George Lucas Educational Foundation
Illustration concept for empathy and support
Jing Jing Tsong / The iSpot
Administration & Leadership

How To Lead With Empathy

Six ways to build a school culture that prioritizes understanding the experiences and perspectives of others.

February 4, 2022

Empathetic leadership, born from an authentic understanding of teachers’ needs, is an essential component of expert school leadership. It’s a mindset that principals and teachers say should inform decision-making and help establish a schoolwide culture of purpose and respect.

When Darcy Bakkegard’s assistant principal delivered especially insightful feedback during a mid-year class evaluation, “it was a transformative moment. I had no idea I was especially good at something as a teacher,” Bakkegard recalls. “She not only forced me to reflect on what I had done, but also helped me become even more strategic about what I’d always done on instinct. She helped me to believe in myself as an educator.”

At the Friends School of Baltimore, principal Steve McManus hones his empathy skills by teaching one class each semester, writes Elizabeth Heubeck in an article for Education Week. It’s a practice that, while tough to fit into his administrative schedule, allows McManus to keep his “practical teaching skills sharp,” connect with students, and “build trusting and empathetic relationships with teaching staff,” Heubeck writes. It’s also a rich source of information for the leadership decisions McManus makes throughout the school year.

For many principals, of course, taking on a class each year may not work but you might consider teaching a class every few years. Meanwhile, there are other ways to build the skills of empathetic leadership. We scoured the Edutopia archives and found an inspiring set of ideas.

1. Increase Your Visibility: As an administrator, simply making yourself more visible introduces spontaneous opportunities to forge relationships in the school building. “Roaming the halls gives you a chance to be there for staff at the moment they need it,” writes educational consultant Adrienne Waller. “You will likely hear, ‘Oh yeah, I was going to ask…’ or ‘Glad I bumped into you…’ or ‘Do you have a couple of minutes?’”

Greeting staff as they enter the school building every morning, as well as periodically visiting areas where staff congregate—like the teachers’ lounge, for example—communicates that you are present and available. “Casual moments with your community are as important as scheduled time,” Waller says.

2. Schedule Listening Tours: Consider scheduling short meetings with every staff member, writes Adam Drummond for the International Center for Leadership in Education, and let them know that your goal is to better understand their needs. During the meetings, focus on listening intently, rather than speaking or offering solutions. While they can be scheduled throughout the year, Drummond, a former principal, prefers to complete the meetings in the first 90 days of the school year. “This gives you an opportunity to analyze the responses of your stakeholders, so you know what they are most proud of, and what keeps them up at night as they work toward the school’s vision and mission,” he says.

Asking each teacher the same set of questions, Drummond suggests, allows you to compare and contrast answers, find overlap, and tease out larger concerns. Questions might include “What is the most frustrating aspect of being a staff member in this school?” or “Where do you want our school to be in five years?”

3. Normalize Classroom Visits: Elementary school principal Michele Snoke uses daily classroom walk-throughs as a time to engage with students and support educators as an occasional guest co-teacher. “Ask students questions about the assignment, or jump into working with a small group,” she says. “After spending time in a classroom informally, follow up your visit with a brief note of encouragement or gratitude for the teacher.”

To keep informal check-ins feeling supportive and not evaluative, supervisor of instructional practice Ross Cooper visits classrooms empty-handed. A principal’s presence can feel daunting if “an administrator sits behind a computer (supposedly taking notes that pick apart each and every aspect of a lesson),” so he leaves his laptop and notebook in his office. Cooper also keeps track of time he spends in each classroom, ensuring that he’s spreading his attention equally among teachers throughout the school year.

4. Build a Culture of Feedback: While constructive criticism isn’t always easy to digest, providing opportunities for staff to deliver feedback—via anonymous surveys, scheduled individual conferences, or regular faculty meetings—demonstrates leaders’ willingness to listen, learn, and address conflicts as soon as they emerge.

In order for the feedback loop to be effective, it’s important to acknowledge receiving feedback—you might even discuss it as a group, says high school principal Mike Woodlock. Keep in mind that not all feedback will or should require immediate action. Be judicious and consider selecting a manageable list of high-impact changes that you can reasonably implement. “Taking action to improve your leadership based on such feedback demonstrates your confidence and validation of others’ voices,” says Woodlock.

5. Encourage and Model Wellness: To help teachers and staff manage stress during the pandemic, school leaders at Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, checked in with them via an online survey focused on wellness—and then they “listened when they told us what they needed,” writes assistant principal, Michelle Lew.

As a result, the school set up a help line where school staff can dial in for “mini check-in therapy sessions.” They organized a series of 30-minute lessons on topics teachers identified in the survey as being of interest, such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-care strategies. And instead of telling teachers to try yoga, the school hired a local certified yoga instructor to offer staff virtual yoga classes each week, and to lead mindfulness and breathing exercises at the beginning of staff meetings.

6. Think Small: Sometimes, leading with empathy can be quite simple: when you can, offer to cover a classroom while a teacher takes a quick break, or gets a cup of coffee—small ways to offer support and acknowledge just how demanding teaching can be. “Encourage teachers to take breaks and to set boundaries—and do so yourself as well,” says Katy Farber, a professional development coordinator. “Consider who on your staff might be experiencing significant stressors, and make it clear to them that you value their wellness and would like to help them develop a strategy to cope.” 

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