If you are looking for an expert in leading through crisis, you may want to look elsewhere. I am a school principal who is learning every single day how to lead through crisis, just like so many principals out there. This is my 19th year as a school leader and I did occasionally experience crises pre-COVID, but the crises before the pandemic were different. They would come, rock our worlds and teach us a whole lot, and then they would go away. There was an end to the crisis before. Now it is just one long crisis situation that morphs and flows and sometimes appears to be ending, but that is just to give us an ember of hope to keep us going.
This pandemic has wreaked havoc on our schools and has multiplied the problems we were already facing in education. Before the pandemic we were lobbying for help with staffing shortages and now we have shortages in every area–teachers, support staff, bus drivers, child care providers, recess supervisors, custodial staff. You name it, we are short staffed.
Before the pandemic we were working to become trauma-informed educators because of skyrocketing social-emotional needs in our schools. Now the number of students who struggle regulating their behavior is at an all-time high. And, remember those staff shortages I mentioned? There is no additional staff to help the kids who are struggling.
Teachers cannot even take a day off in peace because they have no idea who will be covering their classrooms because substitute teachers are in short supply and high demand. By the way, bless you to the few angels who are subbing for our schools. We are so thankful for you!
Educators are fleeing the profession in record numbers because it is so hard–teachers are leaving, principals are leaving, support staff is leaving and there is no one coming to replace them.
Okay, so this is where I am supposed say that not all hope is lost. So I will.
Not all hope is lost.
You know why? Because we are talented, passionate, servant leaders who WILL NOT GIVE UP on our people or on our students. We won’t even give up on the parents who are so mad at us that we are covered with their spittle after they finish yelling at us about things we cannot control. We won’t give up on any of you.
I repeat, I am not an expert in leading through crisis. I am, however, committed to becoming a better leader because of our current crisis situation. I renew that commitment every day while I am getting ready for school.
I will get out of my own way
and be the leader you need today.
I will not let fear run this school,
I will run this school.
I get to serve my school community
and that is a blessing.
My to-do list for leading during crisis looks like this:
Know that everything I do matters x100 during crisis
When I became a principal I had no clue that EVERY. SINGLE. LITTLE. THING. I did mattered. I didn’t understand that I could ruin trust and relationship in the blink of an eye if I made an off-handed comment to someone. People watch their leaders–their body language, what they do and what they don’t do–and they listen carefully. They look to their leaders to see how they should feel about things. They look to their leaders to determine the magnitude of a situation. Gosh, maybe it was good that I didn’t know the enormous responsibility of being a leader because I might have run in the other direction. During crisis, leaders are watched like hawks and everything we do matters even more.
Listen more than ever
I love Michael Bungay Stanier’s advice on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. He said, “Stay curious a little longer.” During crisis, there are so many things coming at leaders at once and we might be tempted to solve problems as quickly as possible. I think of that “Whac-A-Mole” game at arcades–we want to whack those pesky mole problems as quickly as possible because we know another one will be popping up immediately. Instead, during crisis, it is time to slow down and listen.
This is a time to avoid multitasking as much as possible so that you can give your whole attention to the person (or task) in front of you. This quote by Jeremy Clarkson rings true to me, “Multitasking is the ability to screw everything up simultaneously.” Relationships are the last things we want to screw up during a crisis, so close the laptop and ignore the smartwatch notifications and really, really listen.
I like sunshine and rainbows and my strong inclination is to get everything back to sunshine and rainbows as quickly as possible. Sometimes that means that I don’t allow myself or others to sit in negative emotions long enough. Sometimes things just suck. Period. It is extremely important to feel with people during times of crisis because that is how we connect at a deep level. Celebrate BIG when good things happen. Cry together when bad things happen. It is amazing how connecting through emotions helps us feel supported by our leaders.
Recognizing that students, staff and families are people first helps leaders focus on basic needs above all else. Our people are scared, they are stressed, they are sick of our current situation. They have issues at home on top of all the issues at school. They may break down, they may take things personally that have nothing to do with them, they are sensitive, and they may be full of self-doubt. Knowing that their leader values their health above all and sees them as whole people can help them put on a brave face and come to work with renewed hope every morning. It also helps them support their colleagues in the same way.
With a lack of information, our minds go to negative places. There is enough real negative stuff out there, let’s communicate to a fault so we don’t make up more negative stuff in our heads. Now, I do not mean that we should be sending 10 emails a day (here are some helpful email tips), nobody wants that. Save up the important information throughout the week and share a very thorough and helpful newsletter at the end of the week. Make information easy to access. Make yourself easy to access by getting into as many classrooms as possible every day. Do a weekly check-in with staff so they can let you know what they need. And, make sure that in every communication to add a little something to let staff know how much you appreciate and value them. I call this a “Plus One“.
Remember how we said that people watch leaders like a hawk during crisis? If you are worried all the time, they will be worried all the time. If you spend time playing and laughing each day, they will spend time playing and laughing each day. I remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when I felt that it would be ridiculous for me to put on wigs, to dance with my fanny pack with speakers, to make silly videos when we were just trying to keep everyone healthy. I am embarrassed to say that it took me a couple months to realize that the opposite was true… that it was ridiculous that I was allowing the pandemic to rob us of joy and play. It felt like the whole school breathed a collective sigh of relief after I released the first silly video, as if they were saying, “Oh! We can play now? YES!”.
Laughter reduces stress, relaxes muscles, and builds relationships. Not only should we play and laugh during crisis, we should do it more frequently than ever. We have “Movement Mondays” every week when we wear workout clothes and have fun moving with our students. We have “Wonderful Wednesdays” once per month where staff gets together and share treats and connects–eating together is always a good idea. And, we have a theme song every year that is upbeat and helps reinforce our joyful environment. This year our theme song is Katy Perry’s “Electric”.
This list is certainly not comprehensive and you are out there doing this work just like I am. What tips do you have for leading through crisis? Share them in the comments or on social media (be sure to tag me and use #SerendipityEDU).
One more request–my friends, check on your school leaders. We spend so much time making sure everyone else is okay, but the reality is that we are not superheroes. We are human too. Sending so much love to all the educators out there. We are better together.