Inspiring & Informing Through Affective Leadership
By Jamie Bricker
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a monthly series on the impact of Affective Leadership in the school system. Affective leadership is all about working with people, rather than trying to work through them or simply going around them. All stakeholders become far more invested in the school, when they feel genuinely valued, respected, and heard by administration. The pandemic has immeasurably heightened this need for connectivity.
The entire educational community has been rocked by the ongoing stress and anxiety associated with the pandemic, and many are looking to principals to set the tone moving forward. School administrators need to make a concerted effort to provide both ongoing inspiration and on the mark information.
The inspiration provided needs to be rooted in an appropriate balance of realistic optimism and cold hard facts. Everyone in the school needs to feel both well-supported and well-informed. As such, principals must simultaneously play two key roles: informational filter and emotional shock absorber.
Ongoing crises such as the pandemic generate an endless and self-perpetuating list of facts, fears, and fallacies. After eight months, people have become increasingly numb to the informational onslaught, and the principal plays a key role in filtering the messaging within the school and across the broader school community. What teachers are looking for most is calm, consistent messaging from the office. A key component of this messaging is for administrators to do their best to eliminate any avoidable surprises, and keep all staff members firmly in the informational loop.
Staff, students and parents have all brought various levels of anxiety to school this fall, and principals have had to acknowledge it, and then either address it or absorb it for a later time. In other words, the affective leader recognizes that sometimes he/she has to assume the role of emotional shock absorber. As such, people share emotionally charged feelings, but the principal then dispenses calm, logical support and advice.
Whether through socially distant conversations, one of various virtual conferencing options or a traditional phone call, it is important for principals to reach out and reassure staff, students and parents alike that school is a safe place to be. Obviously, no guarantees are made with regard to safety, but people need to feel heard and have their concerns validated.
Set the tone
Affective principals inspire staff and students by continually reinforcing, through both actions and comments, that despite many COVID related challenges, this can still be a rewarding school year. After adjusting to the educational impact of the pandemic for the past few months, now is the time for school leaders to ensure that teaching and learning are firmly in the forefront of daily school life. Obviously, the safety of students and staff will remain a top priority for the duration of this most unusual school year, but principals must ensure that academics have also once again become a top priority.
While always being sensitive to the undeniable impact of the pandemic, principals have to ensure that instructional practices, either in-class or virtual, are engaging and impactful. Principals must continually reinforce the message that, as important as safety protocols are, their ultimate purpose is to lay the foundation for a healthy and challenging learning environment for all.
Control the message
All the variables significantly impacting our daily lives during the pandemic have made it even more challenging for leaders to ensure their messages are being correctly received. With people’s personal plates already overflowing with a heaping helping of pandemic-related news and concerns, principals need to prioritize keeping all messaging succinct. Affective principals recognize the current realities of the school community, and share messages that are tight and unambiguous.
Affective leaders also appreciate that information dissemination is not a static, linear process with a clear path to completion. It is in fact a dynamic journey full of checkpoints, detours, road blocks, and sometimes dead ends. The number of these potential obstacles has clearly increased exponentially during the pandemic. It is imperative that principals make a concerted effort to anticipate potential misunderstandings or disconnects, and judiciously plan their messaging, both spoken and written, accordingly.
Monitor for misalignments
With emotions running high, stress levels off the charts and pandemic fatigue getting more entrenched by the day, it is understandable if some messages are either misinterpreted or missed altogether by some staff members. Many families are also feeling stuck in the middle of the emotional blender, and they may not access and/or process school-based information as they normally would. For the duration of the pandemic, affective principals will do their best to routinely check in with a range of stakeholders to help ensure messages are correctly received.
The pandemic has forced the vast majority of school communication to be written, and affective principals take the extra time to ensure tight alignment between the message that was sent and the message that was received. Written communication obviously lacks the intonation and accompanying body language of the spoken word, and can, therefore, be easily misinterpreted. Principals need to ensure all written communication is strictly factual, as sharing thoughts and opinions can inadvertently trigger unanticipated anger, anxiety, and ill will.
Address individual concerns
During the pandemic, affective leaders do their best to maintain social contact with staff despite the challenges of limited in-person interaction. All adults in the school are bringing a range of experiences, feelings, information, and misinformation with them to work each day. Affective principals do their best to ensure staff members feel collectively informed and individually supported.
Reaching out to staff on an ongoing basis provides two key benefits: confirming truth and creating trust. Allowing rumors and hearsay to circulate unabated just further tugs at everyone’s already raw emotions. When staff members realize that the principal can be counted on to be honest and forthcoming, a foundation of trust is further reinforced. Connecting with staff is obviously far more challenging within the present pandemic parameters, but making every reasonable effort to do so is time well spent.
Support slow adapters
For a litany of reasons, some staff members have undoubtedly had an especially difficult time adjusting to the realities of the new school day and the new teaching environment.
Affective leaders take the time to listen to these staff members’ concerns and also further explain why any particularly contentious adjustments to school protocols and routines have been implemented.
Principals should always be wary of arbitrarily changing expectations for any given staff member, however, as setting new precedents can quickly trigger resentment and dissension among the rest of the staff. People are stressed enough these days without feeling that certain staff are getting some kind of preferential treatment. Affective leaders embrace the unique realities of this school year as an opportunity to get staff to work more closely together, and they prioritize doing nothing to widen any potential disconnects with or among staff.
About the author
Jamie Bricker is a published author and international speaker. As a retired school principal, he has long been a strong advocate of affective leadership and has experienced its profound impact. He is also co-host of two podcasts, including Affective Leadership – Positivity Promotes Productivity. Jamie can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.jamiebricker.com.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.