During this time of crisis, school leaders are juggling so much more than usual, and your usual is already too full. To help lighten your load, I have researched and compiled a list of seven things that you can do now to make a positive difference in your schools. Thank you for all you do to lead with dignity during uncertain times.
Tip #1: At The Door
So many school leaders have adopted the lovely custom of standing outside the school to welcome students as they enter the building in the morning, and especially now, making sure you are visible at the door establishes trust and safety. Many school leaders have started to get to faculty meetings ten minutes early so they can stand outside the door and welcome each staff member as they enter, a gesture that carries tremendous warmth and caring. This extra ten minutes is challenging to carve into our already busy schedules; assistance from office staff and administrators is key to making this work.
As we navigate the very real fears of this time, finding the balance between being cautious and not frozen, productive and not debilitating, is what Steven Covey calls “managing your weather” and is essential in establishing the feeling in the building. Some school leaders have found that making sure they have daily 15 minute office hours for staff to drop in has proven very meaningful. In fact, even on days when few staff appear for this open-door time, just knowing they have this option has been helpful to staff.
Tip #2: Pick One
Right now, making sure staff and students are safe and available to learn is step one. Step two is being clear about what matters. Pick one thing. Make sure your priority is clear and how it will be measured.
Jenn David-Lang writes about how school leaders must focus our priorities. For example, let’s say your priority right now is belonging. What does that look like to you? What might be less important now? How do you communicate it with your staff? Or perhaps you want to prioritize routine as a way of creating normalcy; what matters now and what matters less?
Be clear with yourself, your teams and staff about why this is your priority now, and assess your adherence to it over the days and weeks. Many school leaders find that choosing the priority, ensuring there are values connected to it, and being clear about what it looks like in practice has alleviated much stress for staff and students alike.
Tip #3: Listen
Often, we invite people to share not because we need the information (though we often learn a great deal) but because they need to be heard. This investment in listening time is so crucial to establishing trust and safety.
Many school leaders have rallied their leadership teams to make personal calls to each person on staff, to check in and listen. Some leaders are establishing “tag out” opportunities for staff. A school leader takes over a class for ten minutes while the teacher leaves the room, maybe for a coffee or news break. This takes the place of classroom observations for the month and also gives students face time with you as a school leader. Make sure you let the staff know your plan and what you will be doing with the students during that time. Letting staff know when you plan to come is key, so they can plan accordingly, and make sure your office staff knows this is a priority so you can’t be disturbed then.
In addition to making time for staff, many school leaders are creating opportunities to check in with alumni, parents and Israeli families, including those with children and loved ones serving in the IDF. These meet ups are so important and powerful. It is important for the leadership team to have an opportunity to reflect on these meetings and share among themselves. It is also essential for leaders to make time for themselves to be listened to and to check in with personal family members. As an aside, check out Kate Murphy’s book You’re Not Listening for fascinating tips on this crucial skill.
Tip #4: Be Like Broccoli
As Rae Ringel observed, leadership is like broccoli, providing a fractal model that shows what to do by example. What we do is what others will do. If we want our teachers to be extra patient, to call parents more, to take care of themselves, to communicate about what they need, then we need to model that ourselves. For example, if differentiation is important to you as a leader, how do you differentiate your faculty meetings and communications?
At Prizmah, we strive to share common language. As a small example, if we have a day when our office is closed, we are given language for our out of office message. In schools, many arguments can be diverted and de-escalated by finding the right words that leaders can share with staff. For example, what is a sentence staff can use when parents are angry or concerned now? What is a sentence staff can use when there is a change in plans? How can a staff member ask for help? I have worked with a few schools that used faculty meetings to practice some of these scenarios, which were received with positive feedback.
One more model that is key: the pause. The more you take time in conversation to think, to pause and offer to get back to people (and then do!), the better your school community will be able to follow your lead.
Tip #5: Zone Defense
We may not be able to anticipate every scenario that will come up now, or even who may need support or a pivot in plan, so I recommend creating leadership teams with a “zone defense” approach. Let me explain. When I played basketball in high school, we often used a zone defense, which means you are in charge of defending the area in your “zone” and you can always call for help when needed.
Now more than ever, making sure you have a leadership team in place is essential, and ensuring that they and the school community know who to go to for what is a game changer. That being said, we cannot always know what will be needed, so operating with a team mentality that each person will cover his or her zone and we will all step in to support one another is key. How do we talk about Israel? How do we talk about fear? How do we allow people to feel what they feel and still keep routine? Often when a crisis hits, we may get territorial, resentful and confused, so re-establishing what is working now and who the right people are for specific concerns and needs is very helpful. Making sure you check in with this team is also essential to ensuring its effectiveness.
In addition to our regular teams, many leaders are including local rabbis and community resource personnel in their teams at this time. For many, including more helpful voices can be supportive, and for some, it makes leading more complicated, so if it works to expand the circle now, do so with clear guidelines about what this team of support is included in.
One more kind of team that is worth the extra investment is the parent body. In particular, let them know how they can communicate effectively with the school and with one another about policies and even about social media. It may be helpful to have a team of parent liaisons you meet with, especially now, to listen and share.
Tip #6: Space Out
Our buildings provide spaces for us to teach even before we open our mouths. Even for schools struggling to find space for basic class needs, getting creative about how we use space is very helpful during stressful times.
Many schools have made “time out zones’' for staff to decompress, a quiet place to unwind and eat, with a no-noise rule. Other schools have created a newsroom for the staff to keep updated on events in Israel and have a place to listen and talk. Parents may also need a space to talk and be there for one another that is not in the presence of children. Leaders have even designated a room for people to attend their personal therapy sessions without needing to miss more school driving to and from the session. Offering a place to go is a great source of comfort to the people in the school community, even if they do not use this resource.
Tip #7: Checklist for Check-ins
What does trauma look like for people at different ages? For people with ADD? When should we be concerned and when is a reaction “normal”? There are checklists available, like this one, from the National Education Association. Using your own checklist for student and staff support is a great idea, and providing faculty professional development training in identifying red flags can help.
Another area to consider: How do we talk about Israel for different developmental stages? What are we doing and not doing for each age group? For some, writing a list of things to remember, including approaches and even specific language, is so helpful. Keep that handy.
In addition to using a checklist for making sure everyone else is ok, I have also started my own checklist for myself. What matters to me as a leader right now? What is important to me? Before meetings and lessons, I try to check in with myself to find my center and try to get in the space of being who I want to be at this crucial time.
I hope this list is helpful and gives you practical ways to support yourself and others as you lead during this time. I welcome your suggestions for other such tips. Above all, thank you for all you do to lead, inspire and educate our children and communities. May we be blessed with good news.