Have you ever been completely captivated by ocean waves and the pounding rhythm of the constant crashing on the beach? Are you mesmerized by whitecaps, wave crests breaking into white foam? Do surface whitecaps that break offshore due to wind make you excited or anxious? Welcome to the world of a Head of School.

I came to the sea’s edge to reflect and renew after a particularly challenging academic year, having navigated numerous peer conflicts among both students and adults in four different grade levels from second to seventh. To me, whitecaps are a visual indicator of strong winds and trouble ahead, but what if I changed my view and saw them as a steadfast symbol of resilience and strength? What if instead of steering clear, I faced them head on?

My time contemplating the horizon, while relaxing in a beach chair armed with a book and a beverage, revealed four key takeaways for leadership. All of which require observation, knowledge, and understanding — characteristics of empathetic leadership.

The slightest breeze can create large ripples. 

Although wind turbulence is a major cause of whitecaps, the white frothy bubbles can occur in slight breezes. Several issues of peer and social conflict that I dealt with this year started with a mean comment in an unstructured or unsupervised time at school or at home. Unreported and allowed to fester, the initial interaction began to take on a life of its own. Thus, if we can encourage students and parents to partner with the school to address small issues in a timely manner by alerting the school about inappropriate interactions, comments, or social media posts they become aware of — either at home or at school, we can calm the waters before they crest. The sooner we can deal with a mean comment or unpleasant encounter, the better. While we don’t necessarily want teachers and parents to report every single sarcastic or mean comment they hear, I have become convinced this year that had we acted on the first comment, we would have prevented heated conversations and irreparable relationship fractures.

Stormy weather always gives way to the sun.

Whitecaps usually form in stormy weather, and most do not last very long. Using the old adage, this too shall pass, as my mantra, helps me better navigate thorny situations, knowing that there will be sun at the end of the storm. I have witnessed several instances this year when students, with the help of our School Counselor, did the work to understand each other’s social and emotional needs, and worked through conflict to build better relationships. While every grade level at Kent School has Morning Huddles, a chance to share how students are doing with their classmates to increase belonging, often students need one-to-one conversations, moderated by the School Counselor, to manage conflict. Students learn to share what they are feeling when another student says something unkind and the student who was unkind needs an opportunity to make it right. This facilitates relationship repairing and rebuilding. The whitecap symbolizes that the only way to address an issue is facing it head on and moving through it. Do the hard work of looking at yourself and understanding why you feel a certain way about a comment made to you, or why you made an unkind comment to a classmate or friend. Have difficult conversations with peers to resolve issues. There is no way to side step a whitecap.

It’s vital to hear out differing opinions on handling issues.

Shifting tides can create whitecaps. Our administrative team members — the Assistant Head of School for Academics, the Dean of Students, and the School Counselor — work incredibly well together, but sometimes have differing opinions on a student issue. While consequences may be necessary in some cases, they can vary from repairing the harm to serving a suspension, sometimes even for the same behavior. I value listening to all sides of any issue and like to take an approach that encompasses both age-appropriate student accountability and social and emotional growth. Sometimes this balance is easier than other times. When students are genuinely remorseful and want to work to repair any harm to another, real growth occurs. When this tide changes for students, they learn that true joy can be attained in the process of becoming the person they are meant to be, like the foam bubbles bursting forth on a whitecap. 

Obstacles in your path create opportunity.

Passing boats or ships can create whitecaps. Obstacles, such as parents who are not on the same page as the school, can definitely impede progress for students and create waves for faculty and administrators. We have had disagreements this year with parents on the use of social media, the definition of bullying, and behavior expectations. Turning these obstacles into opportunities by building strong parent-school relationships helps us advance our mission as a student-centered school and helps us build our community. It is not easy. It requires the investment of time, research, and multiple conversations for smooth sailing to return. 

According to Zora Neale Huston’s myth Why the Waves Have Whitecaps, Mrs. Water is jealous of Mrs. Wind’s children and so she drowns them. The whitecaps are caused when Mrs. Wind calls for her children, “white feathers would come up on top of de water.” This is what we see whenever wind passes over the ocean. “When you see a storm on de water, it’s de wind and de water fightin’ over dem chillun.”

All of this makes me realize that whitecaps are not to be feared. They can help us strategize on the best path forward for our students and our community in times of trial. And if we look for the smallest signals of trouble to break the cycle of conflict, jealousy, and hurtfulness, maybe we can stare right into the barrel of the wave with deeper understanding and clarity.