A Shift From Crisis Response to Living in Crisis: Leveraging an Ethic of Care in the time of COVID-19

Mom called on WhatsApp from a municipal hospital in Cairo; they picked her up and are holding her until her COVID-19 test comes back. It is mid-March. I am unexpectedly leaning on a rental pickup truck having just packed up to leave New York City, and Teachers College to head south to Georgia; a decision made just 36 hours earlier. Mom is a second grade teacher, who after over 30 years teaching public and private school in the US, is in her eighth year teaching abroad at her third international post.  After three days in the hospital she tested negative; it was an unsettling time. Other than the drab hospital conditions, our conversation topics centered around all the people who were helping her, caring for her. The Assistant Principal played a recurring role. The administrator drove over an hour to the hospital to visit her, covered for her class as they started remote learning, and, more recently, in a calm and sustained manner engaged with mom over some online assessment clarifications.

My calls with mom got me thinking about how we engage as leaders in this time of COVID-19. The centrality of compassion and charity in my conversations with peers and my mom makes me think about how we are responding to this crisis. Care Ethics (or Relational Ethics) immediately comes to the forefront of my mind.

Care ethics, a normative ethical theory created by Carol Gilligan and championed by fellow feminists Nel Noddings and Virginia Held, places at its center the interactions, the transactions, that are intrinsic to human existence. It holds the endeavor for connection at its core. This natural give and take inspires me, personally and as a leader. Professionally, I am an adult who has lived his entire career residing with a community of students for whom I held a unique pastoral responsibility. If this relationship was healthy it was only because it was carefully built on reciprocal trust and shared purpose. Care ethics espouses not a selflessness but rather a self that is in the moment and ready to engage another human at the point of their need. As school leaders we must meet our whole communities empathetically at their point of need. COVID-19 challenges our leadership norms, heightens the importance of the quality of our interactions, and shines light on our own leadership eccentricities.

In my closing weeks pursuing a degree in Private School Leadership at Klingenstein Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, I decided, after listening to my mom’s story, that I must know more about how leaders in schools are considering the quality of their response to the COVID-19 crisis. So, I took to Zoom, WeChat, Messenger and the good-ole telephone to talk to school leaders and teachers from Chicago, Georgia, New York, Switzerland, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Maine, Beijing, Connecticut, and of course Cairo.

There is a unique opportunity in this horrible crisis to examine how leaders from an incredibly diverse set of schools across the entire world are approaching an immediate change in their realities. In our conversations, I asked how they are making decisions in these uncertain times; how they are leading. Importantly, we talked about the moment they realized this was a different kind of crisis, one that we would have to live with for some time. We unpacked what these moments looked, felt, and sounded like, almost as if we were watching a movie of their lives.

In the time of COVID-19 it is hard to process and we are all dusting off our speed reading skills. In the spirit of ease, I have titled each idea and ended each section with some Optional Take-Aways. They are optional, take ‘em or leave ’em, and most importantly if you have even better ideas, please leave them in the comments about this article or shoot me an email directly at r.allen.babcock@gmail.com!!!

Not Thinking ‘New Normal’

As leaders in independent schools we must acknowledge that the world has moved into a new reality, a new and somewhat scary status quo. If we continue to operate as if we are responding to a temporary or passing crisis we fail to prepare ourselves, our schools and in turn our greater communities to function in both this current disrupted environment as well as what will be a changed landscape whenever we emerge as a civilization on the other side of this invisible and destabilizing threat. Normal is a dangerous construct in this moment; it is underpinned by a feeling of safety of predictability. This crisis is as unpredictable as it is dangerous. Many leaders tout a return to a ‘new normal’ after COVID-19. To return to a ‘new normal’ intimates that the new status quo will feel as safe and predictable as we all did in November of 2019. I do not think that likely.

  • Inhabit a long-haul mindset – sustained crisis not moment of crisis
  • Consider not using “new normal” – you are making a statement

Lean Into the Shared

We instead need to acknowledge our place in a disrupted reality, in a set of given circumstances that a few very wise souls warned us about but almost none of us mere mortals could have actually predicted or imagined, save in the most contrived, dystopian television program premises. I could never have imagined talking to my mother this March via Zoom in a government hospital in Cairo about her getting tested for a pandemic while standing beside a pickup in New York, loaded down ready to depart. We have all adapted to our new novel circumstances in myriad creative ways. As leaders in education, many of us created the space and opportunity for this shift from crisis response to living in crisis by leaning into a relational ethics or ethic of care paradigm. A colleague spoke passionately about collecting stories of this moment and how she is leveraging listening and the act of listening, of being present with her colleagues, as a way of caring for her community as a leader. She is learning from the community by listening, and by listening in an acknowledged, systematic, and active way she is also caring. We have relied on our interconnectedness in our leadership decision making.

  • Acknowledge your own lack of knowledge
  • “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” -Aristotle
  • You are not alone – trite, perhaps, but a good reminder for all of us

Mission, Mission, Mission

As we lead in this crisis there are numerous factors around that we have to take cues from, but ultimately we must lead from the center of our respective missions. If your school is mission-challenged or doesn’t regularly operationalize its mission, then this is a perfect time to reflect on your shared purpose. As individuals we must strive to lead from the center of our personal mission. If you don’t have a personal mission or cannot quickly articulate what your core values are as a leader in education, then please turn off Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, the good old TV, or whatever gaming console you fancy and give yourself the gift of clarifying reflection. If you need a thought partner in the exploration, find one; they are out there, perhaps looking for you too.

  • This is an opportunity for your institution to dive into mission reflection.
  • Articulate your own mission/core values – write them down

Who Else Is Out There?

At the Klingenstein Center we speak often of forming our own ‘personal board of trustees.’ You likely have this core group of advisors who shape both how you see yourself and how you operate in the independent education world. Clarifying who these people are and thinking about what function each serves in your leadership practice is essential. Our personal board of trustees provides quick and appropriate support in decision making moments.

  • Form a Personal Board of Trustees – clarify their roles (or ‘committees’)

Leadership ‘as’ Therapy

Distributive leadership models are essential in times of crisis response.This goes without saying, however asking is not delegating. If we as leaders are to truly leverage the potential of our leadership teams, then we must trust them. In the spirit of care ethics, decisions made must always think about sustaining and improving the caring relationship of the leadership team. As the carer we have to be open to the cared-for and remember that we are modeling a relationship that will be replicated as our teams interact with others be it their direct reports at our institutions or others beyond our campuses. Hours long meetings that round bends only to return to starting points are not delegating, trusting, or positively building our relationships.

We have to be careful not to use the circumstances or processes of our leadership as our own self-therapy. This requires us, as leaders to be constantly reflective and self aware. Gathering is inherently therapeutic and a measure of these shared moments of camaraderie is needed in shepherding our leadership teams, but our personal board of trustees serves to support us as the carers. We must intentionally care for our middle management teams by separating our need to be upheld as leaders from upholding our duty to our schools. We also need to identify the ways and modes that the execution of our jobs itself is in a way therapy for ourselves.

  • Take a pause before that big decision or before you call a meeting and reflect on the purpose of the decision/action.
  • Try whenever possible to make most efficient use of time for all involved.

Work/Health Tension

We want nothing more than to get back to work; as education leaders we are not alone in this. The passion of populations to get back to work is a clear indication that we as humans crave our work lifestyle. Our need to be productive, to accomplish tasks, drives us, but it also typically makes us happy. As education leaders, we cannot expect all our employees to feel the same as each other or the same as us in this regard. The disruption is differentiated depending on numerous factors: health, age, race, socio-economic status, geography, among others. School leaders must lean into our caring relationships with each individual member of our teams as we make decisions about how to continue learning in our communities.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Personal safety is guiding decisions in ways more direct than in the past. Few seasoned teachers, like my mother, are willing to fly across the world mid-pandemic to fulfill their contractual duties. Others do not feel it prudent to go two blocks down the street or even across the quad. These are valid concerns that we cannot ignore if we are being guided by an ethic of care, which always allows for specific differentiated considerations to play into how we craft our moral responses to situations.

  • Take time to ask, or survey, all employees about their level of comfort.
  • Listen to, and try to find accommodation for our community members who feel threatened.

It’s Hard to Know Novel

COVID-19 is unlike crises of the past in that globally we are all at the mercy of external factors beyond control. Some are biological, like infection rates, others structural, like both national and local governments. There is no way we can be certain because there are so many factors outside our control. There is an innate ambiguity to the crisis, and the whole world is required to dwell in an uncertainty. Uncertainty is often seen as the enemy of leadership. To be a leader we need to be certain; we need to fix all the problems. To continue to live in this crisis we have to lean into this uncertainty and not pretend to be ‘expert.’

However, we can be experts in our own personal and institutional missions. One of my former colleagues described her school leaders leaning into the unknown by setting up school calendars that required a break after each two week rotation to elicit feedback from the entire community in hopes of bettering the learning. This practice of intentionally scheduled moments of pause, as she eloquently put it, “set an expiration date on the panic.” Our schools must acknowledge the unknown and then seek the feedback needed to evolve as best we can to meet the developing challenges we face.

  • Lead from the ambiguity not away from it.
  • Do not try to be an ‘expert’

Closing Thoughts

This time of COVID-19 is destabilizing and disorienting, and the only way we are going to survive it is by doing so together. To that end, I have seen more collaboration between independent, private and international school leaders in the past three months than I have in my entire career. Through a raft of webinars, group Zoom calls, PD moments, podcast sharing, and open brain-storm sessions, our schools have come together, disregarding a sense of competition that had, in the past, been lurking about our industry. This change bodes well for us all.

Feeling in control is of central importance at this moment to all of us. This makes me think of both my own spheres of influence (not imperial SOI’s, but rather as defined by McDevitt/VanHise –  workplace, family, religion, legal system, community, and profession) and Simon Sinek’s “Why? How? What?” Golden Circle. 

As individuals we need to feel safe, or at the very least a measure of safety, to function, to be in control. As school leaders we are providing a leg, or a couple legs depending on our context, of the spheres of influence. We are therefore responsible to our flock of employees, teachers, staff, etc. to help them in the best ways we can; they must feel safe. We are not going to ever make our flock feel safe by listing facts and figures about our cleaning protocols or infection rates in blast emails. Rather they are going to feel, from their core, that we are caring for them, and that we are with them, when we communicate in a compassionate way. Sinek would say they need to know our ‘Why?.’ When we are giving them a great amount of charity, they will return the sentiment. Maslow identifies this as a move from needs (both physiological and safety) toward love and belonging. Only when we honor and validate the fact that all are responding in their own differentiated ways will our flock feel that we are in a reciprocal, caring relationship with them.

To do this our actions and communications must be authentic. We cannot manufacture these carer relationships. We cannot have our MarCom folks write all our emails because they come across more genuine or relatable or true. We have to embody the truth of this COVID-19 moment, and that truth is, (with the most humility and lack of expertness that I can muster):

  • We are uncertain about many things but if we put our relationships, and their quality, at the center of our decision making, then we are bound to deliver results that benefit all of us.

This is not to say that the ‘all of us’ represents an equitable slice of the pie for everyone…  we should always be willing to further examine our own privilege as independent/private schools as well as the way we operate (often blindly) from a position that inordinately benefits one group over another. … I think this deserves a longer post… more to come.

Great thanks to educator friends near and far, old and new, who took time to sit down with me across social distanced tables, in Zoom rooms, and on phone calls. Your thoughts did not all make it into this piece but they all have informed both my thinking, and positive attitude toward the future of independent/private education in the US and internationally. Stay healthy and keep up the great work

-R. Allen Babcock