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3 keys for leading through crisis
Michael Gaskell
June 18, 2020

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During the coronavirus crisis, my school -- like many others across the country -- implemented a phased approach to online learning. We started with email-only assignments and replies with work submitted from students and parents. Next, we created digitally screencast lessons -- similar to a YouTube video -- and delivered via email or Google Classroom. Our most recent phase involved teachers and students in direct, live instruction using Zoom and Google Meet.

Most students breezed through these transitions. Many teachers, however, struggled. Every phase change brought on a new wave of stress. These were capable professionals but their blueprint was gone. Many felt like they were flying blind. Their anxiety made sense.

Many of your educators may be struggling with similar uneasiness. That’s fair; these are uncharted waters. They are working in a constantly shifting reality. Here are three ways school leaders can help guide their teams successfully through these difficult times. 

Support

First, acknowledge their challenges and concerns. Effective school leadership does not mean throwing your hands in the air and giving up. Quite the opposite. Support means providing a way to hear them out and work together to find solutions.

I did this with a “Digital Q&A Board” for my faculty. It was a shared digital space where everyone could share their concerns, issues and questions. This helped right away.

People posted questions as they ran into situations. And of course, if one person asked a question, 10 others were wondering the same thing. This board was a safe place to have those discussions and get answers.

My responses mattered. I acknowledged every individual concern, expressed empathy and encouraged them that “together, we will get through this. I promise.”

Trust

Promises only go as far as trust. If you have given reason through current actions -- or a previous challenge -- that you cannot be trusted, you will not allay your team’s fears or anxiety.

My faculty was extremely anxious about moving to live digital instruction. I did not tell them to “tough it out,” as some leaders did. I held a Zoom meeting with all 125 teachers and promised they would have all the professional development and support they needed for this transition. And then I followed through.

If a teacher ran into a problem, we helped find a solution. If a teacher had an emergency, I didn’t question it; I just helped get his or her classes covered. When a teacher had to resuscitate his brother and couldn’t connect with his classes for several days, all I said was, “We’ve got you covered.” And then his colleagues rallied to pitch in.

These actions went a long way toward building trust. My staff saw I was not backing away from live instruction but they also knew it would include flexibility and hands-on support.

Effective leaders stand alongside their staff, even if digitally. Show them that you are human and will work with them through everything, however difficult it may be.

And follow through on your promises. The worst kind of distrust happens when those who count on you feel ignored or confused.

Not following up -- or changing direction on a dime -- can do this. Avoid changing your mind, unless it’s absolutely necessary and makes sense to do so. Consistency builds trust.

Model the Way

Lead by example. Always -- not just when it is convenient. In fact, do it when you feel most uncomfortable.

I did this when I showed the teachers how to use new video tools in our online instruction platform. I encouraged them to get on video with their students and to say to them, “We are all learners -- let’s learn how to do this together!” It worked.

Modeling new practices or ideas helps humanize leaders to their teams. Be transparent about failures and points of uncertainty. It helps build relationships and trust equity.

And it encourages team members to step out of their own comfort zones. They will be more willing to experiment, try something new and follow their creativity. Why? Because you will have conveyed that risk and failure are part of success.

This crisis is not over. We are not out of the woods yet. New challenges await. But as you extend support, curry trust and model new approaches, you will find your teams standing by you and tackling the challenges as you all navigate your way to success.

Mike Gaskell, Ed. D., is the school principal at Hammarskjold Middle School and author and thought leader, who mentors educators and new principals through New Jersey’s  “Leaders to Leaders” program. He has authored over a dozen articles and has a book coming out this fall about small strategies with big results.

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