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Adopting a Future-as-Present Frame of Mind

Shanghai American School’s Head of Campus offers some reflections on leading a school community through a health crisis
By Emily Sargent-Beasley
Adopting a Future-as-Present Frame of Mind

On 4 February 2020, just following our Chinese New Year holiday, the 2,700 students and 660 faculty and staff of Shanghai American School (SAS)—now spread across 20 different time zones—began their first day of what we call Distance Learning @ SAS. Seven days earlier, we did not have a Distance Learning Plan. 

Our story is no longer unique. Schools all over the world are now required to operate at breakneck speed. Once familiar rhythms and routines were abruptly halted by logistics and interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Good intent and strategic planning were suddenly insufficient without weaving in intuition and ingenuity. Days were no longer marked by morning, afternoon, and night but, rather, experienced as a series of calendared events scheduled across time zones of varying convenience.

Bob Garrat writes on leadership and speaks to organizational relevance. He contends that the notion of relevance is not static in nature but dynamic and requires that the “rate of learning within the organization must be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in the external environment.”

The image this quote conjures reflects the context within which many of our schools currently operate. Our internal and external environs brush each other in ways that accelerate attention. And while the rate is not sustainable, the outcome is learning, and learning is proving to be our greatest asset.

Like many schools, we have never experienced organizational learning such as this. Where culture, leadership, and systems grip mission and values so tightly that there seems to be an inherent fear that, with the slightest release, all might unravel.

The synergy, however, that ensures momentum and stability is teacher-driven. The value of instructional efficacy recrafted and retooled through the commitment of the teacher to rethink and relearn teaching in a fully virtual environment is remarkable. No longer is there a chance to kneel beside a child, smile from across the room, or nudge with clear feedback using a tone that invites listening and understanding. The traditional toolkit has been left behind. Each tool now feels as if it must be replaced. In time, however, it seems that old tools find their place and new ones become familiar and even extend the experience beyond what was originally anticipated.

When this crisis began, and as it has unfolded, our goal was to commit to keeping our community as aware and as apprised as we could. This commitment matters. It is what binds the community as we carry the plan in place forward in a manner that invites professional judgment and creativity. This exchange is what has allowed us, PreK–12, make our way from clunky beginnings to satisfying strides. It is not, however, without incredible challenge.

Our greatest challenge in this current context resides in the imperative to assimilate information and our need to take action, with little time in between. We are also faced with the critical task of ensuring that the voices of those closest to the work are those that both inform and are informed. A third challenge lies in ensuring that social-emotional wellbeing—that of both adults and students—is equally referenced in our conversations and planning.

We have learned much. We will continue to learn more. We continually revise our Distance Learning plan to reflect our progress and to position us in such a way as to be able to deliver on the next opportunity. And yet, we still cannot answer the most basic question: When will we return to school? Our inability as an organization to answer this question has a real impact on the community.
We began this journey with a two-week closure timeframe. Then we added one more week. And another. One of our greatest learnings throughout this ordeal has been to plan for a resumption date that extends beyond the predicted length of the crisis.

Plan with a vision of future-as-present. This perspective might open minds to facing a reality that might materialize. It certainly offers the opportunity to think more broadly and comprehensively, with a clear sense of how systems and structures support the same long-term aspirations of one’s brick-and-mortar school within an online and virtual environment.

Finally, name it. Name the learning that drives this effort. Focus attention on all those involved whose significant contributions carry the torch—the administration, faculty, student, parents, and board of trustees. Nurture collaborations that make their way through every “inch” of the “building” and influence every bit of the community in ways likely never thought possible.

Like so many worthy endeavors, we have much to do, much to improve, and much that has yet to be understood. There is no laurel we can rest on. In the end, this is a first. It is for this reason that schools in similar positions are embracing a shared responsibility to meet the needs of this larger virtual school community.  You are welcome to learn from our journey; we would welcome learning from you as well

Emily Sargent-Beasley is Head of Campus at Shanghai American School.

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07/18/2020 - Rebecca
"Plan with a vision of future-as-present" is outstanding advice. And thank you for acknowledging the teachers.