by Meredith Monk Ford
As we wake to another day of the unknown, school leaders face another day of faculty and staff adjusting to their reality. Like everyone, teachers’ lives have been disrupted. They feel anxious and inconvenienced; remote teaching is not what they expected or wanted.
How can leaders help people get through this time? What support can they provide that helps people overcome their worry, fear, and unease? How can schools get out of a reactionary triage mode if they want to come out of this stronger than how they entered? And how can leaders help teachers and families be partners rather than adversaries as they move forward?
School leaders are, first and foremost, leaders of people in a very people-centered industry. We’ve all been reading a lot lately about leadership in a time of crisis. I’ve been especially struck with how organizations – businesses, nonprofits, and schools – provide a sense of structure and fulfillment when people feel overwhelmed and, in the extreme, like victims of a situation they can’t control.
To provide this support, successful leaders reframe the work. They remind their teams why they do the work rather than always focusing on how to do it. Shining a light on the significance and impact of the work on students and families, on something bigger, provides important context and reinforces school-wide values. It grounds teachers in something more meaningful than mastering Zoom lessons. It creates a sense of purpose and community that can provide motivation when teachers feel discouraged or uncertain about things like content coverage.
People need an environment where they are connected to a shared purpose and understanding of success. They want to know “here’s why what we do matters.” And they need to hear that message, repeatedly.
What we do matters because of why we do it.
How can we reframe our conversations with faculty and staff in order to help them stay positive and encouraging as a whole, to help children learn, grow and discover who they are? There are some powerful lessons in this moment for students about managing themselves, balancing work and play without the structure of a school schedule, and understanding their emotions relative to what’s happening in the world around them. That’s our value as educators and this is our opportunity to tend to the relationships our teachers have with students to help them through this difficult time.
School leaders can guide this conversation by asking what the work is that we are called together to do. This could start with a brainstorming session for leadership to define the top three priorities that the school should focus on in the current situation. What do they want students and families to say about the school once this is all over?
Create a single, unwavering sentence of why, as educators,you are doing this work. That can guide everything you do. Here is a tool to help guide this process: https://medium.com/black-white-studios/how-to-write-a-powerful-mission-statement-with-a-winning-template-helpful-examples-d73279a00039
The conversation can continue with faculty at the divisional or departmental level. Their participation in this process will set a solid, calming tone and a clear vision. Since it is often easier to respond to something (and since it is the leader’s job to set the schoolwide purpose), this values-based statement can be presented for their reaction and edification. Invite (and capture) questions, observations and comments, but stay focused; if leadership has developed a strong vision, faculty does not need to wade into philosophical debate. Work towards mobilizing teachers behind a shared purpose rather than responding to individual feedback.
Students and families should also be part of this process. This develops loyalty and buy-in – and can help alleviate many of their possible concerns about the direction of the school community. Provide parents with the context for how the school reconsidered its shared purpose and mission. As with faculty, focus on the why rather than the how of what the school is doing and where it’s headed, and give them an opportunity to respond, such as through a survey.
Focusing on a clear, common mission and a shared purpose can provide the motivation and understanding that might reduce some of the stress and uncertainty we are seeing. It can provide the framework and energy that will see us through the end of the school year and set us up for success as we look forward.