Leading from Home

Running a school district is hard work. How do you do it from your house?

As we on the SchoolCEO team began our transition to remote work, we couldn’t help thinking about you: dedicated school leaders all over the country, making hard decisions from your home offices. If we’re having a difficult time adjusting, you surely have it even worse. You’re not just working from home—you’re leading.

So we talked to several private sector experts, pulling together some of the best tips for everything from supporting your staff to staying positive. Here’s what they had to say.

Supporting Your Staff

Show them you care. “It is more important than ever to reach out to individuals in your company,” says Brian Carlson, co-founder and CEO of e-learning provider eThink Education. “Not only are we remote, but we’re also dealing with an unprecedented health crisis throughout the globe. Families are in difficult situations. We have employees whose loved ones have lost their jobs, whose kids are now home. They’re under additional stress. You need to be flexible with those people, but as a leader, you also need to reach out. Take five minutes to pick one person in your company that you have not spoken with today and check in on them.”

Be accessible. “For teachers, it’s best practice to set office hours,” says Rich Henderson, Director of Global Education Solutions at tech company Lenovo. “They might be available for video conferencing between certain times, and parents and students can request a time during those office hours. That goes for administrators as well—you should be setting open office hours for your staff to come to you with questions or concerns.”

Promote best practices around security. “Teachers are still dealing with K-12 students—minors,” says Esther Yoon, Product Marketer at Zoom. “Just like at school, where you have security measures to protect your students, in a virtual environment, there still needs to be that same mentality. One of the most important things that superintendents can do is communicate best practices around security. Make sure you require a password. Don’t post your Zoom meeting link on a public forum, where anyone can just hop on, unless you have the right parameters in place. We have a lot of capabilities in Zoom that can protect teachers. So I would encourage superintendents to take on that leadership role by keeping security top of mind and making sure they’re aware of our security features.”

Provide resources. “I think the number one thing that managers can do right now is provide a very comprehensive and concise list of resources,” says Yoon. “A lot of K-12 teachers are scrambling to find things on their own because they haven’t gotten a really clear how-to on e-learning. Plus, not only are many teachers trying to transition their whole curriculum from this in-person experience to remote, which is a challenge in itself—they’re also doing video conferencing for the first time ever. If superintendents spent a couple of hours aggregating the best resources, it would save their teachers a lot of stress and anxiety.”

Communicating Clearly

Over-communicate. “You have to be proactive with your communications,” says Tom Popomaronis, Vice President of Innovation at Massive Alliance and a veteran of remote work. “It’s easy to go dark sometimes. Everyone’s accessible in an office, and being remote makes it easy to wait for someone to message you. Going out of your way to provide ample oversight or feedback on a project goes a long way for your colleagues and yourself. You’re still present digitally.”

Turn on your video. “Body language is a significant part of your communication,” says Yoon. “It’s a majority of how you communicate and how you respond. With video on, you can see if someone’s distracted. You can see if they’re nodding in approval. If you just jump on a phone call, you’re losing so much in visual communication.”

Keep communication focused. Kerry Hannon is a bestselling author and speaker whose forthcoming book, Great Pajama Jobs: Your Guide to Working from Home, focuses on remote work. “Be respectful of each other’s time,” she tells SchoolCEO. “You absolutely have to have scheduled communication, but it doesn’t have to be about minutia.” Having trouble maximizing your communication? “You might keep a budget for a week of who you’re calling and what you’re doing,” Hannon suggests. “Set a timer if you have to. From there, you can ask yourself how you can streamline your communication.”

Preserving School Culture

Keep everyone connected. “You have to find a way to connect your employees together,” Carlson tells us. “That’s part of your culture. So if you want people to feel connected, like they’re part of the team, video communication is very important, even if it’s just for fun. Last night, for example, we did a virtual happy hour. Everyone got together on video and had a drink, brought their kids to say hi—anything to get away from work for a second. That was very helpful for the group, because we’re all in isolation right now on top of being remote.”

Stay focused on your values. Julie Morgenstern is a New York Times bestselling author of six books on productivity and organization, including her most recent, Time to Parent. “As a leader, your job is to always hold up the flag,” Morgenstern says. “What is your mission? What are your values? During your addresses, in every meeting, challenge your people: This is our mission. We have these obstacles. Let’s brainstorm new ways to achieve that mission in these unique circumstances. That way, you keep reinforcing and rearticulating your identity, and you maintain that culture.”

Be authentic. “People believe that their background, their pets, their children, should never really interrupt their work environment,” says Henderson. “But I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. I’ll be on these important phone calls with educators, and my son will come over. At first I was very tempted to say, Daddy is on a really important call. But now, I just let him interrupt me. We’re all trying to do our best. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to have this perfect environment, and that’s not the case. You’ve just got to get in it and be yourself.”

Engaging the Community

Provide your community with personal updates. “I’m on the board of my high school, and the head of school is adorable,” Hannon tells us. “Every morning, he does a nice little video walking around the empty campus, talking to a student or teacher. He might also share a short video from a teacher saying hi to the student body, showing her dog under her desk, or sharing some fun insight into what it’s been like teaching remotely. Be creative about how you might do a daily message to your school.”

Point to community resources. “One way that superintendents can bring people together at this time is by pointing their families and teachers to resources in their communities,” says Kathryn Haydon, award-winning educator and founder of Sparkitivity. “Where I am, we’ve had a local music venue offer free streaming concerts. The art museum is offering some online programming, and the Nature Center is still open because they’re big enough to accommodate social distancing. Superintendents could really build a lot of great community will by sharing those types of resources with their families.”

Look for the helpers. “Highlight people or organizations in your community who are making an effort to help in this crisis,” says Hannon. “For example, shine a light on organizations who have donated computers or tablets for kids. It makes that organization feel really good that someone’s realizing what they’re doing, but it also shows that you’re part of the community and in touch with people.”

Staying Productive

Respect the workplace—even if it’s in your home. “People think working from home is staying in your pajamas, working in your bed—and people do that, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t advise it,” says Popomaronis. He says it’s key not just to work in a dedicated office space, but also to minimize distraction. “You really need an incredible amount of discipline to be effective,” he says. “I’ll proactively block out distractions by turning on Do Not Disturb mode on my phone or my computer. I’ve also gone as far as setting up a firewall for myself during office hours so I can’t look at certain websites—like I’m my own parental control. It’s about respecting the workplace like you would the office.”

Don’t be afraid to restructure your workday. “It’s very important to get out of the mindset of the eight-hour day,” says Haydon. “Think about all the extra things you usually do during the workday—your commute, meetings, side conversations—that aren’t necessarily productive time. When you’re home, other things can fill those gaps.” Haydon emphasizes this in Sparkitivity’s training on working from home with kids. “You don’t necessarily have to be sitting at your desk for the entire typical work day,” she says. “You might get up very early to do some high-focus work while your family is asleep, then take a break once your kids wake up to get them situated, then go back to your desk. It’s very important to have some flexibility as to when you work.”

Take it week by week, not day by day. “When you’re not in an environment where you’re working together face-to-face all the time, a lot of the guidance we’ve seen is about organizing your work into chunks of time,” says Henderson. “So look at that schedule and what you want to accomplish over the course of a week, instead of looking at it day by day.”

Set clear boundaries with your family. “When you’re working in a home with a lot of people, everyone needs to have their own personal space,” says Haydon. “You need to have ground rules as to when you can bother one  another.”

Taking Care of Yourself

Leave your desk. “For 15 minutes to every hour I work, I go on a long walk with the dog,” Popomaronis tells us. “In an office, you’re getting up, walking around, having water cooler conversations. But at home—one day I had a long project and I literally sat for five straight hours working on it. My feet were numb. You can’t neglect your health, but it’s easy to do when you’re by yourself without the typical distractions. So be proactive with your health. I set a 15-minute timer and do a loop, stretch the legs and the mind, get some fresh air.”

Practice mindfulness. “If you’re a person who does meditation or yoga, try to do that,” Hannon suggests. “It’s a solitary thing, but you’re quieting down that anxiety and finding a sense of balance, because things are so stressful right now.”

Replace your commute with self-care. “When you’re remote, that time that you were otherwise spending commuting can go back into your pocket for self-care,” says Morgenstern. “Rather than waking up and immediately going off to the races, use that time for yourself, for exercise or listening to music—anything that’s going to fuel you up.”

Looking on the Bright Side

Solitude promotes creativity. “In the science of creativity, alone time can function as incubation time, which brings forth new ideas and solutions,” Haydon tells us. “So this is an opportunity to be thinking, What are some new ideas that I can put forward when we get back to school, or even right now? How can I keep moving forward? The people thinking that way will be the ones who come out of this ahead.”

Your staff will be more willing to try new technology. “We’ve been seeing this shift already in education where the teacher’s desk is no longer really the center of the classroom,” says Henderson. “We’ve seen this natural shift to address different learning styles, to address the different needs of students. We’ve been introducing digital tools, and now, after this situation, any hesitation that there was in trying new technology and trying something new is thrown out the window. You really have to take the risk.”

You’ll learn about yourself. “I’m a big fan of remote work,” says Hannon. “I think there’s so many good things to learn about yourself and about your work habits, your time management habits, your discipline, your communication skills. You’re never going to regret getting better at time management, or drawing boundaries between work and family, or communication. When we get back into the workplace, you’ll have learned something about how you work best.