Future-Forward Leadership

Leading Catholic Schools Through the COVID Crisis by Living Our Mission

Contributors
Jeff Hausman, President, Arrupe Virtual Learning Institute
Jack Peterson, Principal, Managing for Mission

Dr. Tim Uhl, Superintendent, Montana Catholic Schools, and Blogger/Podcaster: “Catholic School Matters”

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a worldwide crisis, it is a defining moment in the history of our Catholic schools as we have been presented with an entirely new reality. Not only are students and parents negotiating this new educational reality, many are relying on and searching for community and a deeper purpose in a time of great anxiety and confusion. The core tenets of our Catholic schools – educational excellence, leadership, faith, and community – uniquely position us to respond, serving our students, their families, and the Church.

Though the crisis is real and immediate, this is not a time for hasty action. Our response must be rooted in mission and consider the now, this coming fall, and the future. The following attempts to provide guidance to all who work in, support and benefit from Catholic schools as we negotiate the particular challenges that exist in our local communities.

The leadership of now.

There is a special brand of situational leadership needed in the midst of crisis that calls for clarity and action: clarity of vision and in communication, and integrity of actions. School heads and principals must reassure, listen, assess, formulate, and act. Ground your actions in values. Commit to your plan recognizing that it will need adjusting, and ask for forgiveness when necessary.

Educational excellence must remain at the center of our Catholic schools’ work. However, schools may need to temporarily redefine what excellence looks like. Excellence is defined by quality, integrity, and resilience. What are the quality standards schools should strive to attain in the next two months?  Integrity involves matching behaviors with purpose. What practices and benchmarks define the needed response? What supports are in place to help faculty and staff remain resilient and stay the course?

While educational excellence is paramount, the hallmark of Catholic education is the building of community and its focus on faith. Building community is our expertise and in times of crisis people seek out experts. Witnessing the ways in which schools are responding to students and parents is inspiring. Schools are using online tools to facilitate the ritual of daily morning prayer, the celebration of the Mass, the continuation of clubs and extracurriculars, communicating parenting tips, and simply being present to those in their communities. All of these efforts make a real difference for students and families, and they flow naturally from the hearts of our schools. This is Catholic education at its finest. We are grateful to all our colleagues engaged in this work with such courage and generosity.

These efforts also build goodwill for what comes next. The harder and more important part of leadership will be negotiating our new normal. One of the great metaphors of leadership during turmoil is that of taking a bridge to the opposite shore of a fast flowing river. Once the bridge has been crossed, however, many yearn for the safety of the familiar and wish to return. Sometimes the role of the leader is to burn the bridge to prevent a retreat. In today’s world, the coronavirus has burned the bridge for us, and the sooner we come to terms with the fact that we won’t be returning, the better off we’ll be.

This fall’s leadership.

Today, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. Our hope is that schools will be in session in the fall but interruptions are likely. There is a strong possibility that enrollments will be down. Foreign exchange programs will suffer. Some parents will remain out of work. Endowments may be smaller and in all likelihood schools’ financial situations will be more precarious. Educators will be stressed not only from teaching, but from the disruptions to their personal lives caused by the pandemic. In short, things will remain unpredictable, and there will be a gap between current and desired programming and the resources available to support them. Pretending otherwise is folly.

This spring, our schools have been improvising and reacting to the new circumstances.  As we begin planning for what will almost certainly be a rocky 2020-21 school year, it’s important to ensure that these plans align with mission. For those in leadership, a clear-headed assessment of the state of your schools is essential. Hard choices will likely follow, and great care will be required to shape schools’ apostolic purpose, pedagogical practice, operations, and community.  It’s worth spending some time to consider how we would like our Catholic schools to be different this fall as a result of  their remote learning experience this spring.  How will the lessons from this spring shape this fall?

Leading into the future.

How we choose to negotiate 2020-21 will help inform a larger discussion about the future of schools – a future in need of a serious rethinking of “business as usual.” Up until now, this article has not advocated for any particular approach or solution as schools find themselves in widely different circumstances. Here, however, we must. We believe that the future success of individual Catholic schools lies in the collective of Catholic schools, setting aside competition and siloes. Schools must collaborate. Those who are willing and able to look outside themselves and innovate have a strong chance of stemming the tide and emerging as better, more flexible versions of themselves. Those that aren’t willing won’t.

Once again, we must turn to our core tenets of educational excellence, leadership, faith, and community. This time, however, the focus shifts from how schools currently live out their mission to how they envision living their mission in a manner attuned with the needs and capacities of their communities. We each need to ask ourselves:

  • How do Catholic schools orient their work toward their apostolic purpose of faith and service?
  • What does excellence look like for our students in Catholic schools? And how can we build a pedagogical model that best prepares them for a life of engagement for and with the world community?
  • Are there new business paradigms that might make schools more effective, efficient, responsive, and sustainable?
  • How do we engage, support, and care for all community stakeholders in the service of the Church’s educational mission?

Schools’ response to each of these important questions can be aided by looking outside the walls of their buildings and expanding their thinking regarding what and who they consider to be resources. Consider the Cristo Rey Network as an example. Twenty-five years ago when the first Cristo Rey school was being considered in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago’s southside, Fr. John Foley knew that something different was needed. With the support of benefactors, businesses, the Society of Jesus, local Catholic schools, and other community members, a new model was born that has now spread to communities across the United States and involves numerous religious orders and dioceses.

Today, technology serves as the bridge schools need for deeper, more meaningful collaboration. A myriad of approaches and tools exist to improve student learning and provide access to quality content, programs, and talent. Other resources are in place to share business functions and provide more direct access to stakeholders.

Each of the contributors to this article represents an organization working with Catholic schools across the US and Canada.  To help them become stronger, we consult, podcast, facilitate conferences, make free resources available, provide on-line learning options and do everything we can to help Catholic schools find strength in collaborating with each other. Our work gives us a unique perspective on the critical importance of collaboration for our schools going forward. Arrupe Virtual, for instance, employs talented teachers from throughout North America in offering coursework schools can use to augment their current offerings; and the Arrupe Bridges Project provides schools a virtual ecosystem for collaborating with one another on hybrid brick-and-mortar/online programs of common need and interest. All for the purpose of helping schools effectively manage existing resources and access critical, quality, mission-aligned resources and talent from others.

In Chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of coping with change by saying, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Through this coronavirus crisis, we are being provided new wine. Now is the time to choose where to store it.

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