Leading through the Pandemic

It starts with “The Temperature Check.” It isn’t the one we’re now accustomed to in a COVID-19 environment but rather the routine check-ins that Crystle Roye-Gill implemented to keep teachers “grounded in the positive.”

As principal of Thomas Holme Elementary School, Roye-Gill has been leading her school community, fully remote since March. She acknowledges that keeping staff motivated is hard but it’s important to allow them to be their authentic selves with her, even if that’s not second nature to her usual leadership style.

“I’ve had to dig down deep on this warm and fuzzy side, which is generally not me. I’ve learned how to read the ‘Zoom Room’ and identify which teachers are struggling a bit. We do Friday check-ins where we shout each other out. We don’t gloss over the challenges.  We talk about the two pandemics we are facing in COVID-19 and racial inequity. I’m popping into virtual classrooms to check-in and doing simple things to keep their spirits up… a quick text, a phone call, sending a snack box to every teacher’s home.”

This work has been instrumental to ensuring that academic excellence remains front and center. From the beginning, Roye-Gill was clear about her expectations as teachers and students transitioned home.

“You need to see this – and set it up – as your classroom and not your home. We encouraged everyone to set up their ‘classroom’ and send us pictures. What I am most proud of – through this whole experience – is that this is school. We have a 95% daily average attendance. The achievement gap is being addressed. Teachers are pushing through. School is happening just as it would be.”

One of the key strategies that Roye-Gill credits for this success is the decision to adopt the school district’s recommendation of beginning each day with a 30-minute meeting in every classroom.

“The morning meetings are the best thing we did. The teachers created a sense of community – a safe space.  It’s a huge commitment and while it may take away from formal instruction, it has reminded us how critical we are in students’ lives.  A 4th grader shared with her teacher and class, ‘I didn’t want to come back this way but I’m glad we did.’ We wouldn’t have heard that without the morning meeting.”

As Roye-Gill looks ahead, she is excited to see how the technology that teachers and students are now accustomed to using every day can help transform in-person instruction.  “The way the teachers and students have responded, we can’t go backwards. We’re not going to use blackboards anymore.”

And when asked what that first day of in-person instruction will be like after so many months away, Roye-Gill takes a long pause and then, her eyes glistening just a bit, softly says, “The first hug with the kids is just going to be… beautiful.”