Pandemic Principals Provide Perspective
By Jamie Bricker
This is the latest 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.
After teaching and learning in a pandemic for the past few months, it is very understandable if many educators feel like they have been working in the middle of a long, dark tunnel. Across the country, many successful measures have been taken at the school level to help keep students and staff physically safe. There has been, however, a profound emotional toll that the virus has taken on many people working in the school system.
In the midst of all of the ongoing Covid-19 uncertainty, school leaders have done their best to ensure students are receiving a quality educational experience. Whether students are physically attending school or learning virtually at home, educators continue to do a very admirable job in meeting the very unique challenges of this school year. Recent vaccine discussions have ignited a light at the end of this tunnel, which provides everyone with a much-needed sense of hope. Regardless of vaccine availability, however, the rest of the school year will continue to be significantly impacted by the pandemic.
In the midst of this relentless darkness, it is important to always remember that many brighter days are ahead. Principals are the key to help keep things in perspective. They focus on conveying cautious optimism, while embracing the present working realities. The truth is that as impactful and challenging as it continues to be, the pandemic is going to ultimately represent a very small portion of each staff member’s educational career.
It is not a question of minimizing or ignoring any stakeholder’s anxieties, but rather a realization that there will be both life and learning after the pandemic. The need for this broader lens, and related reassurance, has never been more acute than it is right now.
OFFER ONGOING SUPPORT
Educators are well aware that students have many different learning styles, and affective leaders are equally well aware that staff members have very different responses to stress and uncertainty. Some teachers feel very uncomfortable being in the physical school and classroom, while others feel equally stressed by all of the logistics associated with virtual learning. Principals need to recognize and validate these concerns, and routinely reassure staff that they will be there to support them for the duration of this unprecedented educational journey.
Affective leaders know their staff well and recognize everyone is coming from a unique place. They offer everyone comforting, but honest, reassurance that by working together as a school community, everything is going to work out eventually. They key is for principals to try to always convey the right balance of hope and honesty.
NURTURE MUTUAL TRUST
The tremendous amount of time devoted to safety related matters means that instructional practices will not be as closely monitored this year as in a typical school year. There will be far fewer casual interactions between administrator and staff members, and formal interactions will likely be limited to a monthly video conferencing type staff meeting. Clearly, teaching and learning will require a lot of implicit trust among all parties.
These kinds of emotionally trying times both test and tighten the sense of mutual trust among administrators and staff members. From the staff perspective, all adults in the building have had to feel from the start of the school year that the principal has honestly prioritized safety far above all else and taken the necessary measures to help ensure it. From the principal’s lens, staff have been granted additional autonomy as they will be teaching in largely uncharted waters for the entirety of this school year.
MONITOR STAFF WELLNESS
Principals recognize that staff members have been dealing with a lot of personal and professional stressors throughout the pandemic. Since affective leaders have worked hard to get to know their staff, people will hopefully be more inclined to share their pandemic related challenges and anxieties. These open discussions are a vital step in maintaining and rebuilding employee mental health and morale. Principals can also remind people of various professional support options available, if they are clearly struggling.
Affective administrators are always there to offer support, but they let people guide those personal conversations. The principal is certainly an active listener, but the given staff member always has full control over how much they wish to share. School leaders also must ensure that the conversation doesn’t inadvertently become all about them.
PRIORITIZE PERSONAL CARE
The affective principal serves as the emotional shock absorber for the entire school, and this fall there has been an unprecedented number of issues to absorb. While trying to address everyone else’s needs and concerns, it is very easy for principals to gradually become physically drained and emotionally overwhelmed. In the midst of so much stress and uncertainty, it is imperative for school leaders to never forget about their own physical, social, and emotional needs.
Conscientious school administrators have always been susceptible to 20/20 hindsight, and never more so than now with such a fluid, pandemic impacted, work environment. Principals need to continue to do their best with the information available at the time, be driven by logic not emotion, and then live with their decision. School leaders routinely staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night regretting some of their decisions serves no practical purpose, and steadily eats away at both their physical and emotional health and well being.
All principals know it’s lonely at the top, and during the pandemic it’s vital to make a real effort to reach out to friends and extended family member on a regular basis. Affective leaders make a concerted effort to get regular exercise, stick to a healthy diet, and try to maintain regular sleep patterns.
FOSTER GREATER RESILIENCY
The oft uttered cliché that “we’re all in this together” is extremely naïve and has been routinely disproven across broader society, but it certainly has merit within a given school. There has never been a more important time for principals both to model individual resiliency and help the staff develop collective resiliency. It is crucial for school leaders to focus on strengthening the staff’s resiliency, as the seemingly endless pandemic has understandably caused many people to default to a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.
Administrators must provide steady, reliable leadership during these very uncertain times, while modelling the growth mindset throughout every school day. The present educational environment is obviously extremely challenging, but it is far from hopeless. Yes, there are some major obstacles to overcome, but committed and collaborative educators are fully capable of doing just that. As a staff, focus on working hard to control what can be controlled and embrace all new challenges with confidence and optimism.
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. He also blogs weekly on various aspects of affective leadership, and his blogs can be found on LinkedIn. Jamie can be contacted by email at email@example.com 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.