Round Rock ISD is engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center to help them grow outstanding leaders at the district and campus levels. Mandy Estes and Ryan Smith are alumni of the District Leadership Program, a two-year learning journey in which central office administrators develop their personal leadership skills and practice growing and empowering others and creating change to drive excellent and equitable outcomes for students.
There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 where NASA engineers realize the carbon dioxide filters on the marooned spacecraft need to be replaced soon or the air will become toxic. The filters are round, but the only ones available elsewhere on the spaceship are square.
An engineer dumps a pile of space gear on a table and lays out the challenge. “We gotta find a way to make this (square filter) fit into the hole for this (round filter) using nothing but that,” he says pointing to the pile. Someone puts on a pot of coffee and they get to work.
For Mandy Estes and Ryan Smith, both leaders of teaching and learning at Round Rock ISD, this is what spring break felt like.
It was the week everyone in America realized that COVID-19 wasn’t just a thing happening to people across the ocean. It was happening to us.
Kids weren’t coming back to school after spring break, and teaching would have to be done remotely. Ryan cleared a space in his 11-year-old son’s drum room while Mandy’s cat helped test her keyboard in a spare room.
Normally, the district is fairly decentralized. Teachers create their own lessons and principals make decisions that are best for their campus community. But facing a challenge of this magnitude, Mandy and Ryan recognized that faculty and staff would be looking to central office for leadership. They would need to set the course.
“We were turning an organization with 51,000 students and 8,000 faculty and staff on a dime,” Mandy said. “And there was no playbook.”
Leaning on values
The first they did was to lay down some guiding principles for the work ahead.
- Prioritize staff and student safety and well-being.
- Focus on Equity. Solutions must not actively widen learning gaps.
- Stay flexible. Changes occur daily.
- Centralize communication.
- Anchor in Round Rock ISD Leadership Values.
As part of the 5-year Holdsworth partnership, district leaders have spent the last three years defining and communicating what great leadership looks like in Round Rock ISD. That definition hangs on three core values: Include All, Invest in Growth and Inspire Action.
Include All was front and center for Mandy and Ryan.
Some teachers had already been using Google classroom and were ready to roll the day after spring break. Others had never logged in to an online learning platform and felt totally overwhelmed.
Some students may have their own device, fast internet and an adult who can help. Others might have parents working in essential jobs, five siblings, no device and no internet. Some high school students had to get jobs at H-E-B because their parents were suddenly out of work.
They stood up some at-home learning resources on their website fairly quickly but hit pause before rolling out remote instruction.
“We did not want to jump too quickly into anything,” Ryan said. “We needed to think through how our decisions will impact all staff and students.”
Though they had the technology to do synchronous learning – hosting classes where everyone comes together virtually at the same time – it wasn’t fair to those who could not participate because of their home life situation.
“It was a real communication challenge to say, ‘This is not a time to show off all the things we can do,’” Ryan said. Being flashy is not a win here. A win here is being empathetic and showing our humanity more than our technical skills.”
Once everyone returned from spring break, the teaching & learning team spent two weeks designing curriculum that could be done at the student’s own pace before formally launching remote instruction. More than 100 instructional leaders pitched in to create PowerPoint decks for each grade level that teachers could customize for their own use. (Those resources are free and open to anyone.)
Centering in personal leadership has been a big part in staying true to the thing that matters most, which is doing right by people.
The pre-launch was a pivotal moment.
“We felt like we couldn’t send them home and expect them to start teaching right off the bat with no support,” Ryan said. “Everyone will remember how we treated them during this time period. That will be more of a legacy than the learning.”
For three mornings prior to launch, Mandy and Ryan hosted a webcast for all 8,000 staff members. It was live and informal, not slick and produced. Ryan looked harried sitting at his computer with uncharacteristically long hair. It was clear he’d been working long hours to prepare for this moment.
Neither Mandy nor Ryan are spotlight seekers, but putting their faces on camera was important.
“We were going from a campus-led system to a centralized system. Our teachers had to know who we were to trust us,” Ryan said.
Drawing on personal leadership lessons
Both Mandy and Ryan are 2019 graduates of the first cohort of Holdsworth’s District Leadership Program, which gives them the skills and tools to grow personally as leaders, to coach and empower others and to create change at their organizations. Both drew on lessons from that two-year leadership journey during the crisis, and upon the friends they made in the program.
Early on, Mandy was texting with top leaders in other Holdsworth districts like Arlington, Grand Prairie and Southwest ISD in San Antonio.
“Leaning on them and talking though some of the challenges they were facing, some of the missteps they had made and successes they had was really helpful,” Mandy said.
Her mind swirling and keeping her from sleep, Mandy tapped into lessons she had learned at Holdsworth about taking care of herself so she could be at her best for others.
“My Holdsworth friends know I have not ever meditated. But I downloaded the Calm (meditation) app and thought, “I have to start learning how to do this,’” Mandy said.
Both Ryan and Mandy struggled with managing criticism. Many teachers didn’t like the pre-packaged lessons; for others it was a godsend. For some students and parents, the curriculum wasn’t enough; for others, it was probably too much.
“Centering in personal leadership has been a big part in staying true to the thing that matters most, which is doing right by people,” Mandy said.
Tapping empathy and flexibility
Giving others grace was pivotal in managing their response to criticism.
“I have to take a step back and not take it personally,” Ryan said. “This is not a normal environment; it is a crisis environment. Everyone is dealing with different things and reacting in their own way.”
Crisis can bring out our worst selves, but also our best. Mandy and Ryan watched their teams gel like never before, setting aside disagreements to accomplish big things.
The rapidly changing environment also forced them to be flexible with decisions.
“In the past when we wanted to change something, we would get caught up in defensiveness, like we made the wrong decision. Now, we are making the best decision we can at the time and if we get it wrong, we adjust it and improve,” he said.
For Ryan, reading about the death of fellow educators from COVID-19 helped put things in perspective. “Educationally, this is fixable. People’s lives are what’s important.”