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Leading From Lockdown: Valencia, Spain

What the virus has taught me about leading in confinement is the same thing it taught me about living in confinement: take risks, depend on each other, do what feels right, nourish any success, and clap endlessly to celebrate it.

Ann Catherine Kox | @ann_kox
April 21,  2020
Perspectives

“Mom, they’re clapping!” My son runs to tell me every evening at 8:00 p.m. The first time was after the eerily silent first day of lockdown over a month ago. That was the same day people started looking away from each other on the street, tucking their chins in, and shuffling to the other side of the sidewalk. When we heard it that first day after so much silence, we all looked at each other, straightened our backs, wide-eyed. We ran for the balcony to see what all the commotion was about, and then a slow smile broke across my son’s face. We laughed and laughed and clapped and clapped until our hands hurt, with relief and a certain gladness to be sharing this moment with all these neighbors we had never met. Stacks and tiers of people in bathrobes, yoga pants, curlers and smiles. We didn’t know what we were clapping for, and it didn’t matter. Now every night my son comes to get me. At first I heard it was for the grocery store workers, then I heard nurses. Then police. Recently I heard it was for the shift change of all the essential businesses. Sometimes I have the sense that we are clapping also for us, affirming that we are here, part of something big and terrifying, and together in our isolation.

In the preceding day we watched in horror as the the stock market plummeted, our travel plans caved, our visitors desperately changed flights to get back to the U.S., people scrambled to stores that were closing, owners taped signs to their closed doors, and panicked droves emptied shelves – a tremendous bustling preceded the eerie silence of lockdown. It all happened very quickly, as just days before crowds of 10,000 and more gathered daily for the 2:00 mascletá – a daytime fireworks display that begins on March 1st and occurs every day till the culmination of the Fallas festival on March 19. This is the biggest month in Valencia, Spain, and among the largest festivals in the world, attracting over 2 million visitors every year – by some accounts, right behind Carnaval in Rio and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It seemed Valencia was definitely moving ahead with plans – streets were closed as many of the 100+ monuments, which would be burned to the ground on March 19, were erected. Food trucks moved in to sell churros, buñuelos and chocolate. The streets were filled with people and there was a sense that coronavirus would not impact Fallas. Then news broke that many of the 2,500 Valencian soccer fans who attended the Champion’s League match in Milan, Italy on February 19 fell ill. Spain went into lockdown on March 14.

Mascetá.
Mascletá.

So that is the backdrop. The elated clapping and sense of celebration in isolation characterized both homelife and worklife. I am a preschool and elementary principal of an American school, and as a principal, there really wasn’t much time to check stocks and find toilet paper. As we saw China, then our neighbor, Italy, slide into school closure, business closure, and lockdown, we started conversations and planning. At first for many staff it seemed like a remote chance and preparations were “just in case,” but as the days wore on the engagement changed. Suddenly a few days before the State of Alarm was declared, it was inevitable. There was a set of givens that were helpful: 1) We were moving our entire instructional program online, ages 18 months and up, and 2) We were going to work out some of the finer details in our living rooms. As I read what other principals were experiencing and attended webinars, a common problem emerged: assessment. It is not possible to assess in the same manner in a virtual environment. We translated that as opportunity; it seemed like the right thing to do. Not the easy thing to do, but the right thing to do. This could be a moment to imagine a little, to get a big win. We tried to steer staff toward new ways of thinking, look at meaningful projects, take advantage of this moment to step away from separate subjects and try to step toward projects that would be relevant and engaging for students and help them sustain momentum in their learning, since they won’t have as much teacher contact in this period. As we developed this idea, some teachers moved into project planning and those were the first to get excited about the idea and its potential (“This could be fun!”).

Not everybody got there before the State of Alarm was declared, and it didn’t matter to some extent – whether staff were excited about their planning or not, the reality of moving the entire instructional program online was so daunting that everyone scrambled to find some familiarity, huddling with their teams to imagine how this was going to look, how it was going to work, wondering if it was going to work at all. As we lurched together into lockdown, the third given came into focus: 3) It didn’t matter if we were ready, we were going.  Once things actually locked down, people were grateful for work and the respite it offered from the worry. A new routine of yet longer work days began: 15, 16, 18 hours. The guardrails came off the concept of “day.” A teacher whose husband was ill with the virus kept working; she said she needed it. The energy the teachers generated in their collaborative groups was palpable; they were panicked and wide-eyed, but the most infectious thing was their enthusiasm.

The main monument on the central plaza this year was a woman meditating. When it became evident that it would not burn as planned, they covered her face. She was burned secretly so as not to attract a crowd, but her head and shoulders were saved to burn as a later ceremony.
The main monument on the central plaza this year was a woman meditating. When it became evident that it would not burn as planned, they covered her face. She was burned secretly so as not to attract a crowd, but her head and shoulders were saved to burn as a later ceremony.

As we churned into the first days of virtual learning, my single focus was to find what teachers were excited about and fan that, feed that, and nourish that toward our common direction, which was emerging. Some great advice from the gurus who went before us was that there is no right way to do this –  we just needed to start somewhere and then be in touch with the kids, the parents, and the teachers to see what adjustments to make. We started with asynchronous learning and within two days were able to clarify that further: asynchronous learning with videos, created by the teachers themselves, using Loom and Google Meets. We agreed there could be third party content, but it needed to be embedded in our teaching, with our teachers. By day three we knew we needed to require synchronous learning too, and by the second week we were able to set frequency, size of groups and content. We were more in touch with parents than ever before, reaching out with feedback forms, emails and Google Meets. The office called every parent because we were thirsty for feedback and didn’t want to extrapolate information from a few, and also because people share differently when there is more personal interaction. We got lots of feedback, and we acted on it. We thrived on the outpouring of positive comments and initiated a Wall of Gratitude on our Virtual Learning site to celebrate in our isolation. Some early, high-leverage feedback from a parent who was an educational inspector and a parent who worked in virtual learning for 20 years, gave us a needed boost. The kids loved meeting with the teachers and embraced any interaction with peers, so we increased small group synchronous events as much as we could. It takes a great deal of time for teachers to plan the instruction and make the videos for the asynchronous aspect (the feedback was clear that the personal touch of the teachers presenting content was critical), but all other time was devoted to synchronous interactions. The counselors worked with students who had difficulty adjusting to the new reality. We had the challenges every school has related to the youngest students, related to parents who were trying to work from home and had difficulty teaching their children on top of that, and parents whose livelihood was impacted.

The speed of change and learning in those initial weeks was unlike anything I have ever seen or likely will see again. The intensity of collaboration was beyond anything I could have imagined. As we moved into week three, each teacher had something they were excited about. Each teacher had a story of something that worked, something they enjoyed, some connection that was valuable, or something they learned. Each teacher had moved past dread and was finding their footing and their way to be effective and connect with students in this new order. We were hitting our stride. Things were feeling right, but it was decidedly not easy.

Clapping.
Clapping.

While this is happening “at work,” my two kids and husband are also working from home. We settled into various office spaces as our plans withered. Lisbon canceled. Rome canceled. Athens canceled. Basketball at the park canceled. The park itself canceled. Being outside canceled. There was suddenly a lot that was not happening.

The first answer to it all was to build a fort. My boys made the biggest fort of their lives, actually, filling a room completely and taking a whole day. And that is where they slept. That night and every night, through two moves and dismantling and reconstruction efforts. I suspect that is where they will remain till this is over. During the first week I grabbed some stuffed animals and read to my students. I put on a cowboy hat and practiced a few angles to get a little more light, and I read my heart out in that first rendition of the fort. It was definitely the place to be, with the sloping blanket roof caving in on me. It seemed impossible that anything could go wrong in that fort. One parent emailed me after she saw the video: “Ms. Ann, how I would love to be in that fort with you.” My friend sent me a picture of her kids listening, and they found hats to wear while listening, and it is those small connections that feel big in these times.

We were conscious of our confinement and early on were committed to “talking nicely” at all times in our ever-smaller apartment. We knew tensions would be high and somehow going back to basics seemed like the thing to do. We got out board games and most of all, we cooked. I hope I will forever have fond memories of the cooking. We had learned about “cooking with love” at a paella cooking class just before lockdown and forever joked about how “cooking with contempt” also had a certain ring to it. There was a lot of music, pots and pans banging, and endless messes to clean up.

My Cooking Show.
My Cooking Show.

In week two I had a little more room to dream and felt a role in fanning the flames of any potential dreams, anywhere, as the days ground on. I made My Cooking Show! for my students, and the theme was dream a little. It felt right, but it did not feel easy. How was I going to do a cooking show? What would I make? I did not like myself on camera, but remembered one of the webinars cautioned to get over that kind of hurdle quickly: “it isn’t about you.” I wanted for everyone to find something they could do now that they would remember fondly later. Even if it is just one afternoon or a couple of hours. It seemed like the thing to do. What I didn’t know is that it would be so well-received. Soon others were posting cooking shows and asking me for the next installment, so I moved into week two. The theme was do it anyway: instead of being in Italy and making pizza dough in a cooking school there, which was our spring break, I made pizza dough from scratch in my kitchen. I had no teacher, no pizza stone, the wrong flour, I wasn’t even in the right country, but I was going to make that pizza anyway. Despite the yeast spilling on my slippers, I kept the video rolling. My goal was “edibility” but my boys swore it was the best pizza they ever had. I have no idea whether there will be a third installment (though I did receive a request to make Swedish meatballs). If it feels like the right thing to do, I will do it.

I don’t know how long we will be confined to our apartments or how long we will be teaching this way. But I now know we can do it successfully for a month, so likely for another or for however long it will take. What the virus has taught me about leading in confinement is the same thing it taught me about living in confinement: take risks, depend on each other, do what feels right (it will not be what feels easy), nourish any success, and clap endlessly to celebrate it.

Ann Kox, Ed.D. is a principal in Spain, where she lives and works with her husband and two sons. She has worked in Brazil and Wisconsin as a principal, superintendent, director of curriculum and director of special education.

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