Don’t let them see you cry.
That was one of the first pieces of advice I got when I made the switch from teacher to building principal and then again when I became a district administrator.
And, if I’m being honest, it’s some of the worst leadership advice I’ve gotten. It positions a steely exterior as a strength and vulnerability as a weakness—suggesting feelings have no place in leadership.
The reality is really quite the opposite. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable opens you up for showing greater empathy, which is a great strength for K-12 leaders.
Empathy is critical for understanding and addressing your customer’s needs, building trust, and creating a welcoming environment for families and employees alike—all of which is especially important in the context of today.
Your customers—students, parents, teachers, staff, and others (such as taxpayers who may not currently have a child in the school system)—have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways. They may be mourning the loss of loved ones, coping with long-term isolation, facing financial struggles, or managing countless other anxieties. When they enter your school (whether physically or virtually), they need to feel like you—and everyone else in your district—truly care.
That means creating what I like to call a culture of caring.
A culture of caring
I’m a big believer in showing, not just telling. So when I talk about the benefits of creating a culture of caring, I have two favorite examples.
The first is the story of Joshie the giraffe. If you haven’t heard this fantastic tale, the story begins when a child left his favorite stuffed animal (a giraffe named Joshie) in the hotel room where he and his family had recently stayed.
Joshie was safely returned to the little boy, but not before an all-star effort by hotel staff to make everything right for their customer. The staff created a series of photographs that showed all the activities Joshie had been up to during his “extended vacation,” which they included in the package when they mailed Joshie home. Talk about a memorable experience for that child and his family!
The second story hits a little closer to home.
A few months ago (well into the COVID-19 pandemic), I saw this message on social media from Dr. Jane Stavem, superintendent of Sioux Falls School District in South Dakota:
With virtual learning in full swing, losing a laptop for many students also means losing their school and their ability to participate in live lessons from home. If the airline had not reached out to the district via Let’s Talk! and mailed the laptop back…well, I don’t have to tell you the profound impact that experience that airline’s service had on the student, the student’s family, and the district.
In both stories—where it would have been all too easy to put the stuffed animal or laptop into some sort of lost and found bin and call it a day—staff went above and beyond to do right by their customer and create a memorable experience in the process. It was well outside the scope of their typical job duties, but their culture safely allows them to tap into empathy, prioritize caring, and do what it takes to make their customers feel truly valued.
Do as I say and as I do.
Now before you point out that my above examples involve businesses providing excellent customer service (and school districts are not businesses), I want you to consider this: If these large organizations can create a culture of caring, what’s holding your school district back?
The answer may very well be you. Building a culture of caring starts at the top with school and district leaders intentionally focusing on empathy in customer service.
It’s not enough to tell your staff that this is important. You need to show care and empathy in your own interactions with internal and external customers before you can begin to expect the same of your staff—providing them with the guidance, support, and training they need to truly tap into empathy and provide exceptional customer service.
So, school and district leaders, let them “see you cry.”
I know I did.
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