Since we last posted on the LLI blog, much has happened in the world of school leaders. What we once knew and understood about leading schools has been seriously challenged. All of us have been thrown into the crucible, and making sense of these events has kept many of us thinking in overdrive this summer.

I also have been trying to make sense of everything, but especially what it means for you- the leaders of these schools. As I was doing some reading this summer, I came across a beautiful little book called Life Is In The Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. While this book originally intended to help people think about aging, a chapter entitled Shape-Shifting: How We Make Meaning in Time of Change gave me a different perspective on what may be happening to you- the school leader.

The author, Bruce Feiler, states:

The meaning we make from our lives is not static or stable. It fluctuates, oscillates, and every now and then, it evaporates. This feeling of being directionless often happens in the wake of a lifequake. I think of these moments like meaning vacuums, when the air is sucked out of our lives and the previous balance of tendencies that gave us agency, belonging, and cause is wiped clean.

That about sums up the last five months of our lives. What was once clear- laws, structures, boundaries of where to start and stop, or what we knew as order, was thrown out the window in March. The air was sucked out of our lives. The edges of what we called school and education have now become highly permeable. Face to face learning, a model most familiar to educators and were content with, has been pushed aside. The standard model of school was the container by which most of us experienced school and gave us security and predictability. It made sense to us, and how to navigate it, though complex, was clear; we had precise mental models. It gave us stability and a platform from which to grow others.

But like Dante, as Feiler quotes in his book, wrote so eloquently hundreds of years ago in the opening of his famous book the Divine Comedy
Midway in our life’s journey, I went
From the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood

As LLI worked across the US this summer with schools and districts in California, Nebraska, Texas, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, we began to see an almost universal pattern of school leaders who found themselves alone in the dark woods of the crisis and struggling to find ways out. Many seeking solace in a past we probably won’t see again.

We do not know when a new vision for education will finally come, or what may emerge. Only time will tell. Right now, you may be more worried about logistics like enough computers or hand sanitizer, but for you, this crisis can and should give rise to finding new meaning in the purpose of leading schools. In great times of change, we often worry more about the technical parts of our jobs and not the adaptive parts; but frankly, a lifequake such as this is much more about changing our beliefs and mindsets, aka the adaptive role of lifequakes.

So what can this lifequake mean for you? We will have plenty of time for the redesign. One substantial meaning right now needs to be grounded in an ethic of care. At this stage, you need to take care of yourself and take care of others. Not just the quick “how are you doing,” but the “how are you doing really?” work of great leaders. While much emphasis has been on raising test scores over the past few decades, we have seen the toll this crisis has put on teachers. Unfortunately, stress has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 crisis.

Why focus on care? Noted educational leadership researcher Kenneth Leithwood has written extensively about the 4 Path Model of school leadership. These paths- rational, organizational, emotional, and family, are paths through which a school leader can exhibit influence. Notably, the emotional path shows the highest impact on teachers but possibly the least utilized.

So as you begin to make sense of this lifequake, consider how you might travel down the emotional path with your teachers. Ask how you might better support your teachers’ emotions? Especially important emotions to support include teacher job satisfaction and morale, stress, anxiety and burnout, individual and collective efficacy, and engagement (Leithwood and Beatty, 2008). Many of our teachers are still moving through their own lifequake, and the internal states that drive their practices with students will need ongoing care and concern. Traveling along this path may be the meaning for which you are looking.

Feiler, B. (2020). Life Is In The Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. Penguin Press.