Leading Together / We're Not OK, and That's OK - ASCD
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December 1, 2020

Leading Together / We're Not OK, and That's OK

Educators must cultivate empathy in trying times.

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Social Emotional Learning
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"How's it going?" Remember when we used to toss this question around? In the context of today's dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, and the effects that both are having on our physical, emotional, financial, and mental health, "How's it going?" has become a loaded question. Where do we begin?

As educators, we have dedicated our lives to making a positive difference for students. It's no wonder, then, that we are so distressed. We're committed to building close and supportive relationships with students, but we're kept at a distance by masks and screens. We've vowed to keep our students safe and healthy, but we're powerless to shield them from this raging virus, exposure to violent acts of racism, and increasingly frequent environmental threats. We've promised to engage and challenge their minds, yet we're too often competing for their attention with concerns about whether the WiFi will work, whether there will be food on the table, or even whether a sick family member will survive. Doing all we can do is no match for all that is needed, and this can take a deep toll on our mental health. Ignoring the stress this creates won't make it go away. We need to talk about it.

Saying we're fine when we're not is unhealthy. Keeping intense feelings bottled up inside has an adverse effect on us socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and psychologically. Yet, in schools, educators may refrain from discussing their feelings for a variety of reasons. They may fear no one will care or that they will be perceived as unprofessional. They may fear their feelings are less urgent to attend to than those of their students. School leaders must ensure that these fears are unfounded. Empathy is the way.

Empathy "neutralizes negativity," increases our sense of belonging, and helps us keep calm in situations we cannot control. 1 It opens our hearts to engaging in the kinds of conversations that keep us motivated, productive, and committed to our shared goal of serving our students.

Principals and teacher leaders must work deliberately to create empathetic cultures. Educators cannot adequately and equitably support the mental health needs of their students when they are struggling with their own needs.

Leaders can cultivate empathetic school cultures in three ways:

1. Invite Opportunities for Empathy

Leaders' deeds and words have a strong influence on whether staff believe that empathy has a place in a community's culture. We want to create an ethos in which educators know that when they risk sharing their feelings and experiences, others will strive to understand them even if they perceive those same experiences differently.

To do so, principals and teacher leaders might reserve time at the beginning of meetings for proactive check-ins. Check-ins might begin with a time-limited open space for those who wish to share, or a "round" of turn-taking for each person to voice what's on their mind. In an online meeting, it might involve inviting participants to post a status update in the chat or making a simple "gallery view" inspection of members displaying "fist to five" (0–5) to rate how they're doing personally and professionally. And, since empathy is a show of understanding, it is important to follow up on these activities with an experience of connection. Leaders might, for example, ask staff to raise their hand (live or virtually) if they heard something during the check-in that resonated with them. Or the group might simply end with a statement of acknowledgement: "We see you. We feel you."

These brief activities, which don't need to take more than a few minutes, are essential in creating a strong school culture. Since we're connecting human to human, leaders should participate equally and model behaviors we'd like to see all engage in: encouraging others to participate, acknowledging the vulnerability involved, and showing gratitude to others for opening up.

2. Listen with Empathy

Knowing one's voice will be heard is central to maintaining positive mental health as an educator. Meeting check-ins may not always fulfill this need. The complex feelings educators are experiencing may take time to name and unravel.

Principals and teacher leaders alike should create routines that allow for deeper listening. They can make sure others know they are available for one-on-one conversations, perhaps initiating them at first, then extending an ongoing open invitation. Having a range of leaders to whom teachers might turn increases the likelihood that they will reach out—and shares the load.

Leaders can also create space for small groups or the whole faculty to listen together. In these cases, a conversation structure may be helpful, such as a restorative justice circle, a chalk talk, or a fears and hopes protocol.2 Such structures honor educators' voices with undivided attention. As listeners express interest, show curiosity, and appreciate the complexity of the issues being raised, educators will feel valued and validated.

3. Seek and Receive Empathy

The struggle is real. Let's not pretend it isn't. As individuals who play an important role in influencing school culture, teacher leaders and principals alike make a big impression when they make their own need for empathy visible.

In addition to initiating check-ins and engaging in deep listening, leaders should go the extra mile to show that they are people, too. Since the challenges and stressors of their roles are often invisible, it is easy for teachers to stop short of extending empathy to leaders. Staff newsletters can include a regular column that creates transparency around what leaders are working on, what difficult decisions they have recently made, and what open issues they are wrestling with—including those that could benefit from faculty input. Leaders can also express appreciation for the support they receive by pointing out what individuals said or did that made an impact. Such gestures help to get the cycle going, until reciprocating with empathy becomes the norm throughout the school.

As educators, we often struggle to take care of ourselves, but we are better able to do so when we also commit to taking care of each other. Educators need these empathetic interactions with each other all the time, not just when they are visibly stressed, upset, angry, or defeated—and certainly before they burn out. Indeed, we may be each other's best balm for these trying times.

End Notes

1 Robinson, B. (2019, July 3). Workplace empathy packs a powerful punch: Discover the jaw-dropping results. Forbes.

2 School Reform Initiative. (n.d.). Protocols. Retrieved from https://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/protocols

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