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

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

by Jamon H. Flowers, M. Ed., SURN

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.