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Leading Through A Crisis: Former N.C. Superintendent for Public Instruction Michael Ward ’77BS, ’81MS, ’93EDD Shares Useful Practices for Education Leaders Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

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Former North Carolina Superintendent for Public Instruction and current NC State College of Education Board Chair and Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership Michael Ward ’77BS, ’81MS, ’93EDD has served as a leader in the field of education for more than 40 years. During his career, he has dealt with a number of challenges and crises, including leading the state’s K-12 education system during Hurricane Floyd, the Columbine High School shooting and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Ward has also been a researcher and has advised educators and policymakers on lessons learned from disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Florence. As a professor of education leadership, he has provided synchronous online courses since 2007.

He shares lessons learned and useful practices for leading during a crisis, including the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Useful Practices for Leading Amid the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak

Drill, Drill, Drill. It’s what you do before the disaster. “Invest in high-quality, comprehensive crisis planning and make sure people know the plan. Staff should be trained for their roles in times of crisis. It doesn’t matter how thoughtful the plan is or how collaborative the process was for developing it. If you don’t live it, if it’s not a living, breathing document that gets attention, that gets updated, that gets people’s attention and that you practice, then the plan won’t be effective.”

Lead by example. “Work hard and work smart. Be the least anxious presence in the room. The presence of a leader matters. Be in the middle of it and let people see you. In the process of seeing you, they need to see that you’re calm, that you know what you’re about and that there is a plan. That’s really important. It inspires confidence in others.”

Get out there. “There are all kinds of ways to be virtually present. Bring folks together online and work through issues and processes.”

Know where your colleagues are and how to reach them. “Keep updated contact information and check in with your team.”

Communicate and communicate well. “Designate a key point of contact for your organization during the crisis. You need a nice tight circle of communication. Communication is a huge variable in all of this. It’s about having something useful to say, and it’s about saying it well. It’s also about ensuring that what you say is informed by knowledgeable, credible sources.”

Seek good advice. “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. It’s really important that in a circumstance like this, you get the experts in and let them help drive your decision making. It’s also important to be engaged with the people who are most heavily impacted. The voices of those who are suffering the most in a crisis matters. It helps bring it to the surface and it raises your own level of awareness.”

Restoration of normalcy … when the time is right. “Getting kids back to school is important, but it’s important that you’re returning kids to a place that’s safe and healthy. That’s a big challenge with COVID-19 right now. In other pandemics and in the current situation, the crisis is generated by something you can’t see. That’s why the advice of experts matters so much, to help think through when that right time will be to return kids to school. Temper your urgency and attend to first things first. That’s an especially important reminder with an issue like COVID-19.

Attend more than ever to the needs of vulnerable students. “They’ll have been impacted the most and in many instances, will have had the least access to the emergency resources for learning that are deployed during school closures. They will need even greater assistance in order to not fall farther behind.”

Take care of your employees. “Make sure they get paid. They need the money now more than ever. Do all you can to make sure that they’re getting what they need in the way of fiscal support. Communicate with them and be clear about expectations for them during a time when work looks different.”

Stock plenty of emergency supplies. “The essentials are crucial.”

Take care of your buses. “This was one of the big lessons of Katrina. Lots of us remember the photos of acres of flooded buses. Transportation isn’t compromised in every crisis, but it’s important to take care of your buses. That’s a huge piece of getting things back to normal. Make sure your fuel supplies are accessible. Your transportation system is really critical. With COVID-19, kids aren’t going to school, but in many places, the buses are still on the road. They’re running their routes, only this time, they’re transporting food and instruction packets instead of kids.”

Have someone in your system be the coordinator for donations. “Get the word out quickly about what you need. If you don’t, you will end up with all kinds of donations that you can’t possibly use. Make it clear what your needs are. A lot of times what’s really needed are gift cards and donations of cash. Designate someone to oversee the donations and to be the person who’s getting the word out about what’s needed.”

Learn as you go and take time to process lessons learned. “We’re a lot better at performing the post-mortem on a school crisis and discerning important lessons than we are at acting on them. In the wake of a crisis, we get so busy with doing what we do. We often don’t find time to figure out how to do what we do better. It’s important to not just figure out what’s useful and what we can learn out of the most recent catastrophe, but while it’s fresh in our memories, it’s also useful to put what we’ve learned into action.”