A Break in the Action

A Break in the Action

Originally posted on LinkedIn November 28th,2021

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar

The last few months have been by far the hardest I have faced in my career. I relocated to New Orleans and started in my new role as Head of School in mid-July. I spent the first month getting settled, building relationships with my team, and figuring out the plan forward. Initially, the New Orleans area was doing well and functioning without mask mandates and less restrictive Covid protocols. However, just days before school started, Covid cases rose, and we returned to strict protocols. These new protocols required changing our game plan and ensuring that parents were aware of expectations and guidelines for the start of school. The beginning of school was hectic but fun. We were excited about our goals and the intentional focus on learning and teaching. The staff were re-energized, hopeful, and looking forward to the year ahead.

Days into the school year, Covid cases spiked, and both staff and students tested positive. Classes went into quarantine days into the school year, and the team was back to teaching online while quarantining. It was a less than ideal beginning to the year. There were other issues, such as unfilled teaching positions and staff managing personal and health crises. We did however still have hope.

A short seven days into the school year already interrupted with Covid, quarantines, and issues with staff and staffing, the New Orleans area endured a category four hurricane that severely impacted the area and left a path of destruction in its wake. Part of this destruction included our school campus. Certainly not the start I had imagined as a new Head of School.

This crisis has been challenging to manage as a leader for many reasons.

  1. As a new leader in the community, I have not had the opportunity to earn the trust and respect of staff and parents. They do not know me and have no idea of my capabilities or trustworthiness.
  2. As a new leader, I can make decisions without emotion as I am not attached to any community history, norms, or traditions that may cloud my judgment. However, this detachment can be perceived as cold, detached, and uncaring. The community may view it as an outsider coming in to make changes without knowing the context and history.
  3. I am an outsider in the eyes of the community. I have no roots or ties to the New Orleans area and have come from the Northeast, where different cultural norms and beliefs. They did not understand me, nor did I understand them.
  4. Being new in the community has not allowed me to build a network. I have no connections in the community and heavily relied on my leadership team for guidance and support in navigating the crisis and finding locations for our school.
  5. I have been isolated and without a support system. My family is scattered all over Canada and the US. My husband is working out of Buffalo, and my boys are in Las Vegas and Springfield, MA establishing themselves in their careers. My personal and professional network of colleagues and friends are managing their own crises and tending to the needs of their families. It has been both isolating and lonely.

What have I learned about leadership in a crisis?

  1. You need a team of solid people around you that can support you, tell you when you are about to make a mistake, take the lead when you are tired, direct you where to go next, and help you make informed and intentional decisions.
  2. Crisis leadership requires compassion, grace, trust, resilience, and vulnerability. The personal challenges that many of our staff and families faced were insurmountable. Everyone tried their best every day, but we all felt overwhelmed, burdened, and defeated.  Allowing space and time to process emotions with self-compassion is essential.
  3. Crisis can trigger past trauma and anxiety, and it is vital to acknowledge your emotions and the emotions of others. Focusing on the well-being of staff, students, and the community is the priority and should be monitored and supported throughout the process.
  4. In managing a crisis, leaders need to draw upon crisis efficacy, a term identified by Alexandra Pfleging (2021): self-efficacy, resilience, well-being, emotionality, sociability, and self-control. As Pfleging points out, these superhuman traits can deteriorate as the crisis drags on and parents, staff, and the community grow tired of the situation and begin to question your decisions, judgment, and management of the crisis.
  5. Leaders must have the ability to draw on the right personal leadership resources at the right time. For example, perceiving and managing emotions, resilience, problem-solving, optimism, and self-efficacy are front and center during a crisis. Other person leadership resources like systems thinking and proactivity may take a back seat.

Our crisis is far from over, but we do have a moment to stop and breathe. We have been in the same place for two months, providing stability and consistency for staff and students. Even with the challenges of the space and the flexibility required of teachers, we have intentionally focused on the things we can control: learning and teaching.

It has been a pleasure to work alongside the leadership team to support teachers in enhancing and developing their practice. We have been able to get into classrooms to celebrate the best practices we are seeing. Despite it all, we continue to move forward with pride and determination. We have started our first Parent Advisory group and are returning to school events like field trips, plays, athletics, and parent engagement activities.

We are safe, healthy, and excited about our return to the Kehoe-France Southshore campus in January. Although this means another transition, packing, moving, and setting up classrooms again, we are going home, and there is comfort in that!

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