Bobbi McDaniel began her tenure as Director of the American International School of Monrovia in Liberia at the start of the 2020 school year. Briefly setting aside the many demands on her attention, she took the time to answer a few of our questions about stepping into this role in this era of uncertainty.
What has it been like for you to transition into a new leadership position mid-pandemic?
Transitioning into a new leadership position has many challenges all by itself. Add to that equation a first time experience as International School Director and a global pandemic; it can all feel a bit overwhelming.
In any school, a change in leadership can lead to feelings of insecurity, doubt, and worry, from all stakeholders. Although, what has been strangely wonderful, the pandemic has made everyone in schools feel new, in the sense that we’re all collectively experiencing a “new normal.” Therefore, I haven’t been alone being “new.” We have all been forced into a new way of teaching and learning, into respecting new health regulations, and into caring for each other in new ways. Through this crisis, I have had both personal and professional experiences that have required me to practice more compassion and more patience with myself, my family, and my colleagues.
I heard somewhere that transitioning to virtual learning is like asking teachers to “build and fly the plane simultaneously.” We are all being asked to do more than ever before. Even as we begin to welcome students back to campus, the new health and safety protocols of frequent hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing in the classroom make coming back to campus feel complex and abnormal. What I know for sure is we will take the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe and will do our best to make students feel welcome back on campus.
What issues are you grappling with?
Balance. No one tells you that a Director position is 24/7. Even if someone had told me this, I probably would have thought they were exaggerating. Honestly, even on days off, when I should be relaxing, my thoughts drift towards the needs of the school. What I have learned to do is to keep a list over the weekend and when I think of something I write it down. By writing a thought or a “to do” down, it helps to take the issue off my mind for the moment. It is extremely necessary to deliberately create mental and physical space for down time. When I take the time to create balance, I come back to school more energized.
What resources have you drawn from to inform your decisions?
Decision making for me involves a mixture of facts, figures, and feelings. I go to the experts for the facts and figures and then I consider the feelings of those most affected by the decision. I can’t express enough the gratitude I have for the incredible international educational organizations, which have freely shared factual information. The Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA), under the leadership of Dr. Peter Bateman, has provided tremendous support. Moreover, there is a weekly (virtual) Heads meeting that usually has a formal agenda; at other times it’s an open forum of Q&A. AISA has been a place where I have been able to reach out and get answers, which has assisted in informing my decisions.
Moreover, women from around the world in school leadership positions have been useful guides and advisors in enlightening my decision-making process. The subject of women leadership and decision making is an entirely different one that bears briefly mentioning, in this context. The number of women in leadership positions in international schools is growing, but there is still a long way to go to achieve equity.
There is an even longer road towards equity when it comes to Black women in leadership. International School Services (ISS) has been a supporter of bringing women to the table, to be considered for senior leadership roles. Under the leadership of President Liz Duffy, ISS is creating inroads and pathways to leveling the playing field. It’s vital that women leaders have other women leaders to learn from, particularly when it comes to the decision-making process.
However, once you have made it to a leadership position, you realize that the real work has only just begun. The true assessment of making informed decisions comes from practical experience, particularly in a crisis. I have learned to draw upon the knowledge and experience of both men and women in educational leadership roles and to make decisions based on being well-informed. Utilizing the networking system, creating partnerships with local, national, and international agencies, and making friends along the way.
What insights have you gleaned along the way that might be useful to others?
The most noteworthy insight I have gleaned along the way is to give myself and others grace. We are in a global pandemic. One can never be to certain about the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of students, parents, and colleagues. Practicing more patience and kindness is essential—now more than ever.
I remind myself to practice the same patience and kindness with myself, in my own professional trajectory. I remind myself it’s ok to be new, vulnerable, and yes, even a bit needy. Giving myself the grace and freedom to develop and make mistakes is one of the great examples of what it means to learn. After all, isn’t learning what it’s all about? I don’t get it right every day, but I am willing to keep trying and doing my best. With this mindset, hopefully others around me will be reassured they are in a safe place with me.
Bobbi McDaniel is Director of the American International School of Monrovia in Liberia. She was formerly a Principal at Vision International School in Qatar for three years, with prior experiences as Vice Principal, Curriculum Coordinator, and Teacher.