John Dewey wrote, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.” But what experiences can leaders draw upon to learn about the pandemic? The most challenging thing about our current condition is its singularity. The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 people in this country, but that was in 1918. There’s so much we do not know because no one alive today has lived through anything like this.
Admitting “I don’t know” may be one of the most difficult things for me to acknowledge as a leader, but there’s one area of school management in which I should possess a great deal of practice with this simple phrase. Indeed, most middle school principals in the Northeast of the United States have practiced saying it for decades with regards to a peculiar regional phenomenon: The Snow Day.
Weather is fickle. I don’t know if this will change now that students have been forced to remain in their homes for nearly 10 weeks, but it can be taken as an article of faith that middle school kids love a good snow day. If the forecast calls for snow, kids will study the sky and scour weather reports on their phones to determine whether school will be closed the following day.
As a principal, I make it my business to be present in the hallways as much as possible. On days of impending snow, if 500 kids pass me in the hallway, I’ll be asked 500 times, “Is school closed tomorrow, Dr. Gately?” The skilled middle school principal has learned to keep a poker face at times like this. Of course, I say, “I don’t know.” In my setting, these decisions are made by the superintendent of schools, not by the principal (thank goodness). Nevertheless, my kids either don’t realize this decision isn’t mine or they think I have an inside track on the determination. So they ask, constantly.
Adolescents are discerning observers of facial expression and body language. After all, middle school is essentially like Marine Boot Camp devoted to preparing students for a life of social interaction. So I occupy a world in which kids are keenly attuned to nonverbal communication. They watch everything we do. It’s essential that I remain stone-faced when I’m asked if school will be open. If I say, “I don’t know”, but my facial expression communicates, “I wonder if there’s gas in my snowblower?”; my 13-year-old amateur detectives will pick that up until the whole school believes, “Dr. Gately said we’re having a snow day tomorrow.” Even before social media, a rumor like this would travel around my school in about eight minutes. You’d hear a collective cheer raised by the entire student body. But this doesn’t happen because I possess years of experience with “Snow Day Stone Face.” I really should play more poker, but I don’t allow gambling in the lunchroom.
Our generation may not have dealt with a global pandemic before, but we have experiences, however tangential, that can be referred to for guidance as we cope with one. What experiences are you calling upon to be successful in these trying times? I need to know. I need all the help I can get.