What happened and what can we expect moving forward?
In this interview, EXPLO Elevate, Senior Consultant Susan Perry, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, discusses the impact of the pandemic on both school leaders and faculty. She outlines what school leaders need to watch out for in the months and years ahead as we move towards fully reopening. What will faculty need during this phase of recovery? How do we identify the difference between those in distress and those suffering from burnout? What does support mean? Susan has designed a Professional Learning workshop around these critical questions. Learn more about that offering HERE. Please also watch Susan’s webinar, Supporting Staff through the Pandemic.
Susan, I have two initial questions: what happened? And where are we, now? And then, there a third important question: what can we expect in the months and year ahead?
So what’s happened is a comprehensive global health disaster with two essential qualities new to us in this century. I am reminded of Cheri Louvre’s work at the Crisis Management Institute as we consider these unique characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one being that it is our first experience with what can be called a “rolling crisis,” meaning the impact of the crisis is rolling. It has and is hitting different parts of the world at different periods with differentiated implications, particularly those regions of the country, world, and people who are the most vulnerable. The second piece is that it’s the first global pandemic we have been through with instantaneous communication. Those two factors impact my thoughts on the question “what has happened?” This has affected every area of our personal, professional, health, community, and spiritual life.
There are also differences between how we respond to types of crises or large-scale disasters. Short-lived, rapidly moving disasters have a different psychological effect than this –this is an ongoing, prolonged, pervasive, life-threatening situation affecting everyone. Still, it can feel so individual and isolating. No one had a choice about COVID happening, and the sense of powerlessness can be overwhelming. There is also an undeniable individual, collective awareness of suffering. Bearing witness to ongoing suffering is a very, very difficult thing for the human condition to endure. It is a prolonged, enduring event. It is happening instantaneously, with communication impacts us differently than if we didn’t have those two things coinciding, and it was a short-lived geographically isolated event.
The answer to “where are we?” is we’re just emerging from what’s called the “disillusionment phase,” as Louvre and other crisis response experts call it.
Some parts of the world and individuals are coming out of a period that was constant crisis response. Other parts of the world are moving into the ups and downs of continued uncertainty but moving towards reconstruction, and there is a sense of optimism that “we will be okay.” This phase can have a “protracted experience,” it might happen very quickly, and for others, it can be prolonged. Neither one is better than the other. There’s no value judgment (individually or collectively). But no matter how you slice it, you can’t operate in the world without being aware that this is something that’s always there. An unusual visual cue is actually in your face. Masks are an incredibly effective safety measure and a constant reminder of how the pandemic is still there. Literally.
Since it’s taken us this long to find some semblance of footing, it’s going to take some time to return not back to “normal,” but to a “new normal.”
To your last question, “what’s ahead?” it’s reasonable to conclude that since it’s taken us this long to find some semblance of footing, it’s going to take some time to return not back to “normal,” but to a “new normal.” I like Art Kleiner’s work on how individually we are likely to emerge from this stage in one of three ways:
- Reinventing ourselves and our relationships in ways we had not envisioned before.
- Regaining our strength and semblance of secure footing for navigating a world forever changed by this global pandemic, and
- Recovering our strength, confidence, health, and vision for the future in ways that might take more time than we thought it would.
It will look different for you, and it will look different for me. It will look different for the rest of our brothers and sisters across the planet. We can’t necessarily have a cookie-cutter way out of this, but these three possible states help us orient ourselves, our teams, our schools.
I have every reason to believe we’re going to get through this. One, because we have endured and survived global pandemics in the past. Two, because I have enduring faith in a commitment to compassion and empathy, being part of our steps forward as leaders and patience will be what helps us navigate safely and healthily.
We hear a lot about burnout, and I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what it means. Are there different degrees of burnout?
Well, there’s a reason why we hear a lot about burnout. Flexjobs partnered with Mental Health America and surveyed 1500 respondents about how people are doing mentally at work. They found 75% of people reported they had experienced burnout at work, with 40% saying they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic. There are numerous other studies about burnout right now. Educators are not immune to these tendencies, particularly given the highly relational nature of our work.
When we’re looking at the term burnout, it’s important to distinguish what it is from what it’s not. Nagosoki’s (2020) book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle is an excellent resource for this concept. A helpful continuum to keep in mind is the stress-distress-burnout continuum and fatigue. We regularly experience fatigue in our lives. Generally speaking, we resolve fatigue by participating in the usual things we might associate with maintaining our health, such as good rest, joyful social engagement, regular exercise, and spiritual faith.
Stress is also on the continuum. Stress has an emotional and physical component in our personal and professional lives where a little bit of it is a good thing. It can help us meet deadlines, focus on performance, and engage fully with attention. We all experience it to a certain degree. Chronic, unrelenting stress is not helpful for us. Activating our “fight or flight” response chronically impacts our health and performance. Distress is the subjective state that can happen when exposed to these factors, and it includes experiencing pain, anxiety, suffering. Without some intervention, it can lead to significant impairment where objectively we would observe a decline in performance and one’s ability to function in work and home life roles.
Burnout is a process where a gradual exposure to job and personal stressors negatively impacts performance.
Unfortunately, burnout is a process where a gradual exposure to job and personal stressors negatively impacts performance and is accompanied by cynicism, negative comments about colleagues and the school or organization. There is also a tendency to withdraw or the inability to meet deadlines. We might neglect colleagues, family, or meaningful social relationships and have the inability to experience accomplishments and share in the joy of the achievements of others.
An early warning sign of burnout is a boundary violation of some kind, being unable to sustain characteristics of effective teaching, or not demonstrating professional standards and codes of conduct that are well articulated and universally understood. So, the real work is to ensure our wellness, both individually and organizationally, is committed to slowing the momentum of progression towards burnout, particularly as we are still learning how to live, learn, and serve in a global pandemic.
The good news is as we get better at learning self-care practices that have worked for us during the pandemic — not necessarily large-scale monumental changes, but the tiny, small steps we can take daily to keep fueling resilience– combined with lifted social restrictions, we begin to feel more hopeful we will make it through this difficult time. Now is the time for educators at all levels to take an inventory of what it will take to restore depleted reserves and conjure up a way forward. We must bank on self and organizational practices that continue the process of healing, safely operating, and someday celebrating our hopes and aspirations as educators.
Faculty also have been attempting to manage the response from students who are living through the pandemic too. What do you want that adult to say when a student says, “Here’s what’s going on for me.”?
Did we just find the title of your next book?
Where do we go from here as leaders? How do we support and help our community members?
There are many strategies out there, and there is no one cookie-cutter answer here, but we can start with leading with compassion, connection, and relationship building. Taking care of community members comes first, particularly as educators, families, and students return to the school setting, and moving more towards interdependent leadership practices can be an asset in supporting faculty and staff. Take care of the strategic planning, particularly future budget planning that addresses some of the weaknesses of efficient fiscal operations the pandemic revealed. The focus is on a broader community commitment to well-being in its most inclusive form, to humanity. Thirdly, effective team building internally and externally in partnership with more interdependent leadership practices. This will require that we permit ourselves to be patient, commit to a constant cycle of reflection to enhance our self-awareness, and work toward being as comfortable as we can be in embracing ambiguity.
Leadership is a collective process that allows individuals and organizations to achieve results better together than if you would do it alone.
Change and uncertainty will remain with us, but they cannot purposefully lead others unless leaders take care of themselves first. As Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey describe in their book, Immunity to Change, embracing not knowing is hard. It is maybe particularly hard for us educators trained to know about an enormous amount of children’s academic and social developmental needs. Still, the pandemic rendered much of that to the sidelines when we pivoted to teaching remotely. It’s psychologically expected to feel stress when we experience uncertainty and not knowing about where we are going and what’s next related to the pandemic. Fighting it makes it worse. Taking steps toward accepting that this is the reality of the world right now helps us engage more fully in our educator roles.
I’d like to think this time will ask us to think about leadership in an independent school — how might we define it and who is participating in it. What would it mean, if nothing else, if this experience of living through a pandemic has revealed how much all of us need to exercise — to exercise — (a keyword a dear colleague of mine often reminds me to enact) our understanding of leadership? Having been trained by the Center for Creative Leadership, I am a proponent of their working definition of leadership: a collective process that allows individuals and organizations to achieve results better together than if you would do it alone. We’re good at committing to our mission in independent schools. We’re still learning how to be good at committing to each other’s professional growth and development, which positively impacts student learning. Compassionate leadership emphasizes connection, curiosity, and invites community members to exercise their understanding of leadership. It builds a community where people feel a sense of belonging.
Compassionate leadership emphasizes connection, curiosity, and invites community members to exercise their understanding of leadership. It builds a community where people feel a sense of belonging.
Experiencing a sense of belonging might be the most primary need for educational settings, particularly as schools open up entirely in the fall. How might we continue to improve whose voices are left out in the process of re-thinking steps forward? How can we do better, and how would it look? What must we do better? I’m not interested in going back. I am interested in facilitating connections with those in schools — individuals and teams — and leveraging their expertise moving forward to build a better future for kids. Compassionate leadership includes well-boundaried relationships within school communities and knowing that the other person in the room is the most important person in the room.