I never thought I had what it took to become a head of school. I had assumed sternness, self-assurance and detachment were requisite qualities, none of which I possessed. Then I read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, where I learned that the most effective leaders have different qualities: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. Suddenly, what I had viewed as a liability was now considered an asset. Empathy, much to my delight, was not a weakness, but a strength. There was more than one way to lead and, given the opportunity, I could lead with my heart.
I was initially hired as principal, eventually transitioning to the headship of a school that was at a rather difficult point in its existence, with rapidly declining enrollment and instability. It had lost the confidence of the community, and time was of the essence. The board of directors hired me to transform the school culture, a daunting task. I was painfully aware that real change takes time, but I did not have that luxury. I needed to assess what would have the most impact with the least financial cost. I strongly believed that the key to creating recognizable change was to reinvent the school culture. That involved building relationships, both individually and collectively. But where to begin?
It was essential that my relationship with the staff start off on the right foot. My first authentic interaction with them occurred on the last pedagogical days of June (as is the custom in Canada). I understood that before I could nourish their minds, I needed to nourish their spirit. I asked them to participate in a “chalk talk,” a protocol whereby participants reflect or share ideas silently. I asked each participant to take a marker and share their ideas, questions and concerns in writing on the large mural paper on the wall. They were invited to read one another’s writings and comment on them, with the one caveat that they could not speak. All communication was to be in writing. Not only did this exercise allow me to gain some perspective on their concerns, teachers later told me that they found it to be both cathartic and therapeutic, allowing them to express themselves freely and safely.
On our third and final professional day, I decided to take nourishment to a literal level. I knew that feeding teachers and injecting some fun into their final working day was a sure-fire way to show individualized consideration. I purchased a cake for each teacher, along with tubs of various colored icing, sprinkles and other cake decorations. With music playing in the background, teachers stood around a large table, decorating their own cakes to take home for Shabbat. This activity put smiles on their faces and let them know that I was a leader who would care for them as people and value them.
I remain deeply committed to cementing interpersonal connections with my staff members, showing genuine compassion and empathizing with their needs. This means taking the time to sit with and getting to know each and every member of my school team. It involves active listening and paying attention to details so that I am able to inquire about their loved ones or particular circumstances that are occurring in their personal lives. It means showing that I genuinely care about them.
Throughout the year, if ever I felt that teachers were acting withdrawn or seemed upset, I made it a point to schedule a time with them and let them know that I was worried about them. Inevitably, the teachers opened up about whatever was on their minds. Beyond this, teachers expressed appreciation for my having taken the time to check in. These individual meetings take an enormous amount of time, a precious commodity for a head of school, but if we authentically care about the people we work with, we must make this a priority. We must ignore the pressure of time and commit to being present for those who need us.
I seek to maintain the same kind of relationship based on genuine empathy and caring with my parents and students. However, no matter how hard you work to cultivate these relationships, there are going to be moments when you feel as though the relationships that you have worked so tirelessly to build are all for naught. In those moments, there are two choices: react in anger, ultimately succumbing to a feeling of depletion, or shift your mindset, allowing a new perspective to emerge. That is the true test of empathy. Showing compassion for someone who is visibly struggling is relatively easy. Being kindhearted to someone who is questioning your integrity and values can seem impossible, but when achieved, will change your leadership practice forever.
In my second year as principal, there was a student who was experiencing significant social difficulties. He often felt victimized, and while his feelings were valid, he failed to recognize his role in eliciting negative attention. The staff and I worked hard to sensitize the other students to their classmate’s feelings and to hold them accountable when they had in fact crossed the line. We also worked on empowering the young man and helping him to develop an understanding that his words and actions were often inappropriate and were causing issues where none had been present. We worked closely with the boy’s parents and encouraged them to guide him in seeking out friendships that were not immersed in conflict but were mutually beneficial.
There were steps forward, and steps back. No simple, quick fix was going to make the problem go away. I felt confident that I had a true partner in the parents—until the email came. An incident had occurred between their son and another child in the class, and I was accused of being heartless, insensitive and never really caring for their child. I was steaming, angered by the parents’ accusations. How could they say such things? I cared so deeply. How dare they? I wanted to respond with rage. After all the time and energy I had spent on helping their child, given with a full heart, how could they spew such negativity?
And then I stopped. I suspended judgment and took control of my impulses. I took a deep breath and shifted my mindset. I recognized that the parents were in defense mode. Their child was hurting, and they were ready to attack. And ultimately, they were hurting, too. Deeply. For they could not fix it and make it right. I picked up the phone and asked the parents to come in and meet with me. And as we sat in my office side by side, I acknowledged how hard this was for them and vowed to continue working, with the two of them as my partners, to help build their son’s resiliency and deal with any student who was out of line.
This experience was a tremendous gift. It brought me to a new place as a leader, a place where I could reach a level of empathy in the most challenging of circumstances and try to understand the other person’s point of view, regardless of their manner of expression. This lesson has continued to serve me well, and I have drawn upon this experience countless times. At times, pushing past negativity can be challenging and exhausting. It takes time, patience and energy, but the rewards far exceed the costs. My heart guides my work, and I wouldn’t want to lead any other way.