This piece has been started at our last summer family vacation hurrah, Kanuga. My husband’s family has participated in Kanuga summer guest weeks for over 40 years, making me a relative newbie with my paltry 18 summers and counting. I start this note here at Kanuga because it is the one place every year where I am guaranteed to be reminded – repeatedly – of the message that you should also carry into this year: Be kind to yourself. Some of you might be pausing to see if I will encourage you to be kind to others. In my experience, that is not where we stumble, particularly at the start of the school year. Permission to be kind to yourself is a much-needed balm when you have suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly jumped into the full yoke of once again managing this pandemic in schools. This year is going to require it both now and later as we continue this ultramarathon of managing schools in this moment in history.
What does being kind to yourself look like? I personally like this Harvard Business Review article. The author suggests that self-compassion includes gentle internal nudges in how you are thinking. For example, if you have a deadline that you are putting off, just taking the time to put into words why you are procrastinating (e.g., “that parent is going to be very upset by the mask mandate for elementary school students at the start of the year,” “I could really use help on this topic because it is not my strength,” etc.). Another take might involve something like the challenge a friend issue to me last week: list three things that you will regularly do this year to take care of yourself. And then he made me send them to him so that he can hold me accountable. Number one and two were easy, I was almost cheating. Number three was more complex because I had to come up with something new. I challenge you to do the same, and then send them to me or another friend who will hold you accountable for taking care of yourself.
The beginning of this academic year is not looking anything like we had hoped, even three short weeks ago. You can see from the data we have collected from our schools that circumstances and decisions have been changing rapidly as we once again brace to bring our communities back to campus as the pandemic continues to challenge us. You can find some your colleagues plans here, as we have collected them to share through our COVID resource page.
We have managed the pandemic before; however, the community fatigue around mitigation strategies and the related tensions and politics are significantly more pronounced. In speaking with several heads over the last week or so, the strain in our communities is clear, and fraught. Remember, as you continue to hold the line or create one, be kind to yourself.
Despite the current pandemic conditions, I am optimistic about the school year ahead. While not ideal, we are better prepared for this pandemic fall than the last one, having experienced what mitigation strategies are reasonable and work in our various contexts. We are also returning to campus facing the ongoing political tensions and racial reckonings that were with us last year. While there is work to do, these concerns have also been with us for over a year now, and we are better conditioned to continue our work and challenges for the ground we have already covered.
As we reflect on these challenges and prepare to take them on again, it might be time to shift our thinking to building the skills to manage them better for the longer run. As I mentioned to the heads of SAIS schools who were on our roundtable two weeks ago, this appears to be a new era. We need to shift our mindset from getting through these challenges to understanding that pandemic living of one variety or another, climate disruption (remember that New Orleans and its environs had eight hurricanes last year), and racial and class reckonings will likely be with us in some capacity for some time to come. These tensions will be heightened by increased political polarization, parent and individual anxiety, and other developing characteristics in our communities. Having improved skills, better plans, community trust through transparency, and other arrows in our quivers will serve us very well in the future. And, let’s not forget to take the time to really think.
In the meantime, know that we at SAIS are so proud of you and the work that your teams are doing. You are digging in and recommitting to leading in this most unusual time.
We are here to help in any way we can!