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Superintendents: Leading in Times of a (Health) Crisis

By on May 13, 2020 hst Print

About the time you think you’ve seen it all in education, the reality of something brand new slaps you in the face. Enter COVID-19. A school superintendent is used to dealing with budgets, enrollment figures, safety and security, curriculum/instruction and distance-learning platforms, not to mention nursing and health-care issues, finding ways to appropriately feed students, 1:1 technology dissemination, testing waivers, grading issues, professional development for teachers and administrators, cancellation of extracurricular activities and cancellation of classes – but not ALL at the same time, and not right on the heels of Spring Break without warning!

Talk about being thrust into the proverbial frying pan. So, what’s a leader to do upon being thrown into leading a school district through a crisis for which he/she has never been fully prepared and for which he/she has never had any training? After all, the word “pandemic” is nowhere to be found in any standard certification programs for becoming a teacher, principal or superintendent.

As Spring Break approached this year, it became evident that a new health scare had entered the United States from abroad. Slowly, things began to change. Flights abroad began to get cancelled. Then the spread of the virus – and the crisis – slowly continued to grow.

Would it be safe to send students to other states for competitions? Would it be safe to send teachers on trips for professional development? State education departments and governors began closing schools first for a short period of time; then a longer period of time; then for the remainder of the school year. Distance learning quickly became the only safe and viable alternative for educating students. Not only was the superintendent called upon to devise an effective distance-learning plan, but was also being asked to develop ways to creatively feed students in a time, place and manner never imagined before.

With traditional classes cancelled for the remainder of the spring semester, decisions had to be made about support personnel pay. What about coaching stipends? Would those continue to be paid? What about prom and graduation for seniors? Would those events need to be cancelled, too? And on…and on…and on.

The questions (with no clear-cut answers) just kept coming. These were truly unprecedented times, and we were swimming in uncharted waters never before navigated. Everyone (the media, students, parents, teachers, coaches, sponsors, directors, child nutrition workers, bus drivers, custodians, administrators…and the mayor) were all looking to the superintendent for advice and guidance. However, there was no playbook for how to deal with a global pandemic that shuts down schools (and much of the U.S. economy) for months at a time.

So, in times of such an unprecedented health crisis, what’s a leader to do in order to be effective? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Breathe, think, pray, remain calm and be proactive in planning ahead.
  2. Realize that unprecedented times call for unprecedented leadership.
  3. Look at the big picture, but devise plans that will address the minutia.
  4. Be gentle, not abrasive.
  5. Be collegial and cooperative – even if others are not.
  6. Be adaptable and flexible.
  7. Exhibit self-control – even in chaotic situations.
  8. Be honorable and hospitable.
  9. Be kind.
  10. And above all, treat others as you would like to be treated (and as you would like your own kids treated).

Skills required of school leaders in times of crisis are fundamentally different from those generally required during a normal school year. Routine school leadership generally is about positioning the district for improvement in the future, and about supporting and empowering staff and students in the pursuit of teaching and learning excellence. But leadership in times of crisis is about dealing with immediate events, emotions and consequences – often in an attempt to minimize personal and organizational disruption. It takes intestinal fortitude to effectively lead during times that are both unpredictable and inherently unique.

Compassionate leadership is also critical during a crisis to ensure that students, parents, faculty and staff members, support personnel, and the community feel supported. Routines have been disrupted. This can negatively affect the entire household and the entire community. As Maslow has taught us, taking care of students’ basic needs is paramount. Kids have to be fed – especially those who are economically disadvantaged. Only then can we concentrate on the educational process.

Effective communication is critical to the success of any crisis management plan. The school district needs to communicate effectively; then individual teachers need to effectively communicate with students and their families (weekly and/or daily).

School districts have focused on emergency management planning for years, but rarely (if ever) has any part of that training addressed dealing with emergencies like the Coronavirus pandemic. But maybe it should have – and it most likely will from this point forward.

In times like these, effective leadership requires knowledge, belief and action. Certainly, book knowledge and crisis management knowledge are necessary, but a greater degree of knowledge about the community is even more important.

Leaders must be confident in their beliefs. There is a reason that person is in a leadership role. It is now time for effective action planning. Everyone is looking to the leader for answers; however, the leader does not lead effectively within a vacuum. Great leadership entails effective communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity skills. Through adversity, lessons can be learned. As a result of living through – and leading through – more than a few “unique” crisis situations, here are just a few valuable suggestions for leaders:

  • Be candid and brutally honest.
  • Learn daily; then attempt to remove barriers for others.
  • Ask often, “What can we do better and more effectively?”
  • Always know your priorities, and keep them at the forefront.
  • Be wise enough to ask others for advice; then be humble enough to accept it.
  • Don’t be in denial.
  • Learn from others’ mistakes.
  • Be genuine (don’t fake it).
  • Fear can be almost as damaging as the disease; but fear should not equate to inaction.
  • Show that you care (compassionately).
  • Be open and transparent.
  • Don’t be an alarmist.
  • When it gets tough, lead with conviction.
  • Be hope-centered, and infuse hope for your school district and community during times of crisis.