A Special Note (1/06/2021): Over the course of winter break, I wrote this blog about the challenges of keeping a school open during the pandemic, firmly believing that with some time away from campus to reflect on the year so far — more specifically, on the need to continue supporting each other through the next wave of the pandemic by “holding” one another — it would help me and others feel more connected and hopeful about the new year and new semester. I could have never anticipated that five days after we shared this blog, our community would suffer an indescribable loss with the tragic passing on New Year’s Day of a bright, vivacious Dawson eighth-grade student.
This blog uses tidal waves as a metaphor for the challenges that the pandemic has wrought; this was a different tidal wave to hit our campus and unlike all the processes and protocols we put in place to control some of the effects of the pandemic, there is simply no way to prepare for the loss of a life. Over and over, the sorrow and disbelief continue to slam into each Dawson student, family, faculty, and staff member who knew her. Our collective grieving has just begun, and the only way to work our way through it is together, as one school community. For me, the concept of holding is more real and precious than ever before, and we must continue to hold one another without judgment or expectation. It is in this spirit that we are resharing this blog post. While framed within the context of the pandemic, we hope the general emotions and thoughts the blog conveys are relatable on a larger scale and the resources shared on grief and holding are just as helpful.
This isn’t going to be a blog with good advice, nor are you going to read about the importance of resilience, the necessity of remaining nimble, or how to maintain your sense of optimism and positivity. Those of us who opened a school in the midst of a pandemic and worked tirelessly to keep it open in spite of the odds do not have much need for more you can do this! messages. We know we can do it because we have done it; we also know it is one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do. And it’s not over yet. As we leave 2020 behind, I’m no longer interested in good intentions and upbeat advice — my own especially — and would much rather start every conversation with complete honesty and say, “Hello, so good to see you. Has this year been hard for you? Yes? It’s been hard for me, too. Let’s talk about it.” Oh, how I wish connecting with others was this easy.
The pandemic has upended life globally in ways both massive and minor, and no one is untouched. This is, for the first time in a generation or more, something upon which the whole world can agree. What’s more, we are collectively experiencing the same critical human emotional struggles, from the long-term effects of loneliness and isolation to deep exhaustion, fear, and crippling anxiety. It’s no wonder, then, that authentic connection with each other is the most valuable emotional currency there is today. For many, authentic connection at this moment is the ability to be vulnerable and say, “This is hard and I am struggling,” and to give others a safe space to express the same. Sounds simple, right? But just that admission — this is hard and I am struggling — is tough for most people to admit even now. And if you’re in a position of leadership, being this vulnerable can be even more difficult.
As one of several leaders at The Alexander Dawson School, I know the struggle with vulnerability all too well. In a “normal” year, we want everyone to see us as emotionally stable, reliable, resilient, and capable. Magnify this want by 100 during the pandemic. I’ve had some time to think during winter break, and the first question I’ve been turning over in my mind is, what happens when leaders like me (I am a solid 10 on the emotional sensitivity scale) find that, over the course of this pandemic, maintaining a veneer of steadiness and resilience begins to seem impossible? Case in point: I keep coming back to the shame I feel at the number of days I’ve not shown up — –whether out of exhaustion, sadness, or being overwhelmed — as the leader I know I should be, letting down those with whom I work.
While I’m at it, let’s talk about the even deeper and more pervasive shame that I’ve let down all the people I love during the pandemic by not being a consistently good enough friend, parent, daughter, sibling, aunt … the list goes on. And self-care? It feels too selfish so I don’t do much of it, either. Take all of this in totality and, suddenly, my ability to keep it together truly feels hopeless, and there is no feeling more lonely and isolating than believing I cannot do right by anyone in my life at a time when they need me most. The effects of shame, I’m rediscovering, are devastating.
After a lot of reflection, the only answer that makes sense to me is to continue to practice being honest and vulnerable no matter how hard and scary it is, to make sure to connect even when shame makes me want to retreat, to accept that it’s okay to not be okay right now, to listen well, and to never give up searching for hope. And when I think about where I most often find hope personally, it is in my capacity to love fiercely and care deeply. Professionally, hope is in the people I work with every day, in each Dawson faculty, staff member, and administrator.
In the early stages of the pandemic, I read two outstanding Harvard Business Review articles that I credit with helping me navigate many of the unknowns: one is about the collective grief we’re experiencing and the other about effective crisis leadership (Please read them. You will not regret it). As the pandemic grew in scope and intensity, and as it became clear we were in not for a sprint but a marathon, I referenced the articles continuously, squeezing out every drop of wisdom and advice in a valiant attempt to carry myself and others — family, friends, and colleagues alike — through tidal waves of challenges. And I wasn’t the only one; as weeks turned into months, the same people took turns carrying me, too.
The problem is there are more crises to come and we’re all so very, very tired from fighting the tidal waves. Although the recognition of this makes me want to call it a day and pull the covers over my head and sleep through it, I know this is not an option — not for me, our head of school, or our faculty, staff, and leadership teams. But the messy truth is, try as I might to retain some optimism and shift my mindset even a little from fixed to growth, I am officially beyond the reach of positive affirmations, the you-got-this speeches that reference the pulling up of bootstraps, and the reminders to be grateful because things can always be worse. Of course, they can be, I want to yell, because they have been worse before and will be again, so please tell me something I don’t know.
To be clear, I am not a total victim of the toxic affirmation hit parade. I’ve found myself repeating some of the same well-meaning but wrongheaded refrains in an attempt to buoy spirits. As winter break approached, I grew more weary every time I heard myself say, “Remember to take time to relax and recharge. We all need it!” Have you ever heard of anyone taking a moment to relax and recharge while preparing for the next tidal wave to hit at any moment? Me neither.
This brings me to the second question I have spent winter break thinking about: Even though we have managed to maneuver through the tidal waves up to this point, what has kept us motivated to continue to show up each day, ready to run a school, and, more importantly, what will keep us going when we know winter and spring will bring more of the same? The answer, I believe, can be found in the Harvard Business Review article I mentioned previously on effective crisis leadership. What we continue to do is make safe spaces for people to share openly that they’re struggling, tired, scared, and stressed. When we do this, we also reinforce that they’re not alone and we’ll continue to make it through these challenges as a community. I can’t speak for other schools, but I do feel that Dawson has done this particularly well; our head of school, leaders, and faculty strive to model what it means to be vulnerable, acknowledge the difficulties with transparency, and validate tough emotions while also moving us forward, together.
As it happens, there’s a specific term for this type of leadership and I think it’s perfect: It’s called holding. Holding is what leaders, whether in our classrooms or on our teams, do when they allow individuals to be vulnerable and express difficult emotions while also being honest about the work to be done and the challenges to be faced. The article’s author, Gianpiero Petriglieri, notes:
Holding is a more obscure and seldom celebrated facet of leadership than vision, but no less important. And when crises hit, it becomes essential. In groups whose leaders can hold, mutual support abounds, work continues, and a new vision eventually emerges. When leaders cannot hold, and we can’t hold each other, anxiety, anger, and fragmentation ensue.
I referenced earlier how I and others are working together to “hold our heads above water” and the concept is the same. We know this pandemic will continue to bring wave after wave of crises before it’s over, and it’s our job as leaders and educators to be upfront and honest about this fact. But just as important, we must continue to hold each other through each crisis as it comes, be honest and transparent about the challenges we face collectively but open and vulnerable about how it affects us individually. This “holding” approach to leadership is, as the author notes, far more useful and motivating in a crisis, and it will have much better outcomes overall than distracting people by telling them to avert their gaze and think good thoughts as the next tidal wave approaches.
What’s more, this concept of holding doesn’t just apply to organizations and leadership. In fact, the term “holding” originated with British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (the same person Dr. Michael Thompson, in his Dawson Parent University presentation, credited with coining the phrase “the good enough parent”) as a way to describe how parents build resilience and a sense of security, particularly during times of uncertainty, in their children. Petriglieri notes:
Caretakers who held well, Winnicott noted, did not shelter children from distress and turns of fate. But they buffered children enough that they could process distress, and helped them find words to name their experiences, and ways to manage it. Good holding, in short, not only makes us more comfortable and courageous. It makes us. That was Winnicott’s major insight, one as revolutionary now as it was then.
Pretty remarkable, really, that one can take an insight into good parenting and understand it’s incredibly impactful use in the broader working world of adults as well. This convergence of parenting theory with the work-life theory is particularly salient for those of us working in schools. These are highly emotional places by nature where both viewpoints, that of a caretaker and a working adult, can be readily applied.
Regardless of our age or profession, we are thinking and feeling human beings who need and rely on one another for support even in the best of times. That need and reliance are only magnified during times of crisis, and this is where good holding helps all of us to feel less alone and more secure; to feel cared for, seen, and heard; and to relate better and more honestly to one another. It gives us the courage to continue onward in the face of adversity because we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.
As one of Dawson’s highly flawed but very human leaders, I would say my efforts overall to keep many heads above water, including my own, probably failed far more than succeeded –just ask my waterlogged colleagues, friends, and family. Yet, as I take more time in the coming days to reflect upon what I can continue to do better in 2021 as a leader, a friend, and a parent (other than to forgive myself for failing and hope others will do the same), honing my holding skills will be paramount. In my mind, and in my experience this year, holding people well is the single most important aspect of crisis leadership and one that can be just as easily applied to parenting, friendship, or any relationship that needs extra love and care. There is no better opportunity to practice the act of holding one another than this long, dark, and absolutely hellish pandemic.
Hopefully, as I strive to hold people well even as the waves of crisis continue to pound us, and as I practice being honest and vulnerable about my personal struggle to remain afloat, someone will be sure to hold me, too.
By Megan Gray
Chief Communications Officer, Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV)
In addition to being Dawson’s Chief Communications Officer, Megan is also the parent of two Dawson alumni. She is passionate about the kind of education Dawson provides and is willing to stand on her soapbox whenever she’s asked. She also likes to read articles and books on education and listens to way too many podcasts.