Crisis Through the Lens of Health and Well-Being

Summer 2020

By Lydia F. Maier , Charles Shaw, Debra P. Wilson, Miguel G. Marshall, and Susan R. Perry

Jack-Daly-–-Hourglass.jpgA crisis, while difficult to anticipate, tends to share six fundamental characteristics: rare, significant, high impact, ambiguous, urgent, and involving high stakes, according to “Teaching Corporate Crisis Management Through Business Ethics Education,” an article by Sheldene Simola in the May 2014 issue of European Journal of Training and Development. A crisis also triggers a window of destabilization, threatens the core values of the organization, and generally requires high-stakes decision-making on behalf of the organization’s leaders, as described in “Integrating Learning, Leadership, and Crisis in Management Education: Lessons From Army Officers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” an article by D. Christopher Kayes, Nate Allen, and Nate Self in the September 2012 Journal of Management Education. In short, a crisis requires leaders to take crucial action on an unanticipated or completely unique, fast-moving but amorphous issue or set of facts that can call into question fundamental beliefs or values.

Unlike emergencies, around which schools can create fairly standard processes and practices, a crisis can expose both a school's expected and unexpected vulnerabilities simultaneously. Thus, for many schools, crisis is the ultimate pressure test. And with so many people, situations, and variables in constant motion, it is not a question of whether a crisis will happen, but of when.

As school leaders bear witness to the unfolding blueprint of each crisis our schools face, they need to prioritize staying agile, open, and responsive when a crisis arises. Regardless of your role—the authors of this article bring perspectives from their roles as association counsel, dean of student life, assistant head, head of upper school, and school health and wellness consultant—or whether you have led through a crisis, it’s helpful to repeat the mantra that everything you have handled to date will prepare you to better handle a crisis in the future. As schools experience more challenges and tragedies that deeply impact student health and well-being and the growing importance of creating scaffolds and support for students, independent school leaders must understand their prominent role in the lives of school families as well as in the communities around them.

Moving Through Crisis as Humans and Leaders

One of the most difficult impediments to leading through crisis can be a leader’s own resistance. This can take the form of self-flagellation: “Why didn’t I anticipate this?”; ruminating: “If only I had been in possession of certain facts earlier”; or blaming: “This is someone’s fault.” Humans are hardwired to avoid painful or traumatic circumstances, and it is our nature to center ourselves in crisis situations as key players in the community’s process of regaining a semblance of control and agency. It’s useful to remember that this is simply our brain’s attempt to make sense of a situation and mitigate the possibility of a repeat occurrence

Leaders who have endured the death of a student by suicide, for example, may later express guilt, saying they feel that they could have done more. Instead, consider that you are precisely the “right person at the right time” to lead your community through this crisis. People will be looking to school leadership (and staff who identify as community leaders) for emotional strength, stability, and direction, and your leadership legacy will be strengthened and even defined by your response to these difficult moments. Walking directly into the storm and remaining open to dialogue about your team’s response and any learning to be gained, even months or years later, will strengthen both your capacity and your community during crisis.

A head’s duty to hold steady emotionally and articulate a way forward while potentially navigating entirely new territory, all done in the public eye, constitutes tremendous pressure and can be a recipe for self-doubt. At a panel of assembled school heads at a recent regional conference, leaders were asked to speak about the most significant crises of their tenure. Responses ranged from embezzlement of funds by a CFO to massive protests following a fiscally prudent decision to alter long-held traditions. When asked what they do when they feel like falling apart, the collective response amounted to “You can’t.” At least publicly—too much is riding on a leader’s ability to stay calm.

Drawing strength from those who have gone before is paramount. One panelist spoke of keeping a file of “letters” written by other heads to their communities in the midst of crisis to reference and to remind herself of the power of communicating with care, clarity, and direction. Crisis response communications from the head’s office set the tone for all faculty and staff interactions with parents and students, and while each situation is unique, communication during crisis is the moment to reinforce values and core commitments to the school’s highest purpose.

There is no shortcut for the work required to lead through turmoil and emotionally wrought situations. It requires a deep level of self-awareness and authentic and transparent leadership that is both profoundly personal and community-minded—and does not succumb to reactivity or despair. Leaders caught in a web of self-immolation, defensiveness, quick fixes, or rug-sweeping do not have the capacity to keep the necessary perspective as a scenario unfolds. Cultivating strong working relationships with an inner circle and routinely discussing various potential scenarios is critical to preparedness prior to and leadership during a crisis of any kind.

Hate and Bias

Crises involving acts of hate or bias impact the community in a unique way because they are both an emergency and a crisis for the school. In independent schools, despite having well-rehearsed protocols for other emergencies, we can often find ourselves without a response plan for blatant acts of intolerance. Responding to Hate and Bias at School, a Teaching Tolerance publication, reminds us that all such incidents are hurtful and potentially incite danger, terror, or fear in community members. The disequilibrium such incidents create for a campus community can have devastatingly long-lasting effects that disproportionately impact underrepresented individuals and groups within the school. It is particularly important to lead boldly by acting in ways that bring the core values of the school to life.

Regardless of size, mission, or location, hate and bias incidents do occur. Electronic messages of hate or bias, verbal exchanges, or highly visible graffiti are examples of what independent school communities encounter. The first immediate need in these situations is the psychological and physical safety of all constituents. This can be a tall order because the way in which any two hate or bias incidents unfold is influenced by the larger local, regional, and global context. Leaders who can quickly communicate when and where the community can discuss the impact of such incidents, such as a common schoolwide meeting area or divisional classroom spaces, can provide powerful opportunities for students and faculty to practice curiosity, care, and courage. When leaders don’t create such spaces and don’t openly address the impact of these incidents, a silo-ing of the community can occur, and trust among the various affected groups and the institution can become tenuous at best.

Concurrently, the response to a hate or bias incident can also create a defining moment of identity for a community. In the immediate short term, schools first find themselves wrestling with how to denounce the incident, but then they have an opportunity to address questions of institutional identity and bring the school’s values to the forefront. In this way, leaders can proactively develop a culture of inclusion where all members experience the emotional and physical safety necessary to bring their best selves to the community.
One critical starting point for leading through incidents of hate and bias is to ask some critical questions:

  • As part of regular crisis management team preparation, when does this team evaluate the potential impact and response to a hate or bias incident?
  • How would your crisis management team and community respond to a hate or bias incident? To avoid sending mixed messages and inciting more confusion or fear, there must be a centralized process in which the head of school is in close communication with the board chair and also working with a communications team member to craft and deliver regular messages with consistent language denouncing the incident to the school community.
  • If there will be an investigation, will it be an internal investigation or involve law enforcement, or both?
  • What key members of the team are—or aren’t––on your team that may help you understand the impact of the incident on a particular group of people? For example, if your school has a counselor, what is that person’s role during the response, and what resources are available to support the faculty and staff, who are often the first to field questions from overwhelmed students about what has happened?
  • How might the school’s history, culture, and practices influence the act of hate or bias?
  • Does your team identify an act of hate or bias as a crisis rather than an emergency or “one-time” thing?
  • How might a crisis of hate or bias serve as a point of reflection for a school’s leadership and governance? For example, is there time scheduled for leadership team members to debrief and review what response protocols have worked well and what areas remain in need of improvement.

Student Suicide

No school community exists apart from the epidemiology of tragedies of adolescence such as suicide, eating disorders, sexual abuse, and accidental overdose, among others. Even beyond graduation, the suicide of an alum wounds with a force as cruel as that of a current student.

To those of us who live and work within a school community, the loss of a student always plays out, at some level, as a dialogue between the institution and the experience of sadness and loss. In this way, each student death in some way retells Sophocles’ Antigone. This is not to suggest that conflict is inescapable. School and grief can be richly responsive to one another. It is not uncommon to hear a school community describe itself “at its best” at a time of loss. In the immediate aftermath of a student death, a culture of tenderness and kindness can seem to transform the community: “A terrible beauty is born,” as poet William Butler Yeats describes it. Unsparing self-reflection and honesty can prevail at these times. The window of opportunity for community action, however, is short-lived. Leaders should anticipate that the routine of familiar school culture will soon assert itself.

During a moment of loss, a school must pick its way forward with delicacy and speed through a gauntlet of sometimes maddening external obligations. A well-structured crisis team must coordinate responses to emergency personnel on scene; public safety and law enforcement; media inquiries; notifications to board members, faculty, and families; and interactions with medical, health, and counseling resources, all within the span of a day or two.

At the same time, the grief of family, friends, and community demand mediation. Grief touches every individual differently. For some faculty, guiding a return to “normalcy” can be the most valuable contribution, even while annoying some of their colleagues. For others, grief will bring acute vulnerability and require attention and support. Sadness can seem insupportable and a sense of reality tenuous. Anger or guilt, or both, can render some faculty and students unable to focus, apparently beyond the reach of comforting. None of these is a more “correct” reflex than another. The tug of war between observance and normal rigor will assert itself and divide classrooms.

In the case of death by suicide, school leaders must model language that helps teachers and staff emotionally identify with students. Colleagues in all disciplines need help in talking about suicide in ways that are helpful and practical. Teachers will look to find meaning and solutions where there are precious few. The impulse to create a lasting artifact or tribute can be become insistent. Leaders should embark upon such efforts with the utmost caution and deliberation, the gift of time, and the intention to help students learn how to grieve and how to access support.

At one school, when a student died by suicide, leadership and faculty affirmed the need to proceed with the senior prom that same night, adorned with balloons and sad smiles. In such difficult times, some faculty will find ways to reorganize sadness into shared community-building. For example, they might channel energy into a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion work within the school or into auditing school calendars, classrooms, dorms, hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, and parent meetings to ensure a common language of wellness. Ultimately, in a healthy school community, grief leads to grieving, and grieving to healing.

Relationships and Transparency

No school community is the same, therefore no crisis is the same. Yet our response to a crisis is perhaps the critical moment for asserting a leadership and crisis team’s personal and institutional values and for communicating a team’s commitment to its community. It is not uncommon for parents, students, or anyone directly affected to drop their everyday defenses and share vulnerability in ways that deepen membership in the community and clarify what matters most. Likewise, it is not uncommon for parents, students, and faculty to want to move at a tempo different than that espoused by a school’s leadership.

Individual needs for safety, comfort, and shared direction in the face of great difficulties run deep. To complicate matters, we have no way of knowing in that moment what each of our constituents will need to establish their baseline of safety and functioning again. When leaders lead through relationships, transparency, and presence, little by little our schools’ faculty, students, and families will generate ideas for healing, growth, and repair. You don’t have to know every possible offering that might alleviate acute suffering, but you must stay open to any design thinking and team-building that emerges from within your own community.

Go Deeper

Research shows students in high-achieving schools face tremendous pressure to succeed—and many students struggle, exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety, or substance use. For schools seeking to foster a more supportive community and focus on student health and well-being, having data to inform decision-making is critical. To assist schools in their efforts, NAIS partnered with Suniya S. Luthar, a leading expert on resilience in adolescents, and her Authentic Connections group to launch a pilot research study with eight member schools during Winter 2018–Spring 2019. Read the report, “High-Achieving Schools Pilot Study.”

The Summer 2019 issue of Independent School magazine focuses on student health and well-being and what educating the whole student looks like today. In “Reframing the Foundation for Student Success,” two of the authors here, Miguel G. Marshall and Debra P. Wilson, explain why educating the whole student has taken on new meaning in the current health and well-being landscape.

For additional resources, such as student health and well-being table-top exercises and resources to help schools prevent and respond to student suicide, go to  

Lydia F. Maier

Lydia F. Maier is assistant head of school at Waynflete School in Portland, Maine. She is a co-founder of TIME (Teachings in Mindful Education) in Maine and the "Can We?" Project, an experiment in revitalizing democracy for schools across the country.

Charles Shaw

Charles Shaw is a former teacher and head of upper school and currently director of stewardship at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Debra P. Wilson

Debra P. Wilson was most recently general counsel for NAIS and will be the president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools as of July 1, 2019.

Miguel G. Marshall

Miguel G. Marshall is an independent school alumnus, former teacher and administrator, and currently an educational and school health and wellness consultant based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Susan R. Perry

Susan R. Perry is an educational leader and consultant, leading, facilitating, and designing professional development for colleagues, schools, and healthy campus cultures. She is former assistant head of school for student affairs at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an independent school alumna.