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August 13, 2020

Self-Care for School Leaders Starts Now

In an all-out effort to care for students, educators at every level have put others' safety over their own. For many of us, our response is part of the reason we became educators. However, the long-term danger is a concern; too often, leaders circumvent self-care and imagine difficult circumstances as an aberration, instead of a time for reflection and change. How do educators care for themselves so that they can be healthy enough to care for others?
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a rupture in time, creating exhaustion, fear, depression, and anxiety. But we believe that, even in difficult times, leaders can pivot from deficit to asset, from despair to hope, from collateral damage to promising innovations.
Our work with K–12 education leaders through the International EdD degree program and Project I, a professional development opportunity funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is anchored in an online environment that retains the engagement of in-person classrooms. Our goal was to create a set of online protocols that could attend to the self-care of education leaders so that they could in turn help the teachers, custodians, teaching assistants, and food service workers who work directly with students.
Though our programs were going on before the mass shift to virtual learning models, we made changes this spring and summer to ensure that our online work was more democratic, fluid, and participatory.

Putting Care Back into the Digital World

The online environment was born out of efficiency—not reflection, processing, or collaboration—and typically consists of giving information in a unidirectional fashion. Unfortunately, webinars often lack attention to participants' social-emotional and learning needs. Prerecorded videos, chat boxes, lectures, and slide-deck presentations produce a static environment devoid of interaction and engagement. As most schools have shifted to online meetings, how can we disrupt the typical practices?
We proposed a new style of virtual meetings for our programs through Zoom: WebExchanges. The term communicates that all learning is reciprocal, multidimensional, nonhierarchical, and democratic. If meeting participants are to transfer knowledge and skills to their practice as educators, they have to engage in coconstructing knowledge and building skills (Militello, Tredway, & Jones, 2019). We wanted participants to expect full participation and interactivity, even with large numbers of people.
We have hosted these WebExchanges for education leaders enrolled to our programs and for local school leaders outside of the programs who wanted to engage on topics like the pandemic, systemic racism, or other issues contextualized to their settings.
A virtual environment focused on relational trust and self-care, where storytelling, virtual learning walks, and dynamic mindfulness play an important role, also needs guiding principles. The five axioms from the Community Learning Exchange framework provide the foundation (Guajardo, Guajardo, Janson, & Militello, 2016):
  1. Learning and leadership are dynamic social processes.
  2. Conversations are critical and central pedagogical processes.
  3. The people closest to the issues are best situated to discover answers to local concerns.
  4. Crossing boundaries enriches the development and educational process.
  5. Hope and change are built on assets and dreams of locals and their communities.
Planning for WebExchanges is similar to preparing a good lesson plan. The agenda template integrates the axioms and defines outcomes for the meeting. Every agenda includes intentional activities for self-care and sharing of participants' stories and experiences. We use a virtual opening circle with a personal narrative activity where everyone has a chance to speak or dynamic mindfulness and breakout rooms to create small-group and one-on-one conversations. A closing circle allows participants to reflect on the meeting and ensures that we met their social-emotional needs.
Figure 1. Sample WebExchange Agenda

Leadership Opportunity Protocols

As we leveraged WebExchanges to reimagine online interactions during the pandemic, we created a set of free Leadership Opportunity Protocols (LOP) on self-care to use in the exchanges. Protocols span everything from team reflections to social justice work to personal narrative, observations, and academic discourse and include topics such as vulnerability, equilibrium, and growth.
One protocol, "Crisis and Opportunity," uses a popularly translated Chinese character for the words danger/crisis and opportunity/critical point and asks leaders to reflect on a time when they have been in a personal or professional crisis and how they found their way out. Krystal Cox, a principal at Wilson Academy of Applied Technology in North Carolina, said that using the protocol with other administrators was an enlightening experience. Hearing peers open up about their most trying times helped her find comfort in knowing that moments of crisis are normal. It's often hard to find the courage to share personal struggles, but parameters like these provide a safer space in which to do so.
Another protocol, "Calm and Solace," uses excerpts from Whyte's (2015) book Consolations, including the "Solace" chapter, with an image of a turtle by Ricardo Levins Morales. Leaders use a set of questions along with the image and the definition of solace to reflect and engage in a conversation:
  • What do you observe about the image (color, composition, objects)?
  • Which word or phrase in the "definition" of solace captures a feeling you are having?
  • How have you been able to be a creator of calm and solace for your family, friends, and school community?
When Lyndsay Britt, the principal at Hertford County Early College High School in North Carolina, saw her staff struggling with how the virus was affecting their lives and the isolation they felt being away from students and one another, she modeled breakout rooms to have small-group discussions around the protocol. Educators shared what was happening in their lives, which helped them feel that though they are all were going through a tough transition, they still have the common goal of meeting students' needs.

Innovations of Care

Times of crisis require a focus on basic needs. We believe that social-emotional support and interactive learning forums are necessary for the well-being of the educators who tend to privilege taking care of others and their school community before they take care of themselves. WebExchanges and Leadership Opportunity Protocols provide examples of how innovations of care can be a way forward for more sustainable leadership practices.
This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Education Supporting Effective Educator Development Grant program (Award No. 12627171). Project I is part of a U.S. Department of Education $9.6 million SEED grant.
References

Guajardo, M., Guajardo, F., Janson, C. & Militello, M. (2016). Reframing community partnerships in education: Uniting the power of place and the wisdom of people. New York: Routledge.

Militello, M., Tredway, L. & Jones, K. (2019). A re-imagined EdD: Participatory, progressive online pedagogy. In J. Keengwe, Ed. Handbook of blended learning pedagogy and professional learning in higher education (pp. 214–243). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Retrieved from https://www.igi-global.com/book/handbook-research-blended-learning-pedagogies/190385

Morales, Ricardo Levins (n.d.). Drawing the line for social justice. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://www.rlmartstudio.com/

Whyte, D. (2015). Consolations: The solace, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday words. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press. Retrieved from https://www.davidwhyte.com/#calendar

 Lynda Tredway is a senior associate at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) and Project I4 coordinator.



 Matt Militello is a professor in educational leadership at East Carolina University and the principal investigator for Project I4.

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