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Communication and Empathy Are Key to Leading Mid-Crisis

By Jessica Wishart

    Fri, Sep 11, 2020 @ 11:04 AM Effective Meetings, Accountable Leaders & Teams

    I have two small children sleeping quietly (for once) as I write this a little before 6 am. While the team alignmentCOVID-19 crisis has been hard for everyone—especially those who have been sick or lost loved ones or livelihoods—I know firsthand just how challenging it has been for working parents with small children. In the early days, when preschool and daycare were closed, I was trying to distract them with a movie long enough to get through a Zoom call or two and that would inevitably lead to a game of “push mama’s buttons,” both figuratively and literally, in which I’d have to hold the computer above my head so they didn’t hang up the Zoom.

    Thankfully, I was able to piece together a schedule with the help of my husband, my extremely flexible and supportive employer, and my trusted babysitter that allowed me to find a kind of normal routine that didn’t feel quite so insane for the summer months. That being said, looming around in my mind during anxiety-fueled sleepless nights, school was coming. My oldest daughter was starting kindergarten at a new school. Based on the few times she did Zoom calls with her Pre-K class, I could not imagine her learning remotely as a 5-year-old.

    I had all the same worries every parent has: Will she be going back to the classroom at all on a staggered schedule, will it be fully remote, is it safe to send her to school, will she actually learn anything, how can we help her with school and both still work full time, should we pull her out and send her next year? We had a million questions…if she does go back to school, what are they doing to keep her safe and healthy there, can she ride the bus, is there after school care available? If she is learning from home, what’s the expectation for how long she’ll be in front of the computer or tablet in a day, how much can she do independently and how much will she need our help, how can we give her social time with other kids her age, how can you possibly teach a child to read over Zoom? What about the children in the district who don’t have access to the internet or whose parents don’t have any childcare options to support remote learning?

    Into this never-ending swirl of questions, stands a small, unassuming, relentlessly positive public school principal. Her communication was strong, and it was constant. We received text messages, automated phone calls, emails and letters in the mail. There were “coffee with the principal” Zoom calls for parents and getting to know each other Zoom calls for the kids. There were Google Forms asking for parents' input and personal messages to answer every last question, even when the answer was, “That’s a great question, and I just don’t know the answer yet."

    This woman, who has only been in this job for one year before this, demonstrated some of the best leadership through uncertainty that I’ve seen in this crisis. Not only did she communicate what she knew and what she didn’t know, but she also shared when we could expect answers to questions and why she didn’t have them now: "We won’t know that until the district meets next week" or "I can’t tell you the exact schedule for remote kindergarten until the teachers come back; I want them to be refreshed and have a good summer.”

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    She didn’t just communicate the facts; she communicated her empathy. In a Zoom call for parents of rising kindergartners, she got a question about whether parents would be allowed to walk their children into the building for the first day of school (back when we thought there might be an in-person orientation before remote learning started). She shared a touching story about dropping her own son off at kindergarten decades ago and walking him into his classroom and sitting in her car afterward crying, looking around to see all the other parents of kindergarten students doing the same thing. She teared up on that call and said, “Oh, I wish I could say yes to this, but I can’t.”

    I have friends whose children are also starting kindergarten this year at different schools. They complained about the lack of communication from their schools…one friend shared she believed the principal was afraid to say anything until she knew for sure what was going to happen from the school district. I’m so grateful that we had a leader who was not afraid to be vulnerable, make mistakes and have to go back and correct herself later.

    Her effective and empathic communication has earned her and the school quite a lot of grace from me and my fellow remote kindergarten parents. I’m on her side, and I’m willing to put up with district-wide technology failures and all the other inevitable hiccups of remote learning, because she’s a leader I want to follow and whom I trust to lead well through this crisis and make decisions that are best for the students, teachers and parents involved.

    How has your communication been with key stakeholders during this pandemic? What are your customers, employees, board, investors, etc. hearing from you?

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    Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images 

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