LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 2 | 2022

Leading in a Time of Crisis

Leading in a Time of Crisis: Stories of Resilience from the Field

Articles by   Dr. Jami Royal Berry and Dr. Karen C. Bryant

With Jermaine Blakley, Grelauris Calcano, Ellyce Cone, Rick Fowler, Tifane Johnson, Sean Schinella, Leilani Scott, Markita Spikes, and Carol Williams


The International Leadership Development Network (ISLDN) was developed as a joint initiative of the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society (BELMAS) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) in 2012. As it begins its second decade of existence, ISLDN is focused on three research strands – Building on Existing ISLDN Research, Comparative Analysis of ISLDN Research Studies, and the Impact of COVID-19 on the Professional Practice of School Leaders. This study highlighted the third ISLDN research strand through examining the experiences of nine school and district leaders in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, identifying themes across interviews with the leaders, and closing with sharing the leaders’ learnings and advice to others related to leading through and moving forward from crisis as an individual and a school community.

Methods and Participants

Participants in the study took part in individual interviews focused on their experiences as school and district leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The nine participants all served in the same South-eastern state in the United States in varied positions and contexts. Table 1 below highlights the participants, their leadership roles at the time of the study, and their contexts.

Table 1 - Study Participants

CAROL Assistant Principal Suburban Middle School
Large School District
ELLYCE Principal Suburban Elementary School
Large School District
GRELAURIS Principal Suburban Elementary School
Large School District
JERMAINE Assistant Principal Suburban High School
Medium School District
LEILANI District Office Leader School Operations and Support Department
Large School District
MARKITA District Office Leader School Operations and Support Department
Large School District
RICK Principal Charter Career Academy School
Large Metro Area
SEAN Assistant Principal Suburban/Rural Middle School
Medium School District
TIFANE District Office Leader Special Education Office
Large School District

Shared Themes

Increased responsibilities

Across the board, interviewees mentioned increased responsibility in their job duties as a result of the pandemic. For example, many had to revise scheduling structures, including aspects such as scheduling classes and meetings and creating structures for virtual and face-to-face classes to take place simultaneously as schools began to reopen. These were elements of the job that they did not engage in prior to the pandemic, and they added substantially to their scope of work. For instance, Jermaine mentioned that responsibilities for her work had increased because of COVID-19 as well as the ongoing teacher shortages. She was working long hours to ensure student success and graduation rates, causing additional stress.

Similarly, Carol mentioned that her responsibilities increased because, in addition to being a teacher and instructional leader, she also took on the added role of a nurturer to other staff members. She tried to care for and listen to people and thus, her duties increased when compared to the pre-pandemic timeframe.

Ellyce echoed these feelings, stating she felt like a health care worker to a certain degree, as well as a manager. The level of hands on and managerial work that she undertook had a negative impact on her normal job as an instructional leader. Grelaurius also underscored this saying she felt like a counselor in addition to a school leader.

In addition to taking on new responsibilities, leaders also shared the importance of incorporating appropriate ways to work with staff members. Leilnani, for example, worked to incorporate adult learning principles into professional learning structure in an effort to help support staff as their roles were expanding.

Relationship Building

A second major theme identified throughout the interviews was related to the importance of ongoing relationship building. Interviewees elaborated that relationship building is very important, particularly due to the level of uncertainty and stress that everyone was experiencing during the pandemic.

Several interviewees explicitly mentioned the importance of intentionality in creating and sustaining relationships with teachers during the pandemic. Leaders elaborated that this meant being supportive and inclusive of all teachers. Sean, for example, mentioned that he tries to get to know and serve each teacher on a personal level. Rick shared that his main strategies were being upfront, honest, and clear, and directing people to look for information from trusted sources, while understanding his own limitations and circumstances. Markita learned to help people establish boundaries and set the right expectations for work hours, even though people were working from home.

Leilnani noted that COVID-19 brought teams closer, because operating with empathy as one of the core values became the norm over the course of time. She felt that COVID-19 helped her team come together, think creatively, and be stronger. To this point, Carol mentioned that because leaders had to care for staff, they had to rely on other leaders to feel cared for and supported. In echoing this, Ellyce mentioned that during the pandemic, it was very important to stop and check in on each other, take a moment, and to be able to connect with somebody, even if that person was a peer in another building.


Several interviewees mentioned that being flexible is very important for them as school leaders during the pandemic. One of the biggest challenges Markita had related to making sure teachers were as effective as possible because burnout and fear ran rampant throughout the pandemic. Communicating with teachers to get feedback and make necessary changes was one of the ways she worked to combat burnout. Carol mentioned that flexibility in job responsibilities was the key to navigating her day-to-day work. Her way of enabling flexibility was manifested through working to let people know they were appreciated and to showing empathy toward them.

Sean elaborated on his practice as an administrator to allow teachers to make mistakes, as well as to be as open and upfront with teachers as possible. He termed this “giving teachers grace.” Specifically, he met with teachers often, to evaluate, reassess, readjust, and help them learn from their mistakes. This was a constant process that he utilized more frequently during the pandemic than he had previously. He shared that he firmly believed this shift made him a better leader.


Leader Advice to Others

We concluded our leader interviews by asking participants to share what advice they would pass onto others given what they learned as leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The three main themes highlighted by the leaders were compassion, the importance of leading as a team, and flexibility.

Theme 1: Compassion

Compassion and appreciation came up repeatedly during the interviews and especially as it related to what leaders wanted to share with others as a result of their own experiences. Participants conceptualized compassion as caring for others, caring for oneself, showing appreciation, and showing understanding, and empathizing. One participant gave an example of the importance of investing in people:

“…when you emotionally invest in people, it creates an environment where people are working with you as opposed to working for you.”

Participants pointed out that it can be especially important to show appreciation to people around you, even as it relates to seemingly trivial things. One interviewee stated:

“‘During the pandemic, when people are going through so many emotional struggles, health struggles, in addition to financial, in addition to dealing with COVID-19, in addition to dealing with so many other things, ‘Thank you’ goes a long way.”

Several participants pointed out a human-centered perspective to leadership.

“…is to remember that teachers and staff are people, and that they all have a different story. That it is their collective work that brings a school together.”

Everyone has their unique challenges especially during a global pandemic. Recognizing that “we are all humans first”, and humans should be set as a priority during the difficult times was a lesson that several interviewees said was reiterated during the pandemic. This not only involves parents and students, but also school leaders and staff that work together. “… but we’ve got to also focus on the other adults, because we could not do it without them.” Leaders shared that it is especially crucial to get to know your people and to make the time to listen to them, because investing in people in this manner can help build and sustain relationships.

Theme 2: The Importance of Leading as a Team

Seeking help and relying on the team can be more important than ever during a global pandemic. Not only should the school staff work as a team as they figure things out, school leaders and staff should also support each other as much as possible. This involves both supporting others when needed, as well as seeking people out and asking for help. Recognizing the power of a team and having faith in getting through the difficult time together as a team were critical lessons for the participants.

Theme 3: Flexibility

Lastly, across the board interviewees emphasized that flexibility while working at a school during crisis is a must. Interviewees stressed that allowing flexibility does not mean lowering expectations, but rather, adjusting those expectations to meet the current context. One participant termed it “leading with grace,” meaning that leaders should be understanding and cognizant of others’ circumstances and use that understanding as the starting point for decision making. In the words of one leader, “… nobody has the answers during a time like COVID-19. We're all just trying to figure it out. And it's okay - it's okay. Make sure that you call on the people around you.” And in the words of another, “Always lead with grace.”