Leaning into Crisis as an Administrator

Guest post by Jane Core Yatzek

As I write this post many schools are still welcoming students for the first nine weeks of school and establishing routines and procedures.  Children are still learning classmates’ names and nuances, the new bus stop routes, and may even still have a few unsharpened pencils in their school supplies.  Everyone is enjoying the newness and hope that infuses the beginning of the school year.  This is a beautiful time in each school year; until abruptly, one day it is not.

Inevitably someone in your classes, on your staff, or in your school community will experience a crisis this year.  It will cause ripples across your school much like a stone thrown into a calm pool.  Crisis takes an infinite number of forms; it is the death of a parent, the house fire that displaces a family, the tragic accident that injures students in your community or on a national stage, or a staff member diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  The crises may have different causes and names but they bring out the same fear, hurt, and vulnerability in our school families.  There will be similar symptoms too – tears, withdrawal, anger, acting out, and confusion.

crisis

Our response is what can be unique.  What if instead of just tissues, time, and “soldiering on” we encouraged our students, staff members, and school communities to share our raw feelings and lean into the crisis?  What if we talked openly about the fears and hurt, aware and kind to our own vulnerability and that of others?  What if we acknowledged our self-perceived weaknesses and defined the questions we have as we try to figure out if and how we move forward?  Could we model for our students how to not be paralyzed by our worry?  Would we find that we are almost always more supported than we ever thought possible just by sharing our crises with our trusted school friends, colleagues, and community?

There are many resources for administrators wanting to create a culture of trust for their staff and for helping teachers create a culture of trust in their classrooms.  One idea is to utilize the structures we use for inquiry to support our questions that arise in times of tragedy (Daniels, 2016).  Another idea is to work on building safe spaces to be open to our fearful or anxiety-ridden experiences (Brown, 2016).  Still another idea is to build upon our natural compassion for those feeling distress and reach out to folks within and beyond our circle when they express their uncertainty or discomfort, building a deeper and wider net of compassion and active listening. Finally, offering debriefing time and professional support for all school community members impacted initially or peripherally by crisis is important for physical and mental well-being (UCLA-SMHP, 2016).

Whatever the method, it is universally reassuring to know we are not alone when facing the situations that leave us struggling with hard emotions or feeling exposed.  It helps people to know that others care for them even when their emotions make them feel that they are unlovable. Crisis will happen this year, and when it does, let’s take time discover the growth that can occur in us as individuals and within our school communities when we grapple with the reality that our collective power may reside in our shared weaknesses.

Jane Core Yatzeck is a doctoral student in Curriculum Leadership at William & Mary School of Education.  She has 20 years of experience in education; first as a special education and general education elementary school teacher, and then as a school administrator at the middle and elementary levels.  She can be reached at jacor2@email.wm.edu or on Twitter @jcoreyatzeck.

Resources:

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead.  Gotham Books:  New York, New York.

Daniels, H. (2017) The curious classroom. Heinemann: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Lichstein, R., Schonfield, D.J. & Kilne, M. (1994). School crisis response: Expecting the  unexpected.  Educational Leadership 52, 3, p. 79-83 Retrieved from:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov94/vol52/num03/School-Crisis-Response@-Expecting-the-Unexpected.aspx

University of California Los Angeles Mental Health in Schools Project (2016).  Responding to a crisis at school: A resource aid.  Retrieved from: http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/crisis/crisis.pdf