Note from the editor:
Most of our readers know that NAIS is searching for a new President. We would like the search to be a more open process, therefore subject to questions from independent school constituents. Consequently, we are publishing a series of articles with one question each to candidates for the next NAIS President. This series includes:
1. Part 1: On Curriculum & Knowledge | Sanje Ratnavale
2. Part 2: Supporting Teacher Voices | Alden Blodget
3. Part 3: Equity | Ray Ravaglia
August 30, 2022
“How should schools strategically tackle the emotional crises currently impacting students, teachers, and leadership teams?”
To get our emotional bearings, let’s summarize the current scenario. Educators are approaching a catastrophic meltdown as they bear the brunt of conflating social dysfunctions. We are in a “perfect storm” of culture wars & polarization, escalating mental health crises, declining trust in institutions and one another, and the relentless uncertainty and chaos of the pandemic and its ripple effects. Heads of School are valiantly attempting to lead through this storm, far beyond the job description. How will NAIS and the new President meaningfully serve schools to stem the tide?
As usual, the most vulnerable carry the greatest burden. We can see these forces ripping at students’ well-being, leading the U.S. Surgeon General to issue one of the first-ever public advisories on youth mental health. And students in marginalized groups are even more likely to be adversely affected. COVID has cast a shadow of isolation, fear, loss, and insecurity on the segment of our population that is most vulnerable.
But they are not the only group in our indy school world that requires attention. Teachers and administrators experienced similar emotional crises, and while they may have been better able to cope than our students, adults were also challenged by circumstances not experienced in the past hundred years. In order to support our students, our teachers and administrators must take care of themselves first.
In order to achieve the goals of social-emotional wellness for all members of Indy Schools, we also have to overcome public perception, which is drifting farther away from our stated goals for social-emotional learning, a prerequisite for effective academic learning. We are up against public criticisms such as those of Nicole Solas, a mother:
Lesson plans about “social identity,” which may be called Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), Critical Race Theory, cultural competency, or other names, obliterate the personal boundaries of children in order to break down kids emotionally and build them back up as social justice activists. The process involves forging emotional bonds to influence children to become political proteges of the teachers and peers that emotionally manipulated them.
Statements such as these increase the urgency of addressing the emotional well-being of our school community members. In this context, schools need more and better skills with emotions. That means school leaders need these skills—which demand that school support organizations likewise build capacity.
As the new President of NAIS, how will you grow and demonstrate your skills to foster educational leadership for these emotional challenges?
A Caring Solution
In previous INTREPID articles, we’ve discussed that traditional models of strategy and change are failing the test of this decade. Yet change is required. Perhaps it’s time to move away from the conventions of leaders “being smart” and “having answers,” and instead build a leadership culture of heart. Forbes Magazine calls it “compassionate leadership” to build a “compassionate culture.” Shepherd the shift from getting the job done under any circumstances (that ethos of grit) to a focus on creating the conditions that make the art of teaching and learning a labor of love. Then our schools will thrive in an environment of trust and belonging that will stimulate teachers and students to give of themselves in the service of understanding.
“Love” is not a topic most of us discuss at work, yet the best educators I’ve known love their work and love their students. What if students, educators, families, and stakeholders could feel that? What if we could be reunited with a shared love of our collective work? What if we agreed that loving our students means helping them to learn the knowledge and skills they will need to be happy today and in the future, that challenges are simply mountains to climb, and their goal is to be part of a world with a bright future in a state of peace?
While this sounds “touchy-feely,” there is abundant evidence that strong emotional bonds are central to performance. While schools still prioritize “rigor” developed and measured by instructional minutes and standardized tests, the profession has come to see the show-stopper limitations of these antiquated indicators. For example, Google launched Project Aristotle to test the determinates of performance, and technical competence didn’t even rank. The top factors were all emotional—with trust (psychological safety) and belonging (shared group identity) as the essential differentiators.
Six Seconds recently published findings on team performance from 2019-2021. As in Google’s research, the top predictors of strong teams are all about heart: Joy, Trust, and Celebration. Recent years are amplifying this trend. For example, teams that experience JOY are more than 10x as likely to be high performing and satisfied with their work. Our research found all three emotions to have equally strong impacts:
What are these key elements that fuel top-performing teams? Joy, trust, and celebration. These elements are not “extras” or simply “nice to have”—they are highly predictive of team performance across countries, industries, and company sizes. Further, since 2019, these three elements have become even more important each year, suggesting that they are especially critical in times of stress and uncertainty.
Expanding these findings to the macro-level, how many schools are meaningfully measuring trust and belonging as major leadership responsibilities? What’s the current level of trust in NAIS to help navigate these waters to emotional wellness, and how will the new President increase that trust level?
Leading from the Heart
In co-authoring dozens of case studies about emotional intelligence in businesses, agencies, nonprofits, and schools, I’ve seen a simple story emerge: Effective leaders enroll people to work better together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sociologists and psychologists have written about why teams of good people are much more effective than the talents of any individual or non-supportive team. As far back as 1995, Daniel Goleman wrote, in Emotional Intelligence:
“The single most important factor in maximizing the excellence of a group’s product was the degree to which the members were able to create a state of internal harmony….harmony allows a group to take maximum advantage of its most creative and talented members’ abilities.” (161)
Yet “in the perfect storm,” people are being pulled apart. That means leaders will need even more skills to bring people together. Those skills can be described as emotional intelligence—the capacity to accurately identify and effectively use emotional data to solve problems.
The problems are myriad, but the most pressing are emotional. As Michael Eatman, one of the leading diversity strategists in education has explained:
“We can’t do meaningful DEI work if folks can’t even talk to one another.” The same rule might apply to even the most pragmatic of school management responsibilities—can we create curriculum, lead instruction, set budgets, and make effective schedules, if we can’t even talk to one another.”
It’s true that people have to earn trust, but we have to provide each colleague and student that opportunity by not dragging our personal baggage into every professional relationship.
In his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt wrote, “Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.” In short, effective leaders, administrators, and teachers must lead from their own hearts and love themselves. Six Seconds teaches three fundamental principles:
- Know Yourself: clearly see what you see and do.
- Give Yourself: do what you mean to do and say what you mean to say
- Choose Yourself: do it or say it for a reason.
As the next NAIS President, ask yourself the following questions as you reflect on how you might lead from the heart:
- How can understanding myself and my emotions and patterns help me to be a better educator?
- How can I best help myself so that I have the ability to help my constituents?
- What are the core practices of emotional intelligence?
- How do emotions influence decision-making, problem-solving, and other brain functions?
- What is the relationship between mindfulness and SEL, and how do they work together?
You’ve already been asked about the core of the curriculum, listening to teacher voices, and achieving true equity. All of those questions can be answered, in part, by the answer to the key question here regarding emotional crises. It won’t be easy in the current climate, particularly for an organization (NAIS) that led its schools directly into the current cultural crossfire without a battle plan. In the context of disconnection and distrust, even something as universally positive as empathy is being weaponized. On the left, SEL is “woke liberal brainwashing.” On the right, it’s too focused on enforcing white-centered behavior norms or even “another form of policing.” Both these views emerge from a misunderstanding of SEL.
As someone who’s worked for 30+ years with the original pioneers of modern social-emotional learning, we’re doing it wrong.
- SEL is for kids. No. We cannot effectively teach what we’ve never learned.
- SEL competes with instruction. No. Effective SEL fosters a great place to learn and improves academic outcomes along with life outcomes.
- SEL is a program. No. That’s a product someone’s trying to sell you—real SEL is more about culture, effective pedagogy, and relationships.
What does it mean for school leaders to build capacity for change in a loving way?
While millions of educators value social-emotional learning as an essential “missing piece” to strengthen both academic and life outcomes, they are unprepared, unequipped, and unsupported. How do we teach skills we’ve never learned, supported by leaders who likewise developed these skills in haphazard ways—under the guidance of an association that doesn’t consistently model effective emotional and cultural intelligence?
The answer is a combination of compassion and effectiveness. For example, good leaders care. Great leaders create a context where people care about one another and their results. Good leaders listen. Great leaders listen to what’s essential. Good leaders provide resources. Great leaders remove roadblocks.
As we reimagine the future of independent school education, perhaps it is finally time to reimagine educational leadership. Rather than “bold and decisive visionaries,” maybe we need educational leaders who listen and care. Maybe rather than “shrewd stewards of economic and social capital,” we need givers who bring more people into a sense of collective good.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Joshua Freedman for Intrepid Ed News.