5 Critical Moves for Leaders During a Crisis

Written by Chris Everett and Kammi Green.

To say that these are unprecedented times seems like a significant understatement. The reality is that everything we know and are accustomed to has changed, and we’re all adjusting to a “new normal.” If I had a nickel for every time we’ve heard the words “new normal” in the past few weeks, I could stockpile enough toilet paper to survive the next pandemic! Even as we completely acknowledge the seriousness of this situation and the fact that, in many ways, it is downright scary, it is still important to try and laugh, and if you are a leader in a school district or on campus, this is especially true.

We have both been leaders in school districts and understand that under “regular normal” conditions, leading educators is a difficult task. It takes a lot of effort both mentally and physically, and it is easily characterized as a high-stress profession. No doubt, many school leaders are experiencing an even higher level of stress. Having to completely redesign, well, everything, essentially overnight, cannot ever truly be understood by the general public as the Herculean effort that it really is and, ultimately, we all know that it won’t ever be appreciated by the general public as it should. Leading these efforts have undoubtedly required taking the normal rigors of the job to exponential heights. 

While this is a trying time in our history, there comes with challenges such as these, great opportunities. As a leader in this situation, there is the opportunity to forge incredibly strong bonds with your team. There is an opportunity to develop trust that runs so deep in your culture that team members truly become family. It is often said that employees don’t leave their jobs, they leave their leaders. This is true in education and this crisis affords every leader the opportunity to lead in a way that no one ever wants to leave. There are additional opportunities to begin to visualize a new version of the school experience that is different than before. This pandemic will end eventually, and kids and teachers will return to the schoolhouse. Now is the time to think about and plan for what that new time in our lives will look like and how we can use what we’re learning in this crisis to make that “new normal” everything we have been dreaming about. 

We thought it might be helpful to think about five (5) critical moves that all leaders should be making during this time of change and uncertainty. If you’re a leader reading this, you may already be doing all of these and are almost assuredly doing other things as well. This is an excellent time to take a second and reflect. If there is one move on this list that you’re not doing, or could do better, this is a chance to think about how to do that. To get you started thinking about how you can lead more effectively, we’ve provided a tip or tool for each critical move as well as an example of a leader modeling one of the five (5) critical moves. 

Critical Move #1: Provide assurance and grace

We can all agree that generally, people all handle crises differently. Some are stoic; some just try to find joy in any situation that they find themselves in, and some, well, some have a more difficult time. A LOT is going on in the lives of teachers as they navigate all the complexities of teaching from home, which they’ve probably never experienced before in their working lives. A LOT is going on, and finding a balance feels impossible. 

Leaders, it is up to you to evoke a sense of calm in the people you serve. This is essential to their mental capacity to perform at the level required to meet all of the challenges being faced at the same time. This is an opportunity for you to speak assurance into their lives and help provide comfort in a way that ensures effective action can even take place. When anxiety and worry are high, action is low. We understand this truth in kids, but it is equally true for adults. As their leader, you have a unique place in their hearts and minds that makes them open to and even hopeful for this very assurance from you. Don’t miss the opportunity to give that gift to them. You don’t have to solve the crisis yourself or all of the individual problems they may be facing personally, but you can remind them that they can do hard things, that they are capable of anything, and that in the end, we will all get through this!

The other side of this is sometimes tricky for leaders. In our old normal, we have high expectations for the people we serve. We have a goal, and by golly, everyone needs to do their part to ensure we get there. Those expectations are rightfully placed, and leading requires that we push and hold the team accountable. In these situations, that doesn’t necessarily change; however, there is a great gift that you can provide your teachers as they are working to meet these new expectations: grace. Author Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Grace will take you places hustling can’t.” That is especially true for our mission right now. None of this is easy. We can argue later about whether or not public education as a whole was prepared for this challenge or whether this is maybe what we should have been doing all along. The time right now should be full of grace and making sure that everyone understands that it is okay to take risks. This effort is going to require a lot of trial and error and serious iteration if it is going to be successful. At engage2learn (e2L), this is something that we are really good at, and, quite frankly, we’re really comfortable with the discomfort that rapid iteration brings. This isn’t true for everyone in the world, especially if this hasn’t been a part of your daily practice before this situation began. Leaders can offer assurance by providing grace to teachers as they work through this period of trying to develop online learning experiences for kids, some of which will be home runs, and some of which will be complete duds. This is okay, and you have the opportunity to be the voice of assurance and grace that keeps them iterating to find their design legs in this new environment. 

Here are a couple of easy ways you can provide both assurance and grace to the folks you serve:

  • Send out daily affirmations to your entire staff. These could be quotes, inspiring videos, or short stories of success or triumph. Here’s a great website with tons from which to choose. 
  • Send each teacher you serve a personal note. Want to take it to the next level? Handwrite it and mail it…using the postal service! 
  • Listen to concerns. You don’t have to have an answer, but listening is calming and assuring. 
  • Provide feedback and affirm, affirm, affirm…even if it isn’t great. Affirm the effort and ensure that the effort is appreciated. 
  • Encourage iteration and remind them (and yourself) always that the process is where the magic happens. 

Beneke Elementary principal, LaTracy Harris, Ed.D, in Spring ISD, is a leader who is consistently encouraging and affirming her teachers through various avenues and, as a result, has built a culture of growth mindset. One of the ways she affirms her teachers is through posts about their growth on twitter. As a result of the established culture of growth, the Beneke teachers were able to quickly make the transition from blended to virtual learning overnight.

Critical Move #2: Provide resources

In a time of rapid change, things move fast. Having to spend the majority of time seeking resources adds an additional dimension of difficulty that can paralyze some, especially those who struggle with the idea of having to “redo” everything they felt comfortable with before the change in circumstance. Providing teachers with the resources to efficiently begin making the transitions that are required is a great gift. 

One thing to consider when providing resources is to take great care not to overload those we aim to support. Too much of a good thing can be counterproductive and make it more difficult to transition or render the efforts of redesign to the most basic because of just trying to get something done amidst all of the noise that you’re facing. There is a great deal of noise coming from all directions, so one of the strongest leadership moves is not just to provide resources but to provide a curated list of key resources that most intentionally align to the type of virtual learning experience you want to provide. If you’re going to take this to the next level, create a list of resources and collaborate with key team members to cull the list down to the most aligned and useful resources to provide to the rest of the team. Providing resources in a focused manner can help narrow the focus to promote taking action. Arlington ISD Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Steven Wurtz. is a prime example of a leader who has collaborated with his team to curate resources and put them into one location for students, parents, and teachers. They simply reduced all of the noise and gave stakeholders all of the information they needed concisely and clearly on the district website. Check out their website, https://www.aisd.net/students/at-home-learning/, for ideas on how you can streamline resources for your district and campus stakeholders.

Critical Move #3: Provide consistent communication

There’s a virus out there with which we all have to contend, but as you lead your teams, the battle that you’re actually fighting is uncertainty. In a time of massive change and crisis, clean and consistent communication is the greatest weapon in your arsenal. Communication is always a critical part of leading effectively but now more than ever.

During this time of unknown, providing your team regular, concise, critical communication can ensure effective, intentional action, as well as provide significant support that leads to success. Leaders who communicate effectively during times of trial can streamline and focus efforts as well as protect team members from unnecessary, confusing information. Since your strategies for face-to-face communication aren’t possible right now, below are a few tips for communicating in the age of social distancing:

  • Send a daily email update with only the most critical information. Be brief.
  • Create a schedule of one-on-one virtual meetings with each of your leadership team members. engage2learn CEO Shannon Buerk wrote a blog post detailing this highly effective process. 
  • Schedule standing weekly meetings for your entire team. Schedule these meetings at the same time each week. Provide the most crucial information and don’t forget to celebrate all that your team is accomplishing. Utilize Facebook Live or Google Hangout Meets with live streaming to record the meeting for anyone that is unable to attend. 
  • Schedule standing virtual meetings to provide an opportunity for your entire campus or department staff to collaborate and determine solutions to important issues.
  • This is old school but call your team members on the phone…individually…just to check in.

In order to communicate on a consistent basis, EPISD’s Sharo Dickerson is a leader who has learned the importance of standing meetings with her Active Learning Framework department.  When El Paso ISD staff moved to working from home, she quickly scheduled Zoom virtual standing meetings with her team for every Thursday morning. At this meeting, she would update them on district decisions, collaborate on how to solve virtual learning issues, and determine any action items for the week. Along with the notes in the chat, the meetings are recorded so they can be shared out with anyone absent from the meeting.

Critical Move #4: Provide recognition for all of the heavy lifting

These extraordinary times have required and will continue to require extraordinary effort. One critical move that can often be cast aside is recognizing effort. It is simply one key element that is left aside because of the pace of everything else that is going on in that particular trial. It is our human nature to want to be affirmed. Especially in difficult times, when everything is moving so incredibly fast, the simple act of acknowledging the extreme effort being put forth is essential. Knowing that our supervisors, amidst all of the other chaos they are dealing with, are willing to take a moment to recognize and call out individual effort and provide that praise, gives a sense of calm, and fills the soul with the desire to persist. 

By the way, this critical move is by far the easiest to accomplish. If you’re reading this and are realizing that you really haven’t recognized any of the efforts of your team, start today. Right now…this very instance. Don’t read any further. Instead, make a list of folks you can call out and affirm in your next communication to your team. When all of the dust settles and the new normal is established, don’t forget this leadership move. Recognition systems are an essential part of creating a culture that is high-performing.

Here are some easy ways to recognize effort:

  • Quick shout-outs on any and all of your forms of communication. At engage2learn, during our weekly or monthly FOMO meeting, the meeting always starts with our CEO Shannon acknowledging efforts but she also provides all of the team members a chance to acknowledge each other in the chat window. 
  • When you have meetings, put a specific item on the agenda such as Celebrations (hopefully you’re using an agenda but if not we’ve linked one HERE and take a look at our blog on making meetings meaningful) where you intentionally call out effort and celebrate success. 
  • Create a weekly newsletter using a tool such as Smore and have a Bright Spots section to recognize at least one staff member’s efforts regarding virtual learning. 
  • Collaborate with your leadership team to design badges to recognize the desired behaviors in a virtual learning environment.  Determine criteria for earning the badge and then recognize teachers when they meet the criteria by posting the badge on the staff member’s directory page.

Iraan-Sheffield ISD District Testing & Academic Coordinator, Nikki Parker, has been recognizing teacher growth in best practices all year long through a monthly newsletter and on the district website. So, when the district moved to at-home learning and virtually coaching teachers, she was able to continue the intentional recognition system without missing a beat.  Check out this blog to see how Iraan-Sheffield recognizes teachers through a newsletter and on their website.

Critical Move #5: Design systems for virtual project management

We mentioned a time or two in this blog that these are unprecedented times. Because these are unprecedented times, the leadership required to navigate each and every new situation is also unprecedented, which is why the last critical move of designing systems for virtual project management is crucial. Prior to COVID-19, it was already difficult to manage projects within your district or campus when you were meeting in-person each day. Now, you have to be able to empower your staff, collaborate on decisions, provide guidance, check on the progress, and give updates to your staff on hundreds of projects in a virtual environment. 

One simple tool to help you manage all of those projects, such as adjusting grading guidelines for virtual learning, preparing for summer school, refining budgets, etc. is to use a project management app for leading projects and meetings. There are a lot of project management apps to choose from (Wrike, Asana, Zoho, and many more).  Still, the project management system you choose must help you to organize tasks with timelines, keep track of when tasks are complete, and ensure you never leave a meeting without action items. For more information on what project management system to choose that is right for you and the steps for using the system, check out the 9 Essential Steps for Virtual Project Management by e2L People and Performance Strategist, Lucy Elizondo.

engage2learn CEO Shannon Buerk is an example of a leader who knows how to lead in a virtual environment.  For eight years, she has used project management systems to collaborate with her staff on thousands of projects. By using a project management system, there is clear guidance on next steps and a quick way to check progress. To read more about how to set up systems, including virtual project management, read Shannon’s blog, How to Set Up a Virtual Meeting System and Protocols.

Time to Get Moving!

We know this is extremely challenging. We applaud all of the unbelievable efforts that you’re delivering. We are certain that as we look back on this time in our history, educators will be one of the groups, along with the medical professionals and first responders. They truly stepped up and provided a service that went above and beyond the call of duty. Hopefully, we look back on this time and say, while tragic for so many, this global event was the catalyst for a shift in the way we operate that dramatically improves the learner experience for millions of kids. We hope we don’t go back to exactly the way things were. Dr. A. Tracie Brown, Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership in Arlington ISD, recently posted this on Twitter, “Leading through a crisis requires taking the long view, as opposed to managing the present. You need to anticipate what comes next week, next month, and even next year in order to prepare the organization for the changes ahead.” 

You, leaders, are how we can ensure that this crazy experience is transformational for kids. You will be the factor that pulls all of this innovation together to create a truly transformed new normal. We’re here for you. We are ready to stand next to you and support you in this endeavor. While caring for those you serve, don’t forget to take care of you! Self-care at this time is critical to success. You are essential to your team’s efforts, so be mindful of your health in all facets. You are a hero, and heroes make sure they are ready and able to do hero stuff!


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