How to Be a Better
Leader Under Lockdown

It's time to rethink how you lead and support the staff at your setting.
  • Right now, it’s important that team leaders are realistic about what their settings need to do, and what they’re able to do. Focusing on short-term goals helps.
  • Leading your team through the lockdown is going to require more attention to emotional wellbeing, and more vulnerability. Team leaders need to take the first step.
  • Connecting via webcam just isn’t the same as face-to-face. Now’s the time to show your team some extra patience, as we all sort out these new platforms.

Leading a team is tricky. Leading a team remotely is even trickier.

And for early childhood education, which is so dependent on the physical classroom experience, learning the ropes of remote work is another thing entirely.

There’s plenty of little nuances that get lost when a child care setting can only connect remotely. This is particularly clear for team leads, managers and directors, who have to support their teams and families using an unfamiliar digital toolkit. I thought it would be helpful to shed some light on how early years leaders can best adapt to these remote conditions — so I called up Reshan Richards.

Dr. Reshan Richards is the Director of Studies at the New Canaan Country School in Connecticut, and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through TED Talks, books, academic research and online publications, much of his work focuses on how we can utilise new technology in education, as well as in organisational leadership.

In our conversation, Reshan shared his ideas on how team leaders can be more understanding and supportive, and what good leadership looks like in these unfamiliar times.

Being realistic about where we’re at

It’s not exactly news at this point, but it bears repeating that things are hard right now. The coronavirus has turned everything on its head, all across the board — and Reshan says it’s important for team leads to keep this in mind, as it helps us all be a little more forgiving.

A crisis like this puts our livelihoods at stake, and this activates our brain’s basic fight-or-flight stress response. This is what helps us summon more energy to go the extra mile for short-term problem solving. It makes us more reactive, but if we try to keep it up over some months, we run the risk of burnout.

This risk is especially real for the child care sector, which has to adapt to remote workstyles and in many cases, still figure out a way to provide care for the children of essential workers. As a team leader, you should remind yourself that most everything is unfamiliar these days, and adjust your expectations accordingly. This is important for your own sake, and for your team. Celebrate successes in the short-term, and be willing to cut everyone more slack than usual.

“This is just unbelievably hard to try to design well for,” Reshan says. “You’ve got to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to 100 percent replicate the outcomes that would happen under the conditions you spent years and years developing.”

Focusing on short-term plans

In most cases, there are still too many unknowns for child care settings to put together a detailed, long-term plan right now. Having a general sense of direction is good — but if this pandemic takes a surprise twist, you risk losing the time you spent planning out all the details of your long-term game plan.

Instead, Reshan says, take it a couple steps at a time. Think about what your setting’s goals and priorities are for the next month, or the next two weeks. Especially now, it’s important to separate the need-to-do from the want-to-do.

“You have to do some sort of regular needs assessment for your team and for your setting. But recognise that outside of immediate problems, you’re not going to be able to solve for time or long-term challenges, because you don’t have enough information about what your ‘new normal’ is in order to make those decisions,” Reshan says.

Breaking things down into realistic, bite-sized pieces makes it a little easier. Whether you’re building your remote learning program or starting to look at a reopening plan, maybe put those six-month goals on the shelf for now. Instead, think about what you and your team can get done in a week or two, or where you’d hope to be by the end of the month.

What makes a meaningful check-in?

It might sound odd, but the most average parts of our day can be the ones we miss the most. It’s nice to share a three-sentence conversation as we pass by in the hallway, or have a chat with the little ones about the cool bug they saw yesterday.

When we’re only connecting online, Reshan says, our relationship to our work can feel more transactional. There’s much more focus on just sharing information back and forth, or passing along plans and updates. Sorting out these logistics is important, but we need those meaningful, informal encounters too. It’s what keeps the human part of our relationships healthy.

Reshan recommends that team leads make room for them to happen. Schedule in a few minutes of weekly one-on-one time with each team member, just to share a cup of tea and catch up together. In a work context, Reshan says, this casual, face-to-face contact can spark some ideas that might not come around from an email correspondence. You might just get some bright new ideas on how to make your reopening even better.

“You cannot underestimate the value of the types of thoughts and feelings that get triggered just by being in the same space, even if it’s virtual. You just see someone’s face, and it all of a sudden reminds you of this or that. This is how our visual triggers activate certain parts of the brain and memories.”

How to make decisions amidst uncertainty

As a team lead, you’re used to being the go-to person for answers, both for your staff and the families at your setting. But this gets harder when pretty much everybody is running a little short on answers.

Especially as you look at opening your setting back up, you’re likely going to be making decisions based on less information than you’re used to having. When it comes to setting up your new opening hours, scheduling meetings, availability and staff rosters, you’ll need to strike a balance between inclusivity and decisiveness.

Your team members deserve to be heard, and their opinions considered. And at the same time, you need to keep things in motion, so everyone can structure and plan their own schedules. Be decisive, but offer reasonable periods for input from your team. Hear others’ opinions, and if you can’t accommodate everyone’s wishes, let them know why.

Reshan offers an example of the language he might use in announcing a new item in everyone’s schedules:

“Moving forward, I propose we hold this meeting at 9:30 AM on Wednesdays. I welcome input, but starting Monday this will be the plan unless I hear a compelling reason to do otherwise.”

Learning to be vulnerable with your team

As you and your team work to get your setting ready for the post-pandemic world, it’s important that you take the time to do wellness checks. But asking someone “How are you doing?” Isn’t always as straightforward as you would hope.

First off, Reshan says, it’s always best to do wellness checks one-on-one. Doing a wellness check in a group setting can make people hesitant to share their feelings honestly, especially if they’re feeling negative.

But in the context of a wellness check between team leader and employee, we need to be aware of the power dynamic at play. Employees might feel uncomfortable being vulnerable around their boss. Even though their team leader means well, admitting to feeling stressed out, sad or overwhelmed might somehow feel “unprofessional”. But it’s important that teams feel able to be emotionally honest, and seek support.

To help your team feel more comfortable sharing their own vulnerabilities, Reshan says the first step is to share yours.

“By taking a courageous step and demonstrating your own vulnerability, you’re showing people that this healthy, two-way relationship exists. You should be the first to share where you’re feeling points of vulnerability or challenge, and express that to your team,” Reshan says. “I think that sets the stage for your team to open up. They see you’re also feeling these things, and you’re not trying to hide them from the people who will ultimately be giving supervision or guidance.”

Reshan’s Small Online Kindness Generator

Most of us have never relied so heavily on the internet to get our work done. It takes time to figure out the nuances. There’s always a new tip or trick to learn, and a lot of the social niceties we have in real life can translate poorly to digital interactions.

Especially for the early years sector, which doesn’t usually rely on technology so much in the day-to-day, bringing all our relationships online might require a bit of a refresher in digital etiquette.

Reshan recently helped put together a tool to help us learn to be a little better at working together via the internet. It’s called the Small Online Kindness Generator — push the button, and you learn a new small act of online kindness.

It’s possible that not every tip will apply to the way your child care setting is using remote work, but you’re bound to learn a thing or two. Try it for yourself right here.

Finding those bits of extra patience

It’s hard to appreciate how nice it is to share physical space with people until you can’t do it anymore. You’re probably missing the children and team members at your setting right now, and for good reason. But this connection is more than just social, Reshan says. There’s actually a cognitive benefit to sharing physical space, and it makes you work better together.

“You’re sharing all these little sensory details — the temperature, the gentle movement of the air, the smell. These things bring you to a bit more of a common state, and can help you calibrate more effectively.”

As you coordinate with your team right now, you’ll run into some digital hiccups. Maybe you’ve got to speak slower over a laggy webcam, or remind a coworker that they’ve muted their microphone again. Maybe you’re wishing you could just talk to parents as they come to drop off their children at your setting, rather than having to send emails back and forth.

All of this is understandable. But whenever you feel a bit of annoyance flare up, just keep in mind that it’s the technology that’s frustrating, not the people. At the end of the day, it’s the same team members, parents, and children that give your child care setting its energy and character. Taking a bit of time to show patience and extra support will go a long way.

“Owners and team leaders at child care settings need to think about, over the long arc of their mission, what types of changes or adjustments they can make in order to take care of their people,” Reshan says. “Because when things start up again, your human capital is so important.”

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