COVID-19: The Importance of Empathetic Leadership During a Crisis

By Andrew Hawk

COVID-19: The Importance of Empathetic Leadership During a CrisisI hope everyone is staying healthy and safe these days. Last week saw the order for schools in my state, Indiana, to remain closed for the rest of the year. School districts are still responsible for delivering instruction electronically. I have to admit that I was not surprised. Although I miss my school, my students, and my staff, I am making the most of my extra time at home with my wife and children. This is my silver lining. I hope that, no matter the extent to which your life has been affected by our current situation, you are able to find a silver lining too. Finding the positives in all situations is one of the keys to success.

Administrators may find it easy to get caught up in the logistics of a stressful situation. I make the recommendation that we do not let ourselves get lost in logistics during this time. Situations such as this one require leaders to empathize with others on local, state, country, and even global levels. Here are some examples I have come in contact with recently that help illustrate the importance of including empathy in your leadership during a crisis.

Projecting Calm

Whether you are the head of a small organization or a large one, try to project a sense of calm during a crisis. If you find yourself feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or distressed, look for support from other leaders in your network and project a sense of calm in front of your subordinates. It is easier to keep an operation functioning when the staff is calm.

Scenarios You Never Expected

One of the teachers at my school is retiring at the end of the school year. This is the last year of her 40-year career. She was telling me this morning on the phone that this is a disappointing end to her career.

I have another teacher who is a first-year teacher. She is engaged and relocating after the school year is over. This first-year teacher is upset because she will not get to say goodbye to her students in person. Going into this school year, I couldn’t have imagined that either of these scenarios might happen. The best way I know how to be a comfort to both people is to let them talk about their points of view.

A Difficult Time to Be a Senior

I am not sure about the high schools in your area, but my school corporation canceled graduation and prom. This is another situation where there is not a clear answer for how to move forward. The plan developed by our high school’s leadership team is still in progress.

One element of the plan I discussed with the high school principal that impressed me is that he is sending a survey to the seniors themselves to see if they have any good ideas about how we should proceed. I think giving the seniors a voice in what happens will help them feel like they have some control and will, in turn, be therapeutic for them.

Students Are Still Hungry

Currently, 83 percent of the students in my school corporation receive free or reduced lunch. These students typically eat both breakfast and lunch at school. Our academic instruction can be delivered electronically, but food can’t.

Our superintendent worked with our director of transportation to form a plan where our bus drivers will deliver food two times a week. Students will still receive five days’ worth of meals in these deliveries.

Obstacles to Distance Learning

My school has one-to-one Chromebooks for students. However, only grades four and up are normally allowed to take devices home. In addition, some students have damaged their Chromebooks in the past and are not allowed to take them home at all. Even if students can take home their devices, they may not have access to the internet. I was impressed when our local internet providers offered free internet to families through the end of the school year.

My school corporation decided to let any student who did not have a device at home have the option to come and pick up a Chromebook. Getting everyone to complete their work at home is still a challenge, but it is getting better.

People Need to Feel Connected

I know that teachers everywhere are struggling with being away from their students. Look for ways people can still make connections. One local school did a “School Parade,” where the teachers drove through the school’s neighborhoods and students came out to wave at them.

At my school, a teacher organized a photo collage in which each of our staff members was photographed holding a word. All the pictures were put together so the words wrote out a poem. We posted this on our school’s social media accounts.

These are just two ideas, but I am sure there are even more you could find with a quick internet search.

Answering Questions

No matter how small a question seems, it is important to the person who asked it. Leaders need to be patient during this time when answering questions, even if the same questions are asked repeatedly by staff members and other community stakeholders. It is also a good idea to make a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list and post it in easily accessible places, such as on your school website.

Now Is the Time for Tolerance

Not everyone is someone’s boss, but everyone can be a leader. I urge everyone to show tolerance to one another during this time. If you see someone who is not doing a good job with social distancing, you can distance yourself.

Likewise, if you think someone is asking for unreasonable precautions, look for a solution with the person. Now is not the time for lecturing people and arguing.

Living History

My paternal grandmother lived to be 102 years old. She passed away in 2013. She was seven when the 1918 influenza pandemic started. Looking back on all the time I spent talking to her, it now surprises me that I never asked her if she had any recollection of that historical event.

While I do not recommend sensationalizing our current situation, I think we can recognize that we are living in a time that is going to be recorded in history books. It might be worth it to keep a journal and to encourage your students or children to keep a record of daily happenings. It could be interesting for them to look back on this time when they are adults.

Stay safe, everyone!

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.

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