George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Leading in Uncertain Times by Empowering Others

An elementary school administrator is focusing on five leadership skills to engage and empower staff and families this year.

October 16, 2020
Woman speaking at teacher meeting
MBI / Alamy

There’s a lot of debate about what it takes to lead and how to define leadership, but for me, leadership is using your influence to empower others. The challenges of this work are vast and ever-changing—and that was true even before the pandemic upended schools.

This year will bring not just the challenges of the ongoing pandemic but also difficult conversations that many students will want to have about racial justice and equity in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. But regardless of the challenges, leaders can increase their effectiveness by focusing on five critical leadership characteristics.

1. A 360-Degree Perspective

A common pitfall for leaders is seeing from one perspective. We cannot conquer what we cannot confront, and perspective adds clarity to any complex problem—we need to consider how the problem affects multiple stakeholders.

Consider the challenge that schools faced in the summer: whether to start the school year with remote learning, in-person learning, or hybrid learning. The answer could be found only by asking, but first leaders needed to ensure that all stakeholders had a level of comfort to share their honest opinions on how the challenges would affect them. Capturing honest feedback from parents and staff is critical—I release a survey to parents by providing links available via text message, email, and website.

When attempting to obtain information from stakeholders, I always provide an option to remain anonymous. Staff surveys are more sensitive because staff may feel obligated to employers out of fear for their jobs. Communication is critical, and staff must be notified that the information gathered from the survey will help inform a decision and that anonymity of staff is required and protected in the survey—participation should be encouraged, but participation or lack thereof will not impact anyone’s job status.

2. Be Proactive

In March, the pandemic was an unforeseen problem, and schools developed emergency solutions. By the summer, though, the pandemic was a known factor, and leaders needed to move from reacting to planning proactively.

Proactivity requires not only anticipating potential issues but also formulating a comprehensive plan with multiple options to resolve those issues. As my school faced the reality of learning gaps that have been widened by Covid-19, we on the administrative team asked ourselves how to begin closing these gaps while in remote learning and while transitioning from hybrid learning to full-time in-person learning.

The first step was bolstering our virtual program, ensuring that every student had equal access to technology. Being proactive means also ensuring that our virtual program can transition with students when in-person instruction begins, so we're planning for students to hold onto their school computers and for providing access to audiobooks aligned with our curriculum. If decisions only factor the present without future implications or ramifications, the results will end in a reactive cycle.

3. Effective Communication

The most common complaint about leadership is a lack of effective communication, which involves more than sending out information—effective communication is a two-way exchange of meaningful information. Communication pitfalls include failing to communicate and communicating irrelevant details. In the summer, my team and I focused on key questions like “What are the core details pertinent to parents and staff about reopening schools that will help them make appropriate decisions about returning?”

Sharing irrelevant information with staff is a sure way to cause information overload, leading to fatigue and disengagement. On the opposite end, insufficient information leads to frustration and a feeling of uncertainty—and a lack of confidence in the leader.

I have seen instances where information is important but not specific to the situation. For example, when evaluating programs, what matters to teachers and parents is the reason for moving away from a particular curriculum, not the cost. Teachers’ and parents’ primary concern is how the new curriculum will better serve the needs of students. Budget details are available in board meeting minutes if anyone is interested.

When I communicate with staff or parents, I try to make sure they walk away knowing why the information is essential, how it applies to them, and the next steps they need, if any.

4. Model Expectations

Data-driven decision making is a common practice I desire to see from my teachers. Data should inform and give meaning to classroom decisions. If this is true for teachers, it’s also true for leaders. My actions as an administrator must line up with my words. If I’m not being transparent and modeling how data informs building decisions, staff will disregard my expectations, leading to ineffective teaching practices.

It’s never too late for a leader to begin modeling expectations. You can begin by openly acknowledging your shortcomings and then take a definitive stance to lead by example.

5. Compassionate Leader

The last, critical characteristic for leading is compassion. This is a very tough time, and people’s circumstances can change at a moment’s notice through no fault of their own. Administrators have buildings to lead and programs to maintain, but they need to remember that reopening schools presents challenges for teachers.

You should maintain a relationship with staff that invites them to see you as a person and not a title. Take the time to listen to staff and lead each person based on their individual needs. That doesn’t mean giving staff everything they desire—it means listening with a critical ear and having compassion for different circumstances, and accommodating teachers when possible.

It’s important to understand that compassion does not mean granting everyone special accommodations. I recall a day when a teacher asked if they could leave for an appointment, come back to school, and then leave for another appointment, only to return for the remainder of the day. We couldn’t really work around all that, and it was best for everyone for the teacher to take the day off and tend to their personal matters.

We school leaders are staring at a unique, unprecedented school year. The challenges are immense, but the opportunities are numerous. Now is the time for effective leaders to help our students, staff, and parents navigate these challenging and uncertain times.

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