When I tell other educators that I am the chief human resource officer of a virtual school, they typically look at me as if to ask, “What does that mean?” When I tell them that it is the equivalent of an assistant superintendent in the bricks-and-mortar environment, they nod with a better understanding of what they think I do.
Still, I work in a virtual school, and that is understandably a foreign environment to most people. When we bring visitors into our office, they often look for classrooms full of kids with instructors, assuming that we can’t be completely virtual. Once they realize there are no kids in our office, they look for instructors standing in front of cameras “teaching” to a cadre of students at home. When they don’t see that, they sometimes ask, “Where are your teachers?” So, when I say, “I don’t know. Home, I suppose,” they struggle to get a good handle of virtual education.
“Well, when do they teach? When are you open?” they sometimes say.
“Always,” I say.
And there’s the rub. I lead a school that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Kids are almost always in their virtual classroom, instructors are almost always holding office hours and students can enroll in and start a course anytime. Further, as a state-funded charter school in New Hampshire, we are committed to partnering, not competing, with local school officials to provide multiple pathways for students. To do this, virtual-school leaders need to manage several variables that are often different from bricks-and-mortar leadership.
Not unlike leaders in traditional schools, virtual-school leaders must expect the unexpected. Students, parents and instructors are as unpredictable in virtual spaces as they are in physical spaces. But a virtual school might have thousands of students and parents and hundreds of instructors. Unpredictability is commonplace. Hence, statewide virtual-school leaders must be ready to work with multiple parents, multiple school leaders from multiple school districts and multiple scenarios that need immediate attention. Further, because virtual school is relatively new, there might be no precedent to follow.
To effectively partner with bricks-and-mortar schools, virtual-school leaders must understand that each school has expectations relative to how its students can access virtual courses and the transfer of credits earned. As a result, virtual schools need to not only clearly articulate expectations but also work with school districts to better cement a partnership that allows students to navigate multiple learning pathways. The multiple layers present in each partnership require flexibility and individual understanding different from those of a leader at a bricks-and-mortar school.
This truly manifests itself when we change systems. Because we don’t have a school calendar, meaning there are no quarters or semesters or a beginning and an end of the school year, we are not confined by a school calendar. We can make changes when they are needed, not necessarily when it’s convenient. Because, however, we are committed to partnering with local schools, any changes we enact affect students across the state. Thus, when change occurs, we have to commit to helping partners understand how that change affects their students. We not only commit to implementing that change locally but also to training every school, student and parent who partners with us.
Most experts think about 70% of communication is nonverbal. Hand gestures, body posture, facial expressions and eye contact often tell the story more than words. But virtual leaders don’t always communicate face to face with parents, students, instructors or local school officials. Knowing that, virtual leaders need to be able and ready to communicate appropriately and clearly in spoken and written word.
For example, we have learned to use voice inflection, use clear and simple language, and be direct, yet understanding, in our language. Because there is no inflection or expression in written communication, and it is incredibly difficult to infer tone, it needs to be even more direct. Our practice is to never use sarcasm in an e-mail or write in CAPITAL LETTERS or bold print because it can be interpreted as yelling. Knowing that what we write represents our organization, we don’t use “text speak,” we always use a proper greeting, and our spelling and grammar are impeccable. We can’t afford to be lazy in our written communication because we don’t have the ability to capitalize on the other 70%. Every written and oral communication is purposeful and deliberate.
The reason we are so particular and, in fact, train our faculty and staff on how to communicate in virtual spaces is that we put a premium on building relationships.
We will continue this discussion Thursday in Part II of this series on leadership in virtual schools.
Tony Baldasaro is the chief human resource officer of Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire. Having been a teacher, a building administrator, a district-level administrator and now a statewide charter-school administrator, Baldasaro has come to strongly believe that education needs to provide multiple pathways and opportunities for students, that there is no one path to learning. Hence, he spends much of his professional time advocating for use of multiple pathways for students. In addition to writing here, he blogs regularly at TonyBaldasaro.com.