Covid Lessons: What I Learned During the Pandemic and How it Impacted My Leadership Practice
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Thoughts on the Article | Frances O'Connell Rust
Almost a year into what many are now describing as “COVID times,” many of us who work in the field of education are trying to step back and discern what lessons have been and are being learned from the changes imposed on us as the disease made its presence known in every aspect of our lives. We are especially interested in lessons that can help us to do better as educators and as people. Allison Guerra’s narrative, “COVID-19 Lessons: What I Learned During the Pandemic and How It Impacted My Leadership Practice,” came to the editorial board of Voices of Practitioners as a response to our call for stories from the field—a way for readers to understand those lessons.
When COVID-19 hit, Allison was a newly appointed interim director of a university campus early childhood center and had barely begun establishing her presence as a new leader knitting together a fractured community. In the short time between the summer of 2019 and the spring of 2020, she had developed a variety of community-building efforts with her faculty and with the families of the program—efforts that seemed to be working when, in mid-March, the mayor of San Francisco, announced a stay-at-home order for the entire city. As we all know now, it was weeks, stretched into months, before early childhood programs in San Francisco and around the country were able to reopen. How Allison rallied the educators and families of the center is a remarkable story, full of lessons about leadership in community; the importance of vision, commitment, honesty, and transparency; and being able to seek and give help.
About the Author
Frances O'Connell Rust is professor emerita at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, Teacher Education Quarterly, NAEYC’s Voices of Practitioners, and Teachers and Teaching–Theory and Practice.
Laying the Foundation
In the fall of 2019, I embarked on a new role as Interim Director of Children’s Campus at San Francisco State University. Children’s Campus is a tuition-supported program on the San Francisco State University campus that provides in-service teaching opportunities for college students and faculty research. It is the program where I had my first full-time teaching position 10 years prior. Children’s Campus is where I laid down the foundation for my own teaching practice, started to understand my educational values, and built my network of educators who continue to influence me today.
When I started as interim director, the program was in a vulnerable place and experiencing frequent transitions in leadership. With the added issues of high stress and low wages (the typical staffing dilemmas that curse the field of early childhood education), I honestly felt a pinch overwhelmed, though that feeling was balanced out with the excitement of this new beginning.
I was given three key goals by my new supervisor:
- Hire and retain teaching staff.
- Enhance the sense of community.
- Mend program-family relationships.
I agreed to these goals, but I also understood that to hit these marks I needed to prioritize building relationships with the children, their families, and the educators I worked with. For me, leadership requires accepting responsibility to set a tone that inspires a sense of community, and I know that working closely with children, families, and educators is an intimate experience and responsibility. I thought the most immediate need was with the staff; I needed to bond with this group of educators over teaching experiences and spend time with them in their classrooms.
Over the next few months, I allotted time to get to know the staff and let them get to know me. One way in which I explored building community with the 12 head teachers was by opening up a conversation with the group about how they were using the curriculum planning document that had been used for the previous few school years. I had to ask a few specific questions to get the group to open up, but once they started, I learned a lot about this team of educators. These were important data that I would use to navigate my role and relationship with them and the rest of the staff, and it proved to be crucial in securing the head teachers’ help in planning for the campus’ reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown.
“By sharing the spotlight, the conversation becomes less of a top-down approach from the director and more an exchange among the school community.” (Leekeenan & Chin Ponte, 110)
While doing this, I also thought about how to strategically build a positive repertoire and genuine trust with the 40 or more families of Children’s Campus. Within the first few weeks, I launched a new community event, Coffee and Community. I purchased a travel-size coffee carrier from Starbucks and posted myself in the school lobby with to-go cups. I offered coffee to each family member that passed; a few would stop and sit with me while others grabbed a cup on their way out. I took this opportunity to learn more about each family and lead with curiosity, “Oh, what school does your older child attend?” or “Do you have any plans this weekend?” This became a regular monthly happening.
Directing Through the Unknown
In early January, a parent reached out to me inquiring about how Children’s Campus was addressing growing concerns from families and staff about the coronavirus, but it wasn’t until early March that the seriousness of this unknown virus came into focus for me, our faculty, and our families.
Shortly after lunch on Monday March 16th, Mayor London Breed declared that San Francisco was implementing a stay-at-home order effective at midnight. By 3:00 p.m., I sent the email that I had drafted the Friday before confirming Children’s Campus’ closure for the next two weeks. At the end of the day, I had all the teaching staff come together. I asked for flexibility and patience and promised to keep the team informed. I went home that night thinking, This will be over soon. The teachers will have a couple weeks off. They will get some time to rest.
“Two weeks later” arrived, and I realized we were going to be closed for a long time. And then came the stress of having to figure out the big and little problems: When will Children’s Campus reopen? Is there a target date? Will families be charged for tuition? Will teachers really be wearing masks all day?
I felt nervous each morning when I opened my laptop to check my emails. How could I share with the families what I knew and didn’t know? At about this time, I was asked to join an administrators group hosted and facilitated by San Francisco’s First5 organization. I remember being really nervous as I joined the first meeting. I honestly felt insecure that I didn't know enough about COVID-19, the regulations that were now guiding early learning programs, and when and how reopening might happen. After just a few minutes into the meeting, I felt humbled by how much we could learn from one another. None of us knew what was going on. So began the genuine professional sharing of everything we were trying in our own settings for families and staff.
With the help of Itza, the assistant director, I planned and hosted a series of virtual town hall meetings for families each morning for a week. We also recorded them to share with those who couldn’t come. At the same time, we realized that, to keep the community strong, we also had to keep the Children’s Campus staff in the loop so we could learn together. We found that they, too, had many questions about returning to school, what it would look like and when. Together, we quickly scheduled a recurring weekly meeting with all head teachers. Itza and I also requested that the program’s mental health consultant host “mindfulness meetings'' with the staff to offer support during this unusually stressful time.
These weekly head teacher meetings quickly became my favorite each week. It brought me joy to see the 12 of them and to hear about the activities they were creating through their virtual meetings with the children and what they were working on for the families. Itza and I used our 60 to 90 minutes with the team to develop our reopening plan. We also created a shared document where the teachers could ask questions about the new regulations that were being created by the local department of public health.
“That’s why building relationships is one of a leader’s most important jobs. When you truly engage with teachers and know where they are, you have the information you need to coach them on how to move forward.” (Miller 2020)
As we moved closer to reopening, individual families began to reach out to me to discuss their family’s current situation, to follow up on tuition, or to gauge the implications of our reopening timeline. I had to be strategically vague on these issues because no one knew how or when we would start again. One morning in late May really stands out to me. I came into work that day and sat at the front desk to respond to a dozen phone calls. Back-to-back, I listened to each family member tell me about how they had been impacted by COVID-19. One parent started to cry as she shared that her husband had been laid off and she didn’t know how they could afford to send both of their children back to the program. As I hung up the phone after the last call, I realized how powerful COVID-19’s impact was on the entire community.
Reopening: A New Normal?
On a typical overcast morning in July of 2020, Children’s Campus reopened: Thermometers ready, air purifiers going, windows open, masks on, signage posted, health screenings completed for all the children who had returned. I sat in my office for a few minutes in silence and took a deep breath. A few moments later, Itza entered my office; she sat down too. I don’t remember the details of our conversation that morning, but there was this sense of relief between us. We had hit the goal: Children’s Campus’ doors were open (with 20 fewer children).
Over the next months, I continued to attend my administrators group meetings and reach out to my friends in the field when I felt stuck. These were “my people”; they understood how heavy this felt on my heart and mind. It was such a contrast to many of my close friends who worked in different industries and who raved and raved about how great it was to work from home; they were thrilled not to return to the office.
It seemed as if I had my feet in two different worlds—one in the center and the other in everything else—and the differences came across to me in strange ways. For example, one morning in October, I asked for a one-on-one meeting with Lupe, a head teacher. I had to share difficult news: due to low enrollment and other factors, I made the decision to close the classroom that Lupe was going to lead. As she entered my office, I took a deep breath; I was nervous. This was particularly hard because the year had already been filled with moments of disappointment for her. Because of COVID-19, she’d not been able to take on the infant class that she’d requested to lead. Once I finished sharing the news, I could feel her disappointment, and that made me feel defeated.
“This year just isn’t what I expected,” Lupe said. As she finished her sentence, I could feel my eyes filling up with tears. Even with all my strength, I couldn’t fight it, and I started crying. I looked up and said, “This year isn’t at all what I expected either.” I quickly apologized for crying, stood up, and asked, “Lupe, can we please finish this meeting later?” I had created this rule for myself not to ever cry in front of the teaching staff or families. I didn’t want anyone to know how heavy this was feeling for me; I was the director, and I had to keep it together even though I felt as if I was drowning.
She agreed and then asked, “Allison, can I give you a hug?” I needed a hug and with it, I was instantly reminded, I am not in this alone. I had prioritized supporting the head teachers. Now, I realized, they were also supporting me. We had to support one another not just to survive, but to learn during this experience.
Another example occurred later in the fall when a parent requested a meeting to discuss the curriculum in her child’s classroom. Against my better judgement, we scheduled a phone call for a week later. What I was unable to share was that I had learned that both of my parents and my brother had contracted COVID-19. (It is important to note that my mom has multiple sclerosis and is considered high-risk.) By the time I remembered the call, I almost thought about canceling. I didn’t feel like myself. I was consumed with worry and fear for my family. I took the call. Within the first minute, I could feel my body tightening and realized I wasn’t really listening. I went to talk and could feel tears and a knot in my throat. I took a breath and apologized and then blurted out, “I am so sorry, my parents are sick with COVID-19, and I am distracted and do not feel like I am listening.” She responded, “Allison, I am so sorry. My mom was sick during the summer. I understand.” Like Lupe, she was reminding me that we were in this together.
The New Now
With the beginning of 2021—a year into COVID-19—I started to understand how I could learn from the challenges this pandemic presented and how some of the changes were actually improvements. For example, according to the local and federal agencies, operational changes had to occur within early learning programs to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading. The two most notable changes for Children’s Campus were reduced hours and smaller classroom sizes.
Prior to the program’s closure due to COVID-19, teachers and children began to arrive at 7:30 a.m.; the teaching staff had staggered shifts. Since reopening, all full-time staff arrive at 8:00 a.m., and children begin to arrive at 8:30 a.m. This change was originally designated to provide 30 minutes for intensified cleaning and as a response to reduced staffing, but it has provided multiple benefits. Now, the full-time staff have 30 minutes each day without children present to fully prepare for their day of working with young children. The head teachers have this sacred 30 minutes to check-in with each other, finish their last sips of coffee, or set up the final touches for an activity. This is a change that has provided more than just ensuring that materials are properly cleaned; it allows for real discussion about our work together as educators.
By reducing class sizes, I have observed a multitude of benefits. Small group sizes allow for a deeper connection between teacher and child, teacher and teacher, and teacher and family. Small class sizes have also enabled me to better allocate staff to meet ratio requirements and spur-of-the-moment activities. Both have been essential to building each classroom’s community during these unpredictable times.
“As director, it is essential that you nurture relationships with families, children, and teachers. Positive relationships do not just happen; they must be built over time through interactions that are authentic, reciprocal, and mutually respectful. Make time for your entire school community . . .” (Leekeenan & Chin 2018, 18)
The lessons of COVID-19 have been unexpected and surprising gifts. I have experienced what community feels like as Children Campus’ director, and I sense that feeling has been contagious. My effort to prioritize communication with the staff and families meant that we learned together. By approaching this challenge with transparency (Itza and I talking with teachers and families, teachers and families talking frankly with us) created space for the community to grow together. Our mutual vulnerability gave us strength to know and trust one another and has enabled us to come together as a caring community.
LeeKeenan, D. & I. Chin Ponte. 2018. Survive to Thrive: A Director’s Guide for Leading an Early Childhood Education Program. Washington, DC: NAEYC
Mullikin, J. 2020. “The Value of Setting a Clear School Vision This Year.” Edutopia. edutopia.org/article/value-setting-clear-school-vision-year
Allison Guerra, MEd, has been involved in the realm of early childhood education for over 15 years. Growing up she observed her grandmother and mother operate an at-home family child care program, which sparked her interest in working with young children and families. Allison has held unique leadership roles including child care specialist, assistant program director, and site coordinator in early childhood settings within the Bay Area. She is currently the director at Children’s Campus, the lab school on San Francisco State University’s campus. She is passionate about advocating for the workforce and reflective leadership practices.