“It is during times like this that you will learn what you are made of; this is what you have been preparing for all these years,” Don said last week in a Zoom conversation he leads with a group of new and veteran principals and aspiring administrators. Heads nodded. He went on, “In the most challenging times, transformational leaders are those who step up to the plate. The current Covid–19 challenge is the first time in recent history that schools everywhere have been forced to restructure how teaching and learning is conducted.” As the conversation continued, each participant shared the difficult choices and dilemmas they were facing: how to get technology to families who lack access, how to track down students who aren’t participating in distance learning, how to address parent concerns about at-home schooling, and how best to tackle grading.
As the group shared their vulnerabilities, everyone described feelings of overwhelm, especially the weight of leadership on all our shoulders. Each person feared how impending academic divides will further harm our most vulnerable students; they worried about not having all the answers; and they were terrified of failing their communities. They discussed how everyone is looking to leaders for guidance, for consolation, for truth, and for the strength to persevere. One participant said “It is impossible not to make mistakes, but hopefully, we will not make the same mistakes in the future.” By the end of our hour-long Zoom conversation, all felt better as they prepared to go back out and confront an educational landscape they never could have imagined a few short weeks earlier.
After the session, Don, Susan, and Becki, who served as school leaders together for many years, decided to identify a set of principles to serve as guidelines for leadership in this unprecedented moment.
- Start with self-care: We all have heard the familiar words on airplanes: Put on your oxygen mask first before you put it on your child. It may feel counter-intuitive, but it is really the only thing you can do if you are in for the duration. Thoughtful leaders always give good advice. Consider what advice you would give others? Then give that gift to yourself.
- Be patient, cut slack to yourself and others; forgive blunders and missteps!
- Acknowledge your own stress. It is understandable to be anxious. Anxiety makes us human.
- Accept your fears. With this much uncertainty, it is natural to be afraid.
- Share your feelings with constituents; administrators also have ups and downs and expressing vulnerability is a sign of courage.
- Reach out for help when you need it. Under normal circumstances, we need mentors. Now, when everyone is punting and guessing, reaching out is even more important.
- Speak the truth with clear and simple messages: With so many unanswered questions, communication is critical. At the same time, when any of us are feeling overwhelmed, there’s a risk we might and stop listening or reading.
- Be transparent and authentic. Use short messaging. Less is more.
- Keep people informed, even when sharing difficult news and lacking all the details; relationships of trust are built when people know that you are honest with them.
- Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” You can add “But I will let you know when I know.”
- Make sure your actions match your words.
- Instill hope. We can encourage others that this will pass and we’re all doing our best. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should exaggerate the positive. Keep it real while aiming to be uplifting.
- Personally connect with the colleagues on your team and everyone in your school community. Relationships are central to all you do.
- Implement systems for regularly contacting every student and family.
- Ensure you or someone else checks in with each staff member. You can also assemble small groups.
- Actively listen and don’t pretend you have all the answers. Seek to reduce anxiety; invite suggestions. Recognize that different people need different supports.
- Avoid added stress from unreasonable expectations.
- Unify your school community. Together is the magic word!
- Keep students at the center of every decision you make.
- Acknowledge and validate your team: tell them what they are doing well. Do not wait for miracles to acknowledge the good things that are happening around you.
- Solicit creative solutions to the many problems. Every idea is worth a listen.
- Inspire the belief that we will get through this together.
This moment calls for some very difficult decisions. Courage is doing what you must even when you are most uncertain. Be humble, patient, polite, and kind. People will forgive your mistakes as long as you are out in front, sharing honestly, and expressing care and compassion for others.