How Schools Can Support Their Students Through Change and Crisis

With my background in educational leadership, I've spent a lot of time praying for the many schools facing this unprecedented situation of managing their academics, extra-curricular activities, and students and staff all online. I spoke with my good friend Dr. Jeff Doyle, who is the Associate Director of Planning & Assessment at Baylor University, about how they're providing support for their students during this time when they have 14,000 enrolled undergraduates spread out across the country. I'm hoping these highlights from our conversation will provide hope and direction for other school faculty in the same, uncertain boat.

How can you console people who are nervous about all of the uncertainty right now?

Jeff's initial thought on this topic was trying to figure out what to tell people, to provide answers. However, after more thought, he realized it's more about how we understand people. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, so when having a conversation with someone, it's important to address the immediacy of what's going on before diving into solutions and logistics. Understand that college is hard enough for students to navigate, and this pandemic is compounding the complex factors that students face every year. 

While it may seem smart to come up with a script for your staff in order to form a united front, it's more important to connect with each person you speak with when they're struggling. Until you know where their heart is, you can't begin to provide helpful solutions for their situation. 

Place the Focus on the Students

Luckily, because schools have to keep up with young adults on a daily basis, they're well-adapted to how technology can be used to work remotely and communicate effectively. Because of the constantly-changing nature of college, students are so agile and able to adapt. Even if it's not an ideal learning environment, it doesn't take them long to figure out how to keep moving forward with their classes. 

However, while a majority of students might be able to figure out online learning, Jeff shared, the staff are no longer with students in person like they normally are, so they need to go the extra mile to know how to help them through all of the other challenges of college life. This includes learning how to utilize any helpful technology, but more importantly, actually talking to the students. At Baylor, they're making an effort to reach students on an individual basis. Their staff started by figuring out which students have the most need for communication, such as May graduates, students who were just forced to come back from Study Abroad and don't have a curriculum right now, new students still building connections to the school, and students with technological challenges.

They're also using data to understand which students have not logged into their online learning platform in the last few weeks to know who is falling behind academically. 

One Piece of Advice: Practicing What You Preach

 Jeff shared that he's currently reading the book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. The book recognizes that negative news impacts us more than good events and information. We are programmed to remember the bad things in life, but we should challenge ourselves to focus on the opportunity in situations, not the hardship. 

Universities and churches are, what some experts are calling, the two longest-lasting institutions in the US - they've been around for almost 400 years and have weathered mighty storms, but they've historically been conservative about change. In difficulty and crisis, it's time to think about how we as leaders can change and be our students' champions. We're all stretching out of our comfort zones to go digital right now, to do jobs and play roles we didn't know we could. We ask our students to keep learning throughout their lives, and it's time for us to practice what we preach. Let's rise up and show that we as leaders can be learners too.