There isn’t a public school teacher in Manitoba that COVID hasn’t hit like a freight train, and principals and vice-principals are no exception.

For two Manitoba school leaders, the experience—often taxing—has also yielded critical lessons in team care, self care, and the fundamental importance of human connection.

“During the pandemic, my leadership has shifted from being very goal driven to prioritizing what is essential in a school year, and in a classroom,” says Tracy Vanstone, principal/directrice at École Crescentview School in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
The shift came quickly, the day Vanstone received word that her school population was about to be spread over four separate locations to accommodate physical distancing.

“We got the call from our superintendents to relocate 175 students. So we quickly moved to our local recreation facility, exhibition building and the town fair board office. At school we moved into the music room, the library, multi-purpose room and gym. The shift from one school under one roof to four different locations was very much the most challenging experience of my career.”

Wrestling with Physical Distance, and Emotional Distance, Too

Laurie Bachewich relates to the weight the pandemic placed on the shoulders of all school leaders. The principal of Erickson Elementary School in Erickson, Manitoba, wrestled with the physical distancing, and like Vanstone and school leaders across the province, with emotional distancing, as well.

“The job is demanding in a regular year, and the pandemic added another layer of responsibility, stress, and challenges. For us, being rural and having limited space was hard.”

In addition to the relentless logistical challenges Manitoba principals and vice-principals faced, Vanstone and Bachewich point to the strain COVID placed on interpersonal relationships. Bachewich is quick to recognize how essential her team has been in navigating such a lengthy period of unpredictability.

“I couldn’t have come through it without a great team,” she says. “My educators, support staff, custodians, bus drivers, parents, and of course our amazing students. They pivoted with me, supported and collaborated with me, and the team always did their best to meet the kids’ needs. Their perseverance, resilience, and support are what stand out for me from this difficult time. Also the support of my fellow administrators and division.”

Vanstone agrees.

“Teaching through a computer screen is far less than ideal. Children need human connection and they need to be with their peers and teachers, and our staff need each other, too. Working from home caused isolation and a disconnect. After at-home learning, being spread between four locations caused further challenges in our connection and collaboration.”

Bachewich says her team’s pre-COVID relationships provided a firm foundation that sustained the entire school community.

“We had to learn how to pivot quickly, readjust our sails, and be flexible in the face of ever-changing health orders. Our close-knit school community grew even stronger, and we leaned on each other the whole way.”

Coming Back and Coming Together, Communication is Key

Coming back, both principals underscore that they needed to reestablish bonds within the entire school community when students returned last fall.

“We went back to grade group meetings, COVID-safe staff gatherings, field trips and COVID-friendly fun, says Vanstone. “Hosting an outdoor bonfire on my farm for staff to come together, and having classes come to pick out pumpkins were a couple of small things I could do to put smiles on faces.”

Communication is always critical to the success and health of a team, but during the pandemic it took on even greater importance.
For Vanstone, this translated into timely, transparent dialogue within the school and with families as well.

“Even when I had to tell staff something they didn’t want to hear, they appreciated the truth. Whenever I had updates on the pandemic or a current school situation, I would do my best to communicate comprehensively. Keeping everything transparent seemed to be what people needed.”

Bachewich says connecting on an emotional level so that folks feel valued was a priority.

“While I work very hard to let people know how much they’re valued, this was extremely important during the pandemic. When we cannot control our circumstances, the best thing we can do is make sure that the people around us are heard and that they know they and their work are valued. It’s important for me to be in the trenches with my colleagues, and to be human. We’re all doing the best we can.”

Leadership Lessons Learned

On lessons learned going forward, Bachewich points to the need to be present, and not focus unnecessarily on what may or may not lie ahead.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there is so much that’s out of our control and we must take each day as it comes. If I focused too far into the future, things became overwhelming. Some days it was moment by moment!”

With feelings of responsibility for the health of the team comes a tendency for school leaders to put themselves at the back of the line for care and attention.

“To be honest,” says Vanstone, “this is something I struggle with. I’m working on letting things go, walking with a colleague whenever I can, and have key people in my life to talk to. My farm might be the best thing to support my mental health. I love growing food and in particular, pumpkins! I love growing, harvesting, canning, baking, and showing people the benefits of farming. Never in a million years did I think I would find so much joy in the farm. The sunsets, canola fields and quad rides fill my heart and balance my health.”

Bachewich agrees that a school leader’s mental health can be neglected in prolonged, trying circumstances.

“There are certainly times when I’m out of balance. I’m becoming more aware of ways to maintain my mental health. Learning to not own everything, knowing I don’t have to have all the answers or can fix everything, and taking time to pause have been the biggest lessons for me personally. I love being in nature, exercising, hiking and reading. Making sure that I continue to do things that give me joy is important. Easier said than done,” she laughs, “but it’s a work in progress.”

Words of Advice for School Leadership Colleagues

“Be gentle with yourselves,” says Bachewich. “Leading a school on a good day is hard work, let alone in a pandemic. Compassion is important in this job, towards yourself and others.”

Vanstone echoes the message.

“Life is short. Put yourself and your family first,” she says. “Take breaks, drink your coffee before it goes cold and sit down and eat lunch. We are good at what we do! We were chosen to lead for a reason, so believe in yourself. We’ve all accomplished a lot in the past two years. And if you’re struggling, lean on your team and don’t be afraid to say you need help. “It takes teamwork to make dreamwork.”

– Originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of the MB Teacher

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