Three Lessons I Can’t Unlearn from 2020

My encouragement to all educators as we begin another school year would be to not unlearn what you have learned during 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. We will miss the true mark if a push for familiarity overrides the discipline of reckoning and consideration. As a Christian school leader during a pandemic, I continue to wrestle with the words of James 1:2–3: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience”I have come to resolve that I can count all things joy because God is working in all situations, even the most challenging ones, for personal and collective sanctification and his ultimate glorification. 

It is important to take the future into account when counting it all joy. The best way I know how to keep this perspective is to journal my thoughts. I remember starting my first teaching position as a seventh grade social studies teacher in a public school in Wilmington, Delaware. My principal at that time, who was also one of the pastors of my church, gave me good advice. She said, “The best teachers and leaders are those who are active students after they finish their lesson.” 

She would always encourage me to take at least ten minutes at the end of every day and answer the following simple questions in my professional journal: 

  • What worked well today? 
  • Who do I need to encourage or “see” tomorrow? 
  • What do I need to do differently moving forward? 

The discipline of writing these brief thoughts down has given passionate purpose, clear direction, and sustainable pace to my days—particularly during this pandemic. Thanks to the insights I’ve gained from my journal entries, I’d like to share three major lessons that I can’t unlearn from 2020 and the pandemic.

The First Lesson: Less is More

The first lesson that I can’t unlearn—and wouldn’t want to unlearn—from 2020 is that less is more. Prior to the pandemic, many of our schools’ calendars were filled with very busy days, months, and an entire year. I have seen how this pace is not healthy for the students, teachers, parents, or our ability to fulfill the overall school mission. The pandemic has shown many leaders what they really didn’t need (even though they thought they did). Many things were stripped from the daily routines of all people globally. Specifically for educators, the way we have been doing education for the past one hundred years was abruptly disrupted. It created an opportunity to do things differently. I have often described this as a “problemtunity” (something that presents as a problem, but which we can consciously turn into an opportunity). Doing less to gain a greater reward seems counterintuitive. 

Doing less but doing it well is much better than doing a bunch of things subpar.

Doing less but doing it well is much better than doing a bunch of things subpar. A great example of this is one of my favorite cheesesteak establishments in the city of Philadelphia. This “hole in the wall” only makes cheesesteaks and fries on Thursdays through Saturdays. They have made it clear where their attention is directed: cheesesteaks and fries. There is always a line outside their restaurant, and I often find myself craving a good cheesesteak on Sundays when they are closed. They know and clearly define who they are—and they have continued to thrive even through the pandemic. 

I was able to bring about the necessary mind shift in my personal leadership by creating three priorities during the pandemic. The goal was not to abandon the school’s core commitments, but instead to give all the school stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, board members, donors) measurable and obtainable objectives. Similar to the typical Baptist sermon, these memorable priorities enabled everyone to focus on three areas well, instead of many areas with only a fleeting glance. I landed on Community, Curriculum, and Connection. I would include these priorities in every communication that I had with school constituents, whether via email, letter, video, and so on. Studies show that it takes ten to twenty exposures to a concept before it sinks into a person’s mind. With our rush to get back to “normal,” I found it necessary to repeat “less is more” because our tendency is to return to the ways we have always done things.

A few questions that could assist us to maintain a “less is more” mindset are the following:

  • What practices did you cut during the time of the pandemic that should not return?
  • Who was most affected because of the changes you made during the pandemic?
  • How can you do things differently moving forward? What prevents you from doing that?

The Second Lesson: Representation Matters

The second lesson I hope to never unlearn is the benefit and necessity of addressing ethnicity, culture, and race within our schools. During 2020 there was much racial unrest in the United States, which found its way into our classrooms. There was much commentary about ethnicity and race taking place on social media, on television, at professional athletic events, in church pulpits, and even at many dinner tables. For some educators it was all-consuming and overwhelming, which contributed to a “let’s not talk about it anymore” mindset. The first danger with that perspective is that our students will continue to talk about it, sometimes parroting what they hear from oftentimes misinformed sources. The second danger is if educators don’t have these hard but necessary conversations, we leave it to others to inform our students of the beauty of diversity within God’s kingdom. To say it another way, by not talking about it, we miss out on a “problemtunity”: the problem is there are many voices speaking to this topic, all with differing perspectives and values; the opportunity is that Christian educators can acknowledge and celebrate the differences among people, while providing students with the tools to learn how to think (not specifically what to think).

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This article originally appeared on the Converge blog. The Converge conference (formerly called the Global Christian School Leadership Summit) is next happening in San Diego March 8–10, 2022. For more information, visit https://converge.education .


Joel R. Gaines serves as Head of School at The City School in Philadelphia. He is married to Tia and has one son, Josiah, and three daughters, Hosanna, Eliana, and Adoniah. Joel has served in multiple roles for nearly twenty years in both Christian and public education, and in both urban and suburban settings.