On My Mind: Building a Resilient Workforce

Summer 2022

By Donna Orem

a4037ir1127.jpgThis article appeared as "Second Wind” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School.

I recently read a March 2022 McKinsey & Company article, “Ten Lessons from the First Two Years of COVID-19,” in which the authors predictably homed in on the nature of infectious diseases today, the promise of vaccines, the need for speed and agility, and the pandemic effects on the workforce. Lesson number seven really stood out, however: “Schools are the true fulcrum for the functioning of society. We always knew this in an abstract way. But the pandemic brought it home.”
This statement reveals why school leaders are so burned out. They were on the front lines of keeping society running—with little information on how to do so safely, nor the resources to do so. What has always been a difficult job became nearly impossible amid the pandemic, particularly for independent school heads who led some of the first schools to open in person while the pandemic was still raging.
As we move through pandemic year three, this unrelenting stress is taking its toll. In the “2021 NAIS State of Independent School Leadership Survey,” heads identified that increased pressure, stress, and isolation (64%); helping the school community address the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and economic insecurity simultaneously (57%); and the constant need to make difficult decisions (53%) are making the job less satisfying. And these factors are driving some leaders out of schools: 40% of responding heads said their pandemic experiences are influencing their future plans, with 18% saying they now plan to leave their jobs sooner, 16% questioning their next steps, and 6% saying that they plan to stay at their school longer because of pandemic realities.
Data is similar for public school principals. The National Association of Secondary School Principals conducted a survey in late 2021, which indicated that job satisfaction is at an unprecedented low; nearly 4 out of 10 principals (38%) say they expect to leave the profession in the next three years. Respondents further reported that “their three biggest challenges during the coronavirus outbreak include implementing blended and distance learning (60%), providing mental health support to students (59%), and providing guidance and mental health support to teachers and staff (58%).” 

The Coming Workforce Crisis

Leaders are also facing significant staff shortages as many teachers and administrators—due to pandemic-related stress—contemplate alternative career paths. Richard Ingersoll, a teacher workforce expert and professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, projects that there will be a big surge in teacher attrition on both ends of the spectrum—beginners and those nearing retirement—as the economy improves.
The United States may be facing the largest school workforce crisis we have seen in a long time. This poses both a short- and long-term challenge for school leaders. In the short term, how do you lead through the uncertainty and volatility of the foreseeable future when you and your team are already spent? And, for the long term, how do you ensure you can attract and retain a workforce in the midst of an ever-tightening job market?
Although the early days of the pandemic were hard, there was something of an adrenaline rush as we fought a common enemy. As we move to recovery, we now must call on our psychological stamina.
In a December 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted—And You are Too,” Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, clinical psychologist and author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure, suggests that we now need to access our “perseverance, endurance, and even defiance against the randomness, gloom, and burden of the pandemic.” She suggests that “cultivating resilience requires some emotional rewiring and calls for a different kind of appeal to team members and colleagues. The essential task is to identify your biggest challenges over the next year and then tap the psychological stamina you and your team needs to get there.” She outlines three key steps to help: understanding the difference between urgency and importance; balancing comfort with containment; and finding new ways to energize yourself and others.
One of the greatest risks during times of crisis, Wedell-Wedellsborg says, is becoming too short-term focused. While school leaders must address the challenges at hand, they should also ask, “Are we doing everything we can to emerge from this crisis a stronger school?” It’s easy to get caught up in what is urgent today, but focusing on what is important for the long term can mobilize teams around opportunity.
Balancing comfort with containment is just as crucial right now. School leaders must support teams in their mental well-being challenges and remain compassionate, but also remember that, as Wedell-Wedellsborg says, “too much caring and compassion can drive people into a learned helplessness trap, believing that they can’t perform without help and support from others.” The goal is not pampering, rather, it’s about leading teams to catch a second wind—finding new ways to energize ourselves and each other. Two effective strategies include taking time to share success stories and dividing long projects into sprints so that people can be motivated by short-term successes.
Beyond themselves and their teams, leaders must also adopt a resiliency agenda for their schools. Just as the pandemic exposed how crucial schools are to the functioning of our society, it also revealed how the interplay of various systems within the school must work together for success. We must apply the knowledge gained from those successes to other challenges we now face.

A New Lens on Building a Future Workforce

When it comes to the longer-term challenge of building a sustainable workforce, I suggest that we need a more generative approach as this may be a true inflection point for education. Boards, too, must be engaged in this work as it is key to the long-term sustainability of the school. When using the generative approach and looking at complex challenges through a wider lens, school leaders and trustees must ask questions such as:
  • What would the job of head of school look like if we built it around those tasks that only the leader could do?
  • What assumptions do we make about leadership? Have we tested those assumptions recently to see if they are valid?
  • What if we thought of our workforce in terms of tasks that need to be accomplished rather than a collection of jobs? Might we see other ways to build a future workforce?
  • What would our workplace look like if we were an employer of choice in the post-pandemic economy?
  • What work is central to a school accomplishing its mission? What isn’t?
  • Does our culture celebrate hours worked or effectiveness of effort?
  • What role can collaboration play in creating efficiencies in how we accomplish work?
Old strategies may not be sufficient to tackle the complexities we face today and will certainly not stop the talent drain we are now experiencing. Boards must partner with heads in exploring these larger questions and reimagining how we best employ talent in fulfilling our vision for the future.  
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.