How to Effectively Lead Schools Through Crisis with Stephen Zeal

In today's live session, I interviewed Stephen Zeal, the Associate Director of BBA Finance at Texas A&M University, on ways leaders can effectively lead their schools in and through COVID-19. 

School leaders are facing unprecedented times due to COVID-19. Steve encouraged leaders to remember it’s not a coincidence that you’re at your school at this exact moment. Even amidst the pressure, stress, and anxiety that might be present, be reminded that God is in this with you, and he’s promised to never forsake us. 

Pitfalls School Leaders can Avoid When Leading During COVID-19

Use this time to be strengthened and encouraged in Christ as you continue pressing towards the mission and vision of your school. It’s imperative to stay focused on the long-term goals you have and remain nimble as you are looking forward to the future of your institution.  

Examine if you default to leadership or management during a crisis. Managing through a crisis oftentimes involves making immediate decisions without having a system and process in place to help guide you. Whereas, leading through a crisis focuses on providing thoughtful solutions that are the best outcome during and beyond the crisis.

When panic sets in, it’s common for crises to be over-managed and under-led. Be aware of the human tendency to panic in crisis, and take the extra time to slow down and think through solutions that will be most effective now and in the long-run. 

4 Ways for School Leaders to Alleviate Anxiety and Fear

1. Establish regular check-ins with your team and community.

    • Implementing 15-30 minute check-ins with your team will help you cultivate the space for them to communicate their fears, concerns, and worries with you. 

    • This also reassures your team that you are aware of what they may be feeling and you genuinely care about them. Check-ins also help you. stay connected on priorities and values.

    • Encourage your team to do this within their individual school departments too. 

2. Create structure and stability for your school community. 

    • Having clear, accurate, and consistent communication with your school community helps establish structure and stability for them during COVID-19.

3. Implement meetings with parents and teachers using a video-conferencing system.

    • This creates a sense of caring community amidst the isolation and uncertainty. As Christian organizations, we're called to be comforters and walk through suffering with others. Take advantage of this time to serve your community.

4. Be hopeful realists. 

    • Communicate the narrative of hope while maintaining awareness of the reality of our crisis. Remember that this crisis will pass, and it's important to focus on what will come next. Keep your eye on the long-term while you make contingency plans to maintain a healthy balance of positivity and realism.

    • Be honest and hopeful as you remind your community that you are leaning on the guidance of Christ and that you know he is with you and will be faithful to guide the leadership team, staff, students, and families through this global crisis. As an educator, you have the responsibility and privilege of inspiring future generations, so take this opportunity to fill them with hope.

How Leaders Should Communicate With Their Community

The way you communicate during COVID-19 will inform the way your school comes out on the other side of this crisis. Here are 5 practical strategies and tips on communicating to your school community in during this time: 

  1. Communicate from a place of hope that yields a sense of relief and confidence without over-promising to your team and families. 

  2. Remember that honesty goes a long way so be conscious in the midst of a crisis to communicate in a way that isn’t too negative or too optimistic. 

  3. Shift the conversation from school closure to finishing the year strong and explain the ways your school will do this. 

  4. Never miss an opportunity to communicate what God is doing through the school community. Magnify what God is doing by celebrating all victories whether big or small. 

    • Implement parent appreciation videos of positive things they see happening within the school community during COVID-19. 

    • Publicize positive ways parents are partnering with teachers effectively.

  5. Intentionally find creative and innovative ways to communicate with your community. 

    • Incorporating weekly devotionals to distribute on your website or newsletter. 

    • Use multiple channels of communication to meet the needs and interests of different audiences.

Using the Strength of Your Leadership Team during COVID-19

In the bible, we see a great example of utilizing a trusted advisor in the relationship between Timothy and Paul. Use your leadership team as trusted advisors so you have a safety net of accountability and tangible help for navigating the crisis. Here are 3 ways you and your leadership time can efficiently navigate through COVID-19: 

  1. Deliberately and intentionally plan ways your school will respond in the middle of a crisis.

    • Although we hope we are never faced with a global crisis again, it is helpful to be prepared if another crisis takes place. The time to do that is now, when you're dealing with the many struggles and trials hands-on.

  2. Be proactive instead of reactive when leading the school community so you can prepare for what’s next while being mindful of what’s happening now. 

    • Address the fact that there will be a new normal once we can gather again after COVID-19. 

  3. Delegate tasks amongst the team and trust that the tasks are being carried out well.

Steps For Planning The Next School Year With Your Administration Team

  • Get an idea of what next year will look like. In previous years, right now is when you’d be in the middle of your enrollment period, examining budgets, and hiring for new positions. Consider what the projections show for the next school year, and start planning now. 

  • Attain information from your school community by using anonymous surveys. Sending out surveys to your families will help you get an idea of their current situation and their future plans. It can also help you understand what you're doing well and where you might need to improve in future crises.

  • Consider reductions for next year. Sit down with your administration team and see what your school would look like with reductions for next year. Consider programs you could cut or if you could combine grades and still have a productive school year.

  • Solidify contingency plans. Before you decided to make crucial decisions regarding the outcome of your school for next year, you should explore all of your options and determine what contingency plans can be put in place to help mitigate unwanted change.

  • Be forward-focused. It’s common for parents to fear that their kids might get sick when they return to school. Reassure parents that your school is being intentional about keeping their children safe with a Safety Preparedness Plan. Here are 4 things you can include in your plan:

    1. Creating a way to test the temperatures of students before the school day begins.

    2. Institute a campus-wide hand-washing routine that occurs hourly.

    3. Placing mandatory Hand Sanitizer stations in each classroom.

    4. Impose distancing guidelines

Virtual Graduation or Postponement

Since there’s currently no exact timeline of when it will be possible to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, consider doing both. One option is to virtually hold a first ceremony and plan accordingly for an in-person ceremony later. 

Contingency Plans for School Closures

  • Be proactive and intentional about getting an idea of enrollment for next year. Make your overall decisions based on those projections. 

  • Find ways to get creative with tuition payment plans and establish scholarship opportunities.

  • Go back to your mission and vision and evaluate whether or not you can stay true to them if you decide to operate next school year. If you can’t, you might consider exploring your options for closing or merging your school. 

Although there are many challenges presented for school leaders during COVID-19, it’s important to remain forward-focused and encourage those around you to do the same. As a leader, you set the precedent for the mindsets around you, so take time to be intentional about your communication and planning.

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