Leadership & Learning in the ‘New Normal’

An element of attentive leadership is an unwavering commitment to the real-time learning of teams. This investment in people amplifies the collective impact and empowers  individuals to be the change their communities need.

Patrick O'Connell - principal at Ford Elementary.

My name’s Amos. I’m an educator, a grateful dad, husband and friend, a traveler, a live music fan. I love to laugh and I’ve been curious about all things since I was tiny. 

While I spent 10 rich years in the high school English classroom, I never consistently did what I challenged my students to do: write. Crossing my fingers that this blog helps me reflect, act and connect with other people who care about learning and community.


Like so many of us three short weeks ago, I was busily engaged in my regular existence. Every imaginable sport was still on TV and bathroom tissue unfurled like CVS receipts. My team and I were reflecting on the potential of the 2020 Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network (#VALIN) cohort as well as the Girls Who Game initiative that launched across North America with Dell Technologies and Microsoft. Within the next week, members of our leadership team were excited to learn alongside thousands of education leaders at the SxSWedu Conference in Austin and Qualtrics Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City.

How quickly things have changed. Both #VALIN and #GirlsWhoGame remain in effect but have been radically altered based on school closures and stand-in-place mandates across the US and Canada. The Texas and Utah conferences were either nixed or postponed to a later date. Today, my family and I navigate our 20th day of near isolation from our immediate and extended physical worlds. Our trips for food, gas, and essentials have been tactical and executed during off-peak hours.

Alongside my colleagues at ALP, we work–react, more recently–in service to communities engaged in the abrupt transition to uncharted learning models. What’s incredible is that everyone is navigating this same shift in real-time. All the traditional demographic markers–district size and location, community SES, ethnic and cultural representation–have been utterly suplexed by the imperative to physically isolate. COVID-19 is a perfectly equal opportunity infiltrator.

The Tragically Hip’s frontman, Gord Downie, once sang, “No dress rehearsals. This is our life.” This simple, poetic line has manifested into a tangible and visceral reality for us all.

Among many communities across the US and Canada, I’ve been very close to the reality in Cobb County Public Schools (CCSD) over the last couple of weeks. Through sheer coincidence, a number of ALP coaching and consulting engagements with CCSD coaches and senior executive leaders were scheduled to occur on March 17, 19, 20, 24 and 25. In our two-and-a-half-year partnership, I don’t think we’ve ever had our various projects convene so tightly. Cue the trumpets and enter Murphy’s Law, stage left…

It would have been easy and understandable if these District leaders placed our collaboration on pause and react to everything spiraling around them. At a time when many districts rightly concentrated inward, Cobb County’s administrators and coaches didn’t blink or twitch. They empowered our team to efficiently convert over 60 hours of scheduled onsite coaching and consulting to virtually facilitate responsive, agenda-driven collaborations that answered the real-time needs of principals, coaches, educators, and kids.

Last Friday, a member of the Cobb County leadership team referred to the massive state of flux across her community as ‘The New Normal’. Watching this team dart and flex exemplifies to me what leadership in many districts will begin to look like in The New Normal. It has been both humbling and inspiring to watch coaches, teachers, principals, and senior CCSD leadership consistently deploy the bandwidth to react when necessary while retaining the strategic imperative to build capacity within their networks.

With these recent collaborations in our immediate rear view, here are just a few highlights:

  • Ten principals convened to celebrate their graduation from the #CobbDigiLead 2020 Dell Leaders cohort. During this reflective and empowering session, leaders shared artifacts representing the realization of their personalized learning goals. Patrick O’Connell, principal of Ford Elementary, decided to work with his District technology coach to create The #FordCast, a podcast for his community. Our team was thrilled to discover that parents, students, and teachers have already downloaded his first seven episodes over 1400 times since schools were closed. Timeka Cline, principal of Bryant Elementary, empowered her team to plan, participate in and develop actionable school hacks based on their Shadow a Scholar protocol. These are just two examples of the type of innovation that CCSD leaders were able to activate in their communities well after physical school spaces were closed.
  • Twenty-seven coaches actively participated in video-based coaching rounds supporting personalized PL goals. Director of Instructional Technology Cristin Kennedy and her TTIS team worked alongside ALP coaches to tune their toolkit for the immediate needs of their schools. Our coaches worked with Cristin to abbreviate the duration of each round in order to build her team’s tactical readiness and agility as they helped 9,754 teachers and administrators transition to supporting their students through an initial phase of virtual learning.
  • Cobb County senior leaders reserved time to learn, reflect and consider the future needs of stakeholders in their community. With virtually no lead time, Cobb County senior leadership partnered with their schools to feed 47,088 students each week and engage in ongoing dialog with its community. In the midst of this effort, Chief Academic Officer Jennifer Lawson and other members of the Cobb senior leadership team reserved three consecutive and uninterrupted hours last Friday to learn and consider innovative structures that powerfully serve all learners during and beyond this ‘New Normal’.

It is crucial to acknowledge that all not communities have had the resources or short-term stability to realize these dual outcomes in the midst of profound uncertainty. Small and rural districts, especially, are in deep need of resources and immediate support. Most districts are still dealing with base-level needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.

The epiphany that I took from Cobb County leaders rests in their unwavering commitment to the real-time learning of teams. This investment amplifies the impact of their reaction and empowers individuals to be the change their communities need. As more learning communities find their footing in this New Normal, we see leadership teams harmonizing around this powerful balance.

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