This article appeared as "Rising Above" in the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School.
Like so many schools during the pandemic, at Lake Forest Country Day School (IL) we were making important decisions that made sense one minute and didn’t hold up the next. In October 2020, after months of adhering to every bit of our local health department’s guidance, we were forced to make a decision we did not anticipate: Should we follow the recommendation that all schools in the county go remote because of county COVID-19 numbers, or should we stay open, confident we could keep preventing in-school virus transmission? As a leadership team navigating the pandemic, we debated, deliberated, and felt the weight of every decision in an especially heavy way. We chose to stay open despite strong opposition from some community members, and we could only hope that we made the right decision.
The constant gravity of every decision, and the deep consideration of what each would mean for the physical and mental health of our school community, was unlike anything we’d experienced. We’d become accustomed to pivoting based on new information, the shifting sands of public-health guidance, and ever-evolving circumstances. In the process, we also noticed that we were experiencing an entirely new path of leadership development.
The traditional school leadership path has involved moving up the ladder, assuming new positions with new responsibilities and learning leadership gradually over the years. By serving schools’ predictable needs and dealing with the typical crises that come up from time to time, leaders grow through opportunities at a steady, manageable pace. They can look to other leaders for support and mentorship because such leaders have managed similar challenges. Their trajectory is somewhat charted but flexible and dependent upon their own ambitions. But as the pandemic gripped our schools and leaders faced a novel crisis—with global and local impacts—an unexpected leadership opportunity took shape. Because the crisis was effectively without precedent, no one person’s role qualified them to step up. COVID response leaders didn’t necessarily have prerequisite qualifications but rather a willingness to learn as much about the pandemic as possible, a clear head to assist with swift and rational decision-making, and a knack for being empathetic and direct communicators.
Now, as schools return to varying pre-pandemic routines, they would be wise to recognize how many leaders developed through this accelerated and uniquely demanding learning experience. The past three years have required adaptability, collaboration, and strong leadership, and as a result, schools have been able to develop leaders in a nontraditional, unprecedented way.
Learning Leadership on the Job
Gerald Caplan, a noted psychiatrist and researcher on crisis theory, synthesized crisis management into four stages: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. In a sense, our COVID response team served as the crisis management team for the school community. During each stage of the pandemic, new opportunities for leadership arose. Crisis management teams refer to the mitigation phase as the time in which teams plan for the next phase of a crisis but there was no mitigation phase with COVID. In the early stages of the pandemic, planning was minimal, but our school began to form teams, assign leaders, and create communications plans. And though they didn’t know it, the people who were part of these teams were about to begin their accelerated leadership journey.
As we moved into the preparedness phase during the summer of 2020, response teams—one for the program, one for facilities and movement, and another for finance and operations—met daily, creating plans to reopen for in-person learning with the school community’s health and well-being as the highest priority. In addition to their daily teaching and work responsibilities, they joined weekly calls with medical experts, synthesizing information for the school context. They developed and constantly revised procedures and policies, such as establishing one-way hallways and procuring tents and creating schedules for their classroom and lunch usage. Response leaders shared information and explained reopening plans to different constituents. They listened to concerns, answered questions, and reassured the school community that we’d use every resource possible to provide the safest in-person school environment. This work was real-time, trial-by-fire training, and many team members gained an inside look at the complexities of leading a school.
Response—the third phase of crisis management—refers to triaging the most pressing issues, communicating regularly with stakeholders, analyzing and changing policies and procedures, and managing the stress response of the school community. The past two school years offered emerging leaders ample opportunities to learn about response and develop the leadership skills necessary in a crisis. Leading diverse communities with many constituent groups and interests differs from leading a business, so school leaders often make important decisions more slowly and deliberately than executives. The ever-changing challenge of COVID, however, forced leaders to make crucial decisions daily and to become more decisive amid uncertainty. At LFCDS, we came to accept that we couldn’t know that all of our decisions were right, only that we had to work together to reach the best decisions we could with the information we had at the time. We knew we didn’t have all the answers, but we strove to ask the most important questions.
As the pandemic wore on, we saw the most significant growth in our response team leaders as they managed and mediated conflicts. As COVID-19 became politicized in our community, a broad spectrum of perspectives on how to handle the pandemic developed—often in highly charged ways. The team members who did not have specific training in this area began to learn how to be empathetic in hearing people’s frustrations while staying firm and consistent in their response. Through difficult conversations with colleagues, parents, and even students, they learned more fully that every decision—about masking, testing, quarantining, or remote learning, to name a few—would satisfy some and upset others. No one on our team was comfortable facing such discordant views, often expressed with great emotion, but we all learned that good leadership resulted from deliberation and sound judgment, not a desire to please everyone or to avoid conflict.
These response team leaders also became creative problem-solvers. They noticed the stress and burnout in the community, and they planned fun events to provide lightheartedness and laughter when those were in short supply. They dressed up as turkeys during Thanksgiving, sang karaoke during drop-off, and brought in food trucks to offer joy and sustenance. Perceiving, understanding, and responding to stressors in the school community are essential leadership skills that they’ll continue to use as the community collectively moves toward recovery (Caplan’s final crisis management stage).
Out of the Pandemic
Educators who led COVID response teams grew as leaders by managing effective communication with all constituents, working through and mediating conflict resolution, understanding risk management, and developing policies and procedures with few federal or state guidelines.
The commitment to professional growth opportunities and continuous learning attracts prospective families to independent schools and is a point of emphasis for heads of school seeking to attract and retain employees. As we know, there’s no better way to grow as a professional than through experience and reflection. In many independent schools around the world, educational leaders experienced real-time professional and leadership development as they managed and responded to a crisis of unprecedented scale and duration. Response team leaders gained extensive leadership and crisis-management skills, and we believe they could be next-generation heads of school, having learned and grown in a crucible unlike any seen before.