Arlington ISD is engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center to help them grow outstanding leaders at the district and campus levels. Half the district’s campuses will go through the 2-year Campus Leadership Program, in which a team of school leaders work to strengthen their own personal leadership skills and tackle a problem on their campus that impacts student outcomes. Shahveer Dhalla is the principal of Arlington High School and is part of the first Campus Leadership Program cohort.
One quarantine afternoon in March, Shahveer Dhalla sat with his 5 and 8-year old boys on the porch as they waited for the rain to clear to take a walk.
The Dad in him cherished this slow hour with Luke and Landon, hanging out and doing nothing in particular. The high school principal in him felt a tug of guilt. Shouldn’t he be doing something right now?
No, he realized. There wasn’t more to do. This is exactly what he was supposed to be doing in this moment.
As a leader of 225 faculty and staff at Arlington High School, Shahveer shared this story in his weekly Colt Chatter newsletter with staff to encourage them to “find the silver linings” in a global pandemic that has closed schools and kept Americans inside their homes.
“I had to give myself grace, allow myself to enjoy the unintended consequences of quarantine. So I’m asking you to do the same,” Shahveer wrote. “Find the joy in the small things that are part of our new normal for however long it lasts and most importantly, allow yourself to enjoy it fully.”
For Shahveer and his leadership team, keeping spirits high and expectations clear have been key to leading through an extended crisis.
Control what’s controllable
With support from district leaders, principals in Arlington ISD have taken four weeks to plan and prepare for remote learning.
In each phase, Shahveer has given his staff a clear focus and direction. In his words, “controlling the controllable” helps stave off feelings of overwhelm.
There are going to be times during ‘work time’ that you have to take care of your family’s needs and that is OK.
In the first week and a half, staff’s shared mission was to call all 2,650 Arlington High students to find out how they were doing, if they knew where to get meals, and if they had access to the internet and a device.
They learned that around 90 percent of students have internet access and 80 percent have a laptop. But staff have been unable to reach around 350 students, something that weighs heavily on Shahveer.
“Wondering how many of those kids are in a bad home situation or don’t have what they need, that’s what keeps me up at night,” he said.
But as hard as they try to track them down, at a certain point this too moves into the realm of the uncontrollable.
“We have 2,300 students that we have reached, and we need to move forward. We just have to keep going.”
Find the silver linings
In the second phase, the charge was to prepare for remote instruction. Teachers took the time to learn a new platform – Canvas – and prepare high-quality lessons for the kickoff of instruction this week.
Always on the lookout for silver linings, Shahveer believes some of the adaptations forced by online learning will have positive, lasting impacts.
“One of the big things we have been nudging is this idea that if your kids can do your tests with a Google window open (to help with the answer), your test is not really challenging them,” Shahveer said. “Now we really have to push those higher order thinking and skills. We were nudging, but this situation has thrust it front and center.”
Acknowledge humanity and shared struggle
While everyone is ready to tackle the work, Shahveer knows that now is not the time to keep things strictly professional. He looks for ways to acknowledge the shared struggle everyone is going through, encourage staff to give themselves a lot of grace and keep everyone feeling upbeat and connected.
In addition to distributing a weekly newsletter and screencast, Shahveer injects some lightness into department Zoom calls: Mullet Monday asked staff to dress “business on the top and party on the bottom.” Tasty Tuesday called for sharing recipes and Throwback Thursday encouraged staff to dress like they did in high school.
In a recent Colt Chatter, Shahveer shared his own difficulties with working from home, especially delineating work time from family time. He encouraged staff to draw boundaries when possible. He wrote:
“I feel like I need to make this point: I’m talking about taking your work out of your non-work time, not the other way around. We are all at home, some of us with small children. There are going to be times during ‘work time’ that you have to take care of your family’s needs and that is OK.”
The quarantine has both isolated people and opened a window to private lives like never before. Cats sit on keyboards during Zoom calls, coworkers grab snacks for their kids mid-presentation and everyone is sporting athleisure and low-maintenance hair at all times of the day. Life is a bit nuts, especially for those trying to homeschool their children.
“This week, I think everyone is really realizing how much schools do and how much teachers do,” Shahveer said in his weekly screencast.
Staff have noticed the way Shahveer and his team are leading. Amber Smith, a math teacher, recently sent an email to the school leadership team praising them for caring about staff the way she has seen retailer H-E-B looking out for employees in grocery checkout lines:
“They are doing things to protect their customers and employees. They sanitize their buggies before you even walk up so it’s ready for you. The registers have specific places to stand as well as a sneeze shield.
As I was explaining how weird it was to be behind a plastic shield to pay at the grocery store, my husband pointed out that it was just the company taking care of their frontline employees. Suddenly it all made sense and I realized that I work for the H-E-B of schools.
Thank you guys for remaining positive and collected. The reason we care so much about our kids is because we’re being taken care of so well too. Like you said, it trickles down. Y’all keep telling us we’re doing amazing. Y’all are too.”