During times of uncertainty, staff, students, parents, and even members of our local communities turn to school leaders for guidance and reassurance. It is normal for leaders not to have all of the answers during a crisis, but they can build a much-needed sense of community. Amid the pandemic, politics, and the nation’s reckoning with racial inequity, it has been an extraordinary summer. And now comes the start of one of the most unsettling school years in history, with COVID-19 still looming and uncertainty lingering. No matter the model of learning—in person, remote, or hybrid—everyone is trying their best to settle in, knowing there is no guarantee that it will last.
In times like this, school leaders need to be mindful of the emotional well-being of students, teachers, and families who may be dealing with the repercussions of COVID-19 while having to adjust to new routines. Strong leadership is needed more than ever to help them get through this prolonged crisis. Since the dynamics of the current pandemic are unique, the way we lead may need to be altered as well. Leaders need to be compassionate toward those whom they lead and must consider several key concepts when doing so.
Promote Health, Safety, and Well-Being First
School leaders may wear a lot of hats, but their main priority undoubtedly should be to keep students and staff safe. As we continue to move forward, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it very clear that health, safety, and well-being must supersede everything else. Obviously, providing students with the best education possible is always a priority, but in challenging and uncertain times, safety and the social-emotional and cognitive needs of staff and students should be at the core, and school leaders must work tirelessly to address them.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
An effective leader is one who is a good communicator, and as individuals struggle through an uncertain situation, they want to hear from their leaders. It is crucial during times of uncertainty that leaders communicate regularly to give updates, provide support, or offer suggestions to those who are waiting for it—and trust me, they will be waiting. It is good practice to set scheduled times when messages will be published, and it is important to use forms of communication that will reach stakeholders. Continue to communicate even when you don’t have answers. It will be appreciated that you are taking the time to let everyone know that you realize it is important to them, and that you are working on getting them the information that they are looking for. During uncertain times, remember you cannot communicate too much.
Be Honest and Transparent
For obvious reasons, honesty and transparency is critical during times of uncertainty. Leaders must candidly acknowledge the obstacles, the unknowns, and maybe even their own vulnerability. The willingness to share one’s vulnerability can help humanize a leader and build credibility when offering direction and encouragement to others. It is extremely important for leaders to embrace humility and generate a feeling of trust among those who rely on you. This will not happen if your messages appear insincere. People need to feel your presence and your commitment to their well-being and that of the organization.
As leaders, we often do a lot of talking and not enough listening. Taking the time to listen can be associated with many positive outcomes, especially during times of uncertainty. People like to feel valued, and there is no better way to make that happen than to listen to them, especially if they are feeling stressed. Take some time to engage in conversation, ask how they are doing, and hear what they have to say. Providing people with the opportunity to share their thoughts is a way for them to have a voice and feel empowered and respected. Having conversations can cultivate relationships and build trust, which is one of the most important factors in fostering a positive school culture.
Leaders should be empathetic and show compassion for those whom they lead, especially during times like the present where people have so much going on in both their personal and professional lives. Having empathy is different than sympathizing with others. It is truly understanding and sharing the feelings of another or putting yourself in their shoes. Being empathetic will provide you with a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those you are tasked to lead and will help to build trust. In a situation like the current one where we are dependent upon technology to teach and engage with students, for example, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the veteran teacher who may not be comfortable with technology and truly understand how difficult this may be for them.
Give Others A Voice
During times of uncertainty, it is beneficial for leaders to understand how people feel by providing them with opportunities to safely express their emotions, ask questions, and give feedback. Giving staff, students, and parents a voice will allow them to feel valued and connected. Reaching out to those who may be struggling will create a personal connection and a positive relationship, which will go a long way. Giving others a voice is also a great way to get them invested. It’s no surprise that during uncertain times people often express feelings of discontentment. Reaching out to those individuals and providing them with an opportunity to share their ideas can be a proactive way to decrease the negativity that often surrounds these types of situations.
This unprecedented situation generated an opportunity to be creative and to think outside of the box, as we often tell our students to do. The actions of school leaders play a vital role in creating an environment that is supportive to staff and encourages them to take risks and try something new, even if it may not work as planned. Support can be shown in many ways, such as listening, providing resources and time, or by offering assistance. Support can also be exhibited through many of the other points listed above, such as communicating, being empathetic, and listening.
None of us know what the future holds. What we do know is that schools and educators need leaders to guide them in ways that help to suppress the anxiety and confusion that naturally arise during uncertainty.
Monica Ouly-Uhl is beginning her 28th year in education and has been an assistant principal for 16 years. She was recently named the 2020 Pennsylvania Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@MOulyUhl).