Heading out of town for spring break on March 7, I knew that change was imminent, but I underestimated the magnitude of change we would face. Boarding a plane with my family, I felt sure that a week of sunshine would clear my head and provide some much-needed family bonding. I longed to walk on the beach, marching to the rhythmic cadence of ocean waves crashing. However even as my feet hit the sand, I worried about the situations in China and Italy, my mind filling with “what ifs” around next year’s enrollment along with potential financial aid ramifications for our families in Memphis.
In the short time that I was away, the situation in the United States indeed changed quickly. Our local public schools decided to close immediately and extend spring break by several weeks, and from my remote location, I began working with my leadership team and Board on our own plan to close school. We ironed out the logistical and tactical matters necessary to transition to distance learning.
Instrumental to our success was our amazing technology team. Capitalizing on the one-to-one laptop program implemented at Hutchison for more than a decade, our tech team masterfully prepared to deploy a rollout for distance learning. We were only able to give our faculty and staff slightly advanced notice of the impending closure prior to alerting parents and students. To help faculty adjust their teaching and expectations, we decided to bring them, along with staff, to campus for a single day to plan by grade level and department, test online instructional tools, pack up and organize student lockers and computers, and determine how we would all work remotely. It was an intense, but very productive, day.
From the outside, it looked like we had it all together. The messaging we crafted was well-written and effectively communicated; however, the distance impacted my leadership in fascinating, if not profound, ways. Usually, I am able to “read” a room and to intuit the needs of other people, but something about being physically separate from my team made that incredibly hard. Statements of urgency and requests for clarity from my team were laden with stress, and because I rely on facial expressions and body language to guide my reactions, and because we were moving too quickly, I missed cues and made assumptions, undoubtedly magnifying the stress level of the team rather than abating it. In an effort to get out ahead of the questions, we lost sight of what makes us most effective: thoughtful conversation.
One of the tools that our organization has used for a long time is the Birkman assessment. The Birkman is an instrument that analyzes team members’ productive work styles, basic needs, and stress behaviors when their needs go unmet for a significant amount of time. Using the Birkman helps leaders better understand their team’s personalities at work. More than anything, it serves as a useful guide for communicating effectively and working together as a team.
The insights from the Birkman assessment have proven especially valuable lately, because they have given me specific clues about the fears and anxieties that may be impacting the behaviors of our team. I have a better understanding of how to support each administrator and a heightened awareness of how I may be presenting myself. For example, I know that I become more task-oriented when I am in stress. I want action items, decisions, and forward progress. For team members who need ample time to process and the opportunity to talk through ideas and decisions, my stress behavior can be challenging. Therefore, I have made it a priority, particularly in these challenging times, to be in close communication with my team members, individually and collectively. We are discussing not only the decisions that need to be made, but the pressures, concerns, anxieties our administrators and our faculty and staff have as they navigate these unchartered waters. As Brené Brown has often said, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
During this pandemic, we have been in an all-out sprint, and we have no idea where the finish line is. As a PK–12 school, each administrator on our team leads a different realm, but naturally we are united by mission and vision. Although it currently feels as though our footing is dangerously close to quicksand, in reality we are growing and learning together. This is critical to our success.
I am especially proud of the level of trust in our organization. The leadership team is not hampered by ego, and the collaborative style in which we work is appreciated now more than ever. Each day we face a new and unexpected challenge or impediment; we must solve the immediate while we are thinking about the future of the school and the impact of this incredible blow.
We all feel the weight of responsibility right now. We are worried about our girls and their learning; we are worried about our own families and the stresses at home; we are worried about the health of our loved ones; we are worried about what the future will hold. We can’t ignore our fears and concerns, but we can lock arms and walk this road together.
There can be no doubt that we will be forever impacted by the pandemic. We will face financial and other challenges for years to come. But we will be stronger, more efficient, and more agile than ever before. Perhaps leading boldly requires that the road ahead be truly unknown.