As the Covid-19 pandemic has continued and we see another surge as the weather begins to cool, many of the principals we work with at the Leading Learners Institute have started asking this question.
It goes something like this: “I know I am supposed to continue to focus on instruction and raising achievement, but it just doesn’t feel right. Many of my students are still not showing up and engaging, and it seems like my teachers are always on the verge of tears. Where should I be spending my time and efforts?”
While I admire school leaders like you who want to keep things as normal as possible, I would venture that if you are spending most of your time focused on the rational or organizational path, your time may be better spent elsewhere.
As a quick reminder, I discussed these paths in a previous blog. The concept of paths comes from Leithwood and others’ research on the four paths of influence framework ( (Leithwood et al., 2017). The rational path deals mainly with the instructional area, the organizational path with aspects that help structure the relationships and interactions among people in the school, and the family path, of course, deals with how schools engage families and the community.
The most critical path today, however, is the emotional path as it focuses on the affective states of teachers. In many studies, this path has shown to be an important yet often overlooked aspect of school leaders’ work as emotions intertwine with behavior. Emotions can and do seep into all aspects of a teacher’s work with students.
So, where should a school leader be spending most of their time? Our suggestion at LLI is walking the path of emotions with your teachers by building strong relationships with a healthy dose of empathy may be the best use of your time right now.
The Emotional Path
School Leaders often hear about the importance of having strong relationships with their teachers. However, during this pandemic, relationships have become even more essential than ever. Why? First, teachers are showing a decreasing sense of trust in leadership and community support. While they are trying to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy, greater demands have been placed on them, eroding trust. Second, decisions have to be made more rapidly than ever as the day to day impact of the pandemic changes. Rapid decisions mean school leaders can’t gather the same amount of input as usual, causing a decline in trust and relationships. Last, teachers feel a decreasing sense of support from parents who want things to go back to normal quicker than experts like teachers think is safe. These issues taken together have caused the emotional path not to seep but to pour into the other paths like a flood.
So how can school leaders build stronger relationships with their teachers?
- Take off the leadership mask and acknowledge the uncertainty of the times and that answers are not currently evident.
- When the mask is off, share your concerns and be vulnerable with people. It is ok for you not to have all of the answers or to acknowledge your doubts and fears.
- Make time for people. There are always lots and lots of things to accomplish in leading a school, no doubt. But in these extraordinary times, people are looking to you more as a sense of stability, so make more time to meet with people than ever before.
- Engage people with positive energy. As a model for others, show how you can change your demeanor to be positive and hopeful.
- Relationships mean more than a passing hello to someone. Healthy relationships exist in mutual interests with others. You can prove your interest right now by not only acknowledging others but genuinely finding out how they are doing.
Empathy as a skill of leaders is another way to create strong relationships with others. Stepping outside of yourself and walking in their shows will give you a much different view of their worlds right now. None of us took an empathy-building class in our leadership training. Unless you have a natural inclination toward empathy, you may not be sure what to do, so here are a few suggestions.
- Just like with relationships, you have to make time to connect with your staff members. Hold a few teachers back after your meetings, or create a check-in schedule.
- As leaders, we have an automatic response to fix. Tell me about your problem, and I will fix it. To show empathy, you need to turn this automatic response off, listen deeply, and acknowledge what the person is going through. Sometimes listening is enough.
- As you listen to people, you are gathering data about their emotional state. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly but test your data. Ask questions like “it sounds like or it feels like you are… Is this correct?” Then acknowledge that the state is ok and normal right now.
- Last, pay attention to your own emotions. As busy leaders, we can quickly get impatient just listening to others but remember to stay present and just listen.
By any measure, the school leader’s role has shifted significantly over the past nine months as has the teacher’s role. Your teachers need something a lot different right now. They need a strong relationship with you to know they are supported and have somebody that can provide some semblance of stability. They also need you to exhibit and show empathy. We may not know what is coming next, but one primary way to prepare for uncertainty is to attend to the quality of the relationships on your staff and to develop a high level of trust. It is in these strong social bonds that we will be able to get to the other paths.
Until next time!