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Lose the cape! Five tips for leading in uncertain times

By April 17, 2020No Comments

For the past few weeks, as we’ve connected with school and district leaders from all over the nation (and world), we’ve been inspired by the thoughtful, earnest efforts of many school systems to address in real-time the immense challenge of supporting learning while students are at home.

We also hear the heavy burden leaders are shouldering right now as they make dozens of critical decisions each day while attempting to sound a confident and reassuring tone for anxious teachers and families. Yet we know that behind the brave face they put on for others, many leaders are privately wrestling with their own anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, and worries they’re not doing enough to help students, families, and teachers navigate this crisis.

If that sounds like you, rest assured you’re not alone. We know the stress you’re feeling. So, the last thing we want to do is add to your anxieties by serving up a new checklist to do (or feel inadequate about not doing). Instead, we’ve gleaned few tips from leaders like you, our own experiences, and research, and we offer them here simply as coping strategies (and words of encouragement) to help you manage your stress and navigate these uncertain waters.

Tip #1: Stay connected with your values, your sense of purpose, and your like-minded colleagues.

Even as you scramble to put out dozens of fires every day, don’t forget to reconnect at times with your sense of purpose, or your why—why you’ve devoted your life to education, for example, to change students’ lives, create a better world, or pay it forward. Whatever your sense of purpose may be, with all that’s swirling around you right now, it can be easy to lose sight of it. Studies show, though, that maintaining our sense of purpose in the face of challenges can restore our mental energies. If your battery is feeling drained, recharge it by plugging into your why. Help your staff reconnect to their why too. Reminding ourselves of our shared purpose can reaffirm our collective commitment to overcoming these new challenges. Also, reach out to other leaders with a similar sense of purpose so together, you can recharge each other’s batteries.

Tip #2: Restore, develop, or reinvent meaningful routines.

If you feel like things are bit out of control, you’re not alone; no one is fully in control right now. We cannot control when school will start up again, or when things will get back to “normal.” You may even feel like your own home is spiraling out of control as you scramble to help your own kids learn at home, keep dishes from piling up in the sink, or piece together another meal from your dwindling cupboard. One thing you can control, though, is how you respond to the chaos, starting with having some routines that help you control at least a part of your day and restore some semblance of normalcy for you. Maybe it’s a cup of coffee at sunrise or an evening reflection routine. Also consider which routines you want to help your team restore or reinvent in this new reality; maybe it’s online professional learning communities or sharing silver linings or good news at the start of meetings. As it turns out, having intentional routines not only builds camaraderie but is also what distinguishes high-performing organizations from others.

Tip #3: Disabuse yourself of needing to provide all the answers.

Likely, you’ve been chosen to be a leader because others see you as a good decision maker and look to you for answers to their concerns. Right now, though, there are no easy answers to what your organization is experiencing. There’s no playbook to follow or off-the-shelf solution to implement. You’re in the middle of what’s called an adaptive challenge, where the way forward isn’t entirely clear. As a leader, you’re going to need to help your organization “fail forward,” developing, testing and tweaking solutions. Yes, you may need to implement some technical fixes that require your straightforward guidance, such as distributing laptops, meals, and learning materials to students. Yet on the heels of those fixes you’re likely to encounter thornier challenges, such as addressing students’ anxieties and helping them become more self-directed as learners. With challenges like these, you cannot simply bark orders. Instead, ask questions that help people reflect on their practices, take risks, and adopt experimenters’ mindsets through which they develop, adapt, and test new ways of supporting student learning.

Tip #4: See the glass half full.

One of the most positive things you can do for yourself and your team right now is to, when possible, engage in (and encourage others to engage in) asset-based thinking or simply seeing the glass as half full. In other words, rather than dwelling on what’s gone wrong or feels overwhelming, look for what’s going right, your community’s unique strengths, and new opportunities this moment may present. For example, yes, it’s likely impossible to cover your remaining curriculum this year. There’s likely no getting around that fact. What’s also true is that without a statewide test this year, teachers everywhere have the freedom to focus learning on what’s most important and engage students in deeper learning.

Tip #5: Seize the moment to rethink what learning could be.

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. Right now, teachers everywhere (including those in your school or district) are engaging in everyday innovations as they find ways to support student learning at home. Maybe it’s holding online office hours, flipping classrooms, or setting up virtual parent-teacher conferences. You may, in fact, be meeting some student needs better now than ever before. Undoubtedly, you also have gaps and shortcomings. You’re right to worry about those. In our work with schools, though, we encourage everyone to focus on their “bright spots,” which, right now, is apt to include numerous teacher-driven innovations—innovations you want to celebrate and capture for when this crisis abates. By knitting those bright spots together, you affirm that together, you can overcome obstacles to teaching and learning and begin to create a shared vision for what could be better for students on the other side of this crisis.

Lastly, we might remind you that you’re only human, not superhuman. As a leader, you needn’t be a superhero to create conditions that help others become everyday heroes.


Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. A former high school teacher and college instructor, he is the author/coauthor of Pursuing Greatness, Instructional Models, and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning, among other publications. 



Dr. Kristin Rouleau is the executive director of learning services and innovation at McREL International, supporting schools and districts in their systemic improvement journeys. She is the coauthor of Curiosity Works and Unstuck.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.