Educational Leadership: Pandemic Lessons Boost Community Building

March 31, 2022  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

When the coronavirus pandemic began to close schools in the spring of 2020, ripples radiated far and wide in all areas of life. That was certainly the case for students in the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program at the University of Arkansas. At the time, some students in the online degree program were working in K-12 schools, some had their own children in school, and some planned to collect data for their dissertation studies that spring.

Then, everything changed.

"I started the program right as COVID hit," recalls Darlene Listro, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. "From Day One, everything we did was different. Very quickly, we bonded as a group. We formed a support system amongst ourselves. I really was not expecting that."

Meghan Scales, University of Arkansas doctoral student in education leadership, drops an egg from the roof of the school where she teaches in Cambridge City, Indiana. Students designed a contraption to carry an egg safely to the ground as part of a science project. Scales teaches math to fourth- and fifth-graders.

Rob McCloud was looking for value and quality in a master’s degree in education delivered online. He found it at the University of Arkansas.

As Meghan Scales, a doctoral student who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade math in Cambridge City, Indiana, recalls, "Everybody was going through something. It affected everyone differently, and we had real conversations about how this is hard and we knowit’s hard."

"Everybody" included the program faculty.

When the U of A’s Institutional Review Board halted all face-to-face data collection, some of the educational leadership students were required to unexpectedly change the designs of their dissertation studies. Flexibility became necessary – on all sides – and the faculty were quick to respond.

"We had to be really nimble," says John Pijanowski, a professor of educational leadership who regularly teaches an administrative decision-making course in the program. "You can’t teach during a pandemic and pretend it isn’t happening. We had to be more flexible at every stage."


Preparing Instructional Leaders

The Ed.D. in Educational Leadership provides preparation for students pursuing careers as educational leadership professionals in public and private schools and federal and state government agencies. It’s a program with a tradition of community building – and that came to the forefront during the pandemic when the faculty exhibited their own expertise in educational leadership.

"The strength of our programs is our commitment to relationships and to the idea we are building a community of learners. We on the faculty include ourselves as part of that community," says Pijanowski.

The faculty’s willingness to adjust to the unexpected and to provide meaningful support made a tremendous difference for students in the doctoral program.

"We felt we were part of a community with the faculty," Scales says. "We appreciated their flexibility and understanding and just being available. I reached out a number of times, not even necessarily on school-related issues, and we talked things through. If something rough happened at school and I needed an outsider’s view, I texted Dr. Pijanowski and soon after, we were on a phone call."

On their end, the students in the educational leadership program were busy creating effective channels for communication and collaboration and exhibiting their own leadership skills.

"When we were doing coursework and had questions, we nominated a point person in our group to text or email the professor, and (they) immediately got a response and sent it to all of us," says Darlene Listro. "This was within hours. It was so helpful that we didn’t have to wait until the next class, and we didn’t bombard the professors."

Pijanowski says that, during the pandemic, all the educational leadership faculty members moved to a new level of openness with students. Faculty and students spent more time talking on the phone and working in small groups online, processing what was happening in the moment, Pijanowski says.

Kara Lasater, an assistant professor of educational leadership who teaches a course in effective leadership for school improvement, among other courses, says her former practice of compartmentalizing her personal and professional life exhausted her and felt disingenuous. She found the new degree of openness liberating, giving her license to be her whole, authentic self with students.

She wrote about that in a paper the educational leadership faculty co-published in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education.

"We no longer had the option of trying to keep our personal and professional lives separate, and the loss of these boundaries increased our willingness to be open, honest, vulnerable and intimate with mentees," Lasater says. "We demonstrated this willingness in our explicit actions of supporting students beyond educational and professional development."


Leaning In: Educational Leadership in Action

Pijanowski, Lasater and two other University of Arkansas educational leadership faculty members Kevin Brady, a professor, and Christy Smith, a teaching assistant professor – explained how the pandemic redefined mentorship in the academic paper. They highlight how the educational leadership program "leaned into" what it was known for – a heavy emphasis on the social interaction of students and faculty to learn from each other, says Pijanowski. Community building became the norm.

"We’ve always approached online education as a social experience," he says. "That’s how we built the program."


Students spray Meghan Scales, University of Arkansas doctoral student in education leadership, with silly string at the school where she teaches in Cambridge City, Indiana. They earned the reward by meeting their nine-week learning goals.

In their paper, the faculty members confirm how the pandemic eroded personal and professional boundaries.

Class became a "safe space" for students to be transparent, where everyone shared individual experiences, expressed compassion and confronted their collective vulnerability, Smith says.

"None of us had escaped the fears that accompanied the pandemic, yet we still had families to care for and jobs to do," Smith says. "The cathartic effect (of sharing) provided moments of respite from which we drew temporary strength."

Brady discusses the difficulty he felt sharing with students his own trials and tribulations dealing with COVID-19.

"I think the students appreciated my vulnerability, but it was a foreign and uncomfortable place for me as the professor," Brady says.


Online Degree = Online Community

Online learners and teachers of instructional leadership at the U of A embraced pedagogical strategies forced on them during the pandemic, and these strategies will continue to have positive post-pandemic effects in building learning communities.

Even though they are spread across the country, the online degree students in her cohort remain close, Scales says.

"We have group texts," she says. "At least once a week, somebody brings up something and it gets us all talking. Everybody is tired and stressed, and we are each other’s rocks."

Listro says she’s modeling the leadership skills she’s learning in class in her professional life as a school administrator.

"I make notes of things in class that made me feel valued, respected, appreciated, and I do my best to roll that out when the roles are reversed and I’m the leader," Listro says.

Educational leadership is one of 75 online degree, certificate, microcertificate and licensure programs offered by the University of Arkansas. The online degree program takes three years to complete with 42 hours of coursework completed 100% online. Once a semester, the online cohort meets face to face for a meaningful U of A campus experience unless that requirement is suspended as it was for safety reasons during part of the coronavirus pandemic.

Each intensive weekend cohort seminar focuses on a theme that connects theory with practice and includes mini-lectures by scholars and practitioners in the field, facilitated discussion groups, and lively debate of critical issues facing school leaders. The intent of the cohort weekend is to build relationships, introduce students to leaders in the field and expose them to interactive, hands-on learning experiences that lend themselves more easily to the face-to-face environment.

More than 1,100 students earned degrees in the 2020-2021 academic year from online programs offered by the academic colleges through the University of Arkansas Global Campus. To learn more about the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program, please visit the program page on our website.


Photos submitted

John Pijanowski, from left, Kara Lasater, Kevin Brady and Christy Smith teach in the educational leadership graduate program.

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership

The Ed.D. in Educational Leadership provides professional preparation for students pursuing careers as principals, other building-level administrators and supervisors in public and private schools; superintendents and other central office personnel; federal and state governmental agency officials; and other educational leadership related professionals.

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