There is no playbook for school this fall.
Schools have come to rely on robust systems, or playbooks, to optimize learning for all students. But what happens when the pandemic makes the comprehensive playbook impossible? This summer and fall, the leaders I coach have felt frustrated, stressed, guilty, and judged because they have not received their playbook and they cannot deliver the guidance their direct reports are expecting.
We need something else to ground us. When everything else keeps changing, the constant can be adaptability.
One of Daniel Goleman’s twelve sub-competencies of Emotional Intelligence (EI), adaptability is about how well we respond to change and unexpected challenges. Goleman also calls it emotional agility and describes it as a combination of Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset and Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit.
A tale of two educators
Consider a teacher who faces a return to school with minimal anxiety. She has been able to “turn it off” and be present with family, truly unplugged during vacation a few weeks ago. Given the pandemic, she will measure her success this fall by her effort and progress, not just her outcomes. Faced with unanticipated challenges, she will think creatively and problem-solve. When she gets stuck, she will run towards her colleagues, leaders, students, and families for help. She will see every interaction in context and make decisions about how to engage others according to where they are and what they need. Most importantly, setbacks will not be failures to her. They will be challenges to work through and eventually resolve and opportunities to grow.
Now consider another teacher who spent the last two months perseverating on the ticking clock, countless unknowns, and how unprepared he will be. He resents his leaders for not having a comprehensive plan. To him, success is about reaching an externally validated outcome, regardless of context. The two possible outcomes are success or failure, and how can he possibly win this year? In the unanticipated challenge, he is likely to either berate himself for failing or blame his leaders for not adequately preparing him to succeed, or both. When stuck, he will isolate himself from others and try to work things out on his own. As he grapples with his own internal struggles, he will not likely see or meet the needs of his students, families, and teammates.
The good news is that, regardless of our predisposition and life experience, we can all grow to be more adaptable. The key differences between the adaptable and the non-adaptable is self-awareness and internal self-management. Both can be acquired by doing intentional work on one’s self.
First build awareness
We cannot manage or change internal obstacles that we do not understand, so we need to become more aware of what gets us stuck. Consider the following questions in the context of a recent unexpected challenge that really threw you off your game.
- What sensations did you feel in your body when confronting the challenge? Physical sensations precede emotional and intellectual awareness. They are our early warning system.
- What emotions did you feel in that moment? Consider emotions focused on yourself, as well as those that focus on other people.
- Most importantly, what stories were going through your head connected to your emotions? What did you assume about yourself, other people, and the context itself that got in your way? In my coaching experience, the stories that get in the way of adaptability are grounded in what people believe about success and failure, power and vulnerability, and individualism and collaboration.
- What did you do that you want to stop doing? Consider the impact these behaviors had on your effectiveness and on the people around you.
Next, build strategies
Once we are aware of the internal chain reaction that holds us back, we learn to manage it. Consider how you could leverage the following self-management strategies:
- Interrupt the emotional hijack. How could you create space between what triggers you and your response? Consider the impact of taking two deep breaths, or even intentionally moving your body at your workstation. Given two minutes, consider the impact of walking away from your computer for a glass of water, a walk outside, or a moment with another person or pet. Small movements and meaningful actions can disrupt the emotional chain reaction.
- Coach yourself. Once you have created some space, coach yourself. You have had an anti-coach whispering bad advice in your moments of unanticipated challenge that have held you back. Cultivate a new voice with advice grounded in a new awareness about success, vulnerability, collaboration, and why you do this work that could help you choose more adaptable behaviors.
- Choose noble stories about others. Negative stories we tell ourselves about other’s motives and opinions can become our reality, even when based more on assumptions than actual experience. What noble story could you choose to believe about the values and struggles of your students, families, colleagues, and leaders in the moment that would help you choose more adaptable behaviors? What could you choose to believe that they think about you?
When we intentionally apply these strategies in our moments of emotional-hijack, we empower ourselves to choose more adaptive behaviors and, over time, build new habits.
Create the conditions
We can try to do this work on ourselves alone, but it usually takes support from others. Managers, colleagues, and even students can be cheerleaders, accountability partners, and coaches who help us notice behavioral patterns, stay focused on strategies, celebrate wins, and track growth. Organizational culture can be an accelerant or deterrent of this kind of community support. If leaders, teachers, and students are all working on adaptability together, then it is much more likely for all to feel safe to try new strategies.
This fall, when the pandemic will invalidate our playbooks, a deliberate emotional intelligence approach to building adaptability across an organization could maximize both our outcomes and our well-being.