providing a safe space for us to grow, to experiment, and to support one another. Navigating this experience together has made us all stronger, and “it’s now undeniable that we are all connected to each other, that actions matter, and that we can have a dramatic influence on the health and well-being of others” (Edutopia, 2020). 

The idea of our influence on each other (and on younger generations) becomes especially critical when we consider the specific needs of our student body. The Brookings Institution recently released a report analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on student achievement, and the results were sobering, especially for reading. The report noted, “These preliminary…estimates suggest students could begin fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading from the prior year relative to a typical school year” (Brookings Institution, 2020). 

With an instructional model that is wholly targeted on remediating reading deficiencies, we simply cannot afford to allow our students to fall behind. Fortunately, the direct instruction model of instruction has been shown to shine in the remote learning environment. Not only that, but it is flexible, so students participating in person and remote learners receive the same benefits. Its key components remain unchanged regardless of instructional setting: “1) Students are placed in instruction at their skill level. 2) The program’s structure is designed to ensure mastery of content. 3) Instruction is modified to accommodate each student’s rate of learning” (National Institute for Direct Instruction, n.d.). Even more importantly, the Windward program is research-based and field-tested, which ensures that students are never left faltering in a reading program that is not effective for their needs. 

This health crisis continues to test us as a society and as a community in ways we didn’t know were possible. Our children are suffering from the ambiguous loss of familiar structures, ways of life, and even the ability to meet up with friends and extended family (Haelle, 2020). It is crucial for us to be present for them and acknowledge their unique needs in this moment. “Now that students have lived through this, we can’t stop having conversations about hard things: loss, grief and societal issues such as inequality, oppression, and poverty. We have an opportunity to use this openness to heal and show that we can indeed have hard conversations, move through challenges, and come out the other side, together” (Edutopia, 2020). In these circumstances, we look to our north star to get our bearings: For Windward, that is our commitment to learning, our commitment to community, and our commitment to making an impact. By modeling resilience in the face of adversity, compassion for others, and curiosity about disrupting the status quo, we demonstrate to our children that anything is possible.