Opinion
How to Take Care of the Adults (and Yourself) in Your School Community
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Right now, system and school leaders are preparing for three potential scenarios for restarting school in the fall: a full physical return with new rules for social distancing, cleaning, and COVID-19 mitigation; a blended model that includes a modified physical return augmented with virtual instruction; or full virtual schooling. In many places, the final decision for districts likely won't be made until sometime this summer, and we don't even know who will make it-the school board, superintendent, governor, state health commissioner, or some combination thereof.

Whichever scenario is enacted, we know that school leaders will find comfort in getting back to the rhythm of school, even if the music has shifted from a John Philip Sousa march to a John Coltrane improvisation. For now, however, many are experiencing decision fatigue, as they sort through endless variables. But it's more important than ever that they sustain their own stamina to tend to the social-emotional needs of the adults in their community. Children may be resilient, but they're going to have a much harder time bouncing back if their caretakers and teachers are too stressed out to function.

So how can leaders tend to their community's needs without neglecting their own?

First, make sure to put supports in place for yourself. Lean on a network of peers you can consult confidentially for advice and support, whether they're colleagues working in other parts of the country or peers from graduate school.

We don't like to admit it, but school leadership can be a competitive enterprise, and those who have been appointed based on their expertise may not want to acknowledge when they don't know something. That goes both ways; be sure to reach out to your peers and be that go-to colleague for them if you notice that they're having a tough time.

To minimize decision fatigue, adhere to a consistent decisionmaking framework that emphasizes empathy, flexibility, transparency, coherence, and equity. Distribute leadership and involve others in problem-solving. Leaders can't do it alone. Teachers, support staff, and parents will step up if asked, so designate people to help you support struggling staff and families. That could be a school counselor, social worker, psychologist, outside mental-health provider, or simply a caring teacher leader. You may be surprised at the creativity, ingenuity, and expertise right in front of you.

And don't forget to rest, reflect, and recharge. In the absence of a clear workday, you may find yourself working 24/7. Model the behavior you hope to elicit. Prioritize your health, social connection, and self-care. Get enough sleep and exercise. Set realistic expectations for yourself and forgive yourself when your efforts fall short. Recognize that no one is at their peak when they're anxious and scared and try not to overpersonalize anyone's negativity. Express your emotions, whether you call a friend, listen to music, or go for a run.

Your faculty and staff will need support as well. According to recent polling by PDK International, teachers want more social-emotional support. Share therapeutic and other community resources, recognizing that members of your staff may have endured a health crisis or death, a partner's furlough, marital strife, clinical anxiety, domestic violence, food insecurity, substance abuse, isolation, or any number of other stressors.

Individual situations will vary, but this is a collective trauma, and everyone is experiencing grief and loss. If you're faced with a crying teacher, remind them that this is a tough time and no one is judging them.

Flexibility is necessary, but don't needlessly reinvent the wheel. Teachers' learning curves have been steep. They're juggling competing family, home, and work demands. Zoom burnout is real, and many are running on fumes. Provide information as it becomes available, whether it relates to safety, cleaning protocols, leave policies, or how to assess students. It's exhausting to live with uncertainty, so answer any questions you can.

Manage everyone's expectations by buffering teachers against unreasonable parent demands while helping parents understand what's feasible in the current reality. Make it clear that they can punt complaints to you, when they lack the ability to resolve them on their own.

And parents and caretakers will need to hear from you. Start by acknowledging that there may be significant barriers to learning. Many parents are trying to supervise their children's learning while attending to their own jobs. The shift to remote learning also has involved technological glitches, gaps in instruction, and tremendous frustration.

Reassure parents who are overwhelmed and worry they're falling short. Explain that teachers know kids will need reviewing and reteaching and encourage parents to focus on being a consistent, loving presence. If tensions run high, kids will be too stressed to learn anyway, so keep it real and urge parents to practice self-care and self-compassion.

Address logistical and basic needs, whether they pertain to food, technology, or access to medical care. Clearly communicate how parents can access a range of resources, from mental-health providers to technological help to academic resources to virtual parent education events.

Even in good times, school leaders can't fix everything, and that's going to be especially true during a global crisis. Everyone is going to be dealing with stress, grief, and uncertainty for a long time. No one knows what the future holds, but we do know that if we take steps to support parents and educators, our students will be far more likely to thrive.


Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School, an independent school in the District of Columbia; a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md.; and the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2019). Joshua P. Starr is the CEO of PDK International. He previously served as superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., and in Stamford, Conn.

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