05/05/2020 by Marsha Little | ,

Caring for the Caretakers in a Crisis

Several years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Suniya Luthar speak about her research on the emotional and mental health challenges that plague many students who attend “high-achieving schools” (i.e., most independent schools). Luthar is the co-founder and chief research officer of Authentic Connections and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her research is particularly compelling because she describes not only the problems students in high-achieving schools face but the interventions that make a difference. One of those interventions has stuck with me for several years: “If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who's tending the child.” Intuitively this makes sense: secure your own oxygen mask before putting a mask on your child.

Over the past many weeks, I have thought a great deal about the trickle-down effect of caregiving. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the already dizzying to-do lists of school leaders, how are heads of school and senior administrators supporting their faculty and staff so that those educators can serve effectively on the front lines, supporting students and parents? In late April, I talked with 44 heads of school and senior administrators at 37 independent schools across the country. Each conversation offered new insights about the strategic, creative, and compassionate work of supporting faculty and staff during these uncertain and challenging times.

In some parts of the country, the school year is nearly over; other regions will be in session for several more weeks. Either way, it seems likely that the disruption schools have faced this spring will continue to some extent throughout the fall and that supporting the emotional health of faculty and staff must remain a high priority. I hope some of the suggestions here will encourage and inspire school leaders as they continue the critical work of caring for the caregivers.

Communications and Messaging

If ever there were a time to be intentional about communications, this is it. Heads of school and senior administrators are communicating more frequently and transparently than ever before. One head described his communications as “more regular, predictable, and empathetic,” a trend that was apparent in my conversations across the board.

Recognizing the information deluge, leaders are keeping their communications short and specific when possible, but they are also embracing the same tools teachers are using in their classes, augmenting the written word with videos and town halls. They are also intentional in reflecting back to faculty and staff the praise that parents are sharing and in spotlighting the innovation and relationship building that is happening in virtual classrooms. Heads are explicit in prioritizing emotional wellness and community over academic continuity, admitting their own errors in judgement, and flooding employees with grace and encouragement. Several leaders spoke to the power of common language across divisions (often rooted in the school’s mission and values) that allowed for even more consistent communication. To a person, leaders spoke of care over content, and of the need for flexibility, grace, patience, and generosity.

Still, heads of schools have managed the delicate balance of compassion and accountability — communicating with both truth and challenge. Even as they acknowledge the incredibly hard work in front of us, they have also underscored that if schools emerge from this crisis unchanged, it will have been a disservice; now, more than ever, independent schools must prove their value.

A favorite idea: One school head walks across campus creating short videos for employees, giving them a glimpse of the buildings and spaces that they are otherwise unable to see in person.

Distributed Leadership

As schools have navigated the transition to an online platform, one bright spot has been the opportunity for different individuals to shine as they take on new responsibilities. With so many questions and so much uncertainty, it’s impossible for the head of school and her senior leadership team to manage the entire strategic, tactical, and emotional burden alone. Welcoming new voices to the table brings a fresh perspective and different questions, enables heads to share the decision-making and workload, and allows emerging leaders to grow as they assume new responsibilities. Many schools have extended their administrative teams during the crisis; they have also delegated to and empowered smaller groups to work together and make decisions, as necessary.

A favorite idea: One division head intentionally considers every problem through the lens of distributed leadership, with the goals of sharing responsibility and supporting employees’ mental health. She asks herself, “For this particular problem, do my faculty need me to decide (and just tell them what to do), do they need to discuss and decide through department conversations, or should they have the autonomy to decide for themselves?”


Given the new information to synthesize and the magnitude of decisions school leaders must make each day — and absent the ability to walk down the hall for a quick and informal conversation — school leaders are facilitating more meetings than ever before. Monthly meetings have become weekly. Many weekly meetings have become daily. While some school leaders are supporting their faculty and colleagues by canceling any meetings that aren’t absolutely critical (allowing for “found time”), many others have increased meetings, recognizing the dual role of these gatherings as a vehicle for a point of connection and support, in addition to managing business. Almost every leader with whom I spoke acknowledged that meeting agendas during the pandemic privileged relationship over task.

Two favorite ideas: One head of school freed up time in his (and his leaders’) schedules by canceling his regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports. Instead, he encouraged his senior leaders to reach out whenever they needed to talk. If 48 hours passed between conversations with a senior leader, however, the head of school initiated a call.

In most schools, most meetings are starting with an emotional check-in: something as simple as “How are you?” or something a bit more elaborate and playful. This article from Quartz at Work offers 20 conversation prompts that offer a bit of variety for those daily or weekly check-ins.

Teaching Schedule

Over the past two months, in response to feedback from both students and faculty, the majority of independent schools have shifted to schedules that include significant asynchronous components. (See this great data and synthesis from Global Online Academy for more about schedules.) Still, the work is incredibly taxing for faculty, as they learn new technologies and pedagogies, maintain personal connections to students and colleagues, and attend plenty of meetings (not to mention the emotional and physical demands of their personal and family lives). To mitigate this burden, every school head with whom I spoke had shortened the school day, school week, and/or school year.

Schools are taking Wednesday or Friday off (or reserving those days for non-academic time), shortening the school day on some or all days of the rotation, providing long lunch breaks (up to two hours), and ending the school year a bit early. Remote learning also offers the flexibility to start the school day later and support a good night’s sleep for students and faculty alike. In general, a shorter teaching day doesn’t mean the teacher is “off duty.” Additional hours are spent providing extra help to students, attending professional development workshops, and working with teaching partners to design instruction.

Two favorite ideas: Two upper schools that chose much shorter school days balanced that change by reclaiming their “May-mester” travel programs as teaching time.

A lower school scheduled home room time from 9 a.m.noon but filled the afternoon with “specials.” The elementary-aged students benefited from a full day of instruction, and homeroom teachers benefited from an afternoon to plan and prepare.

Intentional Connection

With all the meetings, virtual happy hours, distributed leadership, surveys, and Google chats, most school heads and senior administrators felt like they had a good handle on how each individual adult employee was doing. That said, a personal email, letter, or phone call can go a long way. Some senior leaders are tracking touch points with each employee — to be sure the time between interactions isn’t too long. Many leaders have sent handwritten cards or emails to each faculty member or staff members in their division; others have delegated this task, charging a small group of employees with reaching out by phone to colleagues. It may not be feasible to contact each employee, but several heads of school shared that they compiled a list of those who might have the hardest time — including employees who live alone — and were intentional about calling them regularly.

Two favorite ideas: At one school, each division head divided his or her faculty into thirds. Each week, the division head calls a third, writes a letter to a third, and emails a third. The following week, those who got a call get a letter, those who got a letter get an email, and those who got an email get a call. Repeat.

Some job functions do not translate to the remote learning environment, meaning that while some employees are swamped with work, others have more cushion. Both to offer meaning and purpose to those who have more flexibility, and to serve a critical function, several schools charged a group of employees who had extra time with making personal phone calls to check in with every member of the community (employees, students, parents, donors, and even alumni).

Meeting Basic Needs

Readers are no doubt familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which rests on a foundation of physiological and safety needs. Schools have committed to helping meet these basic needs for their employees in a host of creative ways. Several schools have set up Health and Wellness teams specifically charged with thinking about employees' financial, food, mental health, physical health, and childcare needs. Most schools offer emergency funds for employees, fitness challenges and in-home workouts, and access to medical advice through the school nurse or an insurance plan’s telemedicine program. Several schools have been able to keep their dining halls open, providing limited food service for those who live on campus or who are able to drive to campus. Others have offered meal deliveries and grocery gift cards to families in need. Many schools provide funding for technology needs (Wi-Fi, printer, etc.) or have kept open a building on campus for those who need a quiet (socially distanced) place to work. Because traditional substitute teaching policies don’t work well in a remote setting, many schools created thoughtful substitute teaching plans at the outset of the pandemic — assigning “teaching buddies” who can take over or preparing a list of in-house substitutes who are ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

A favorite idea: The challenges of teaching online are compounded when a teacher has his or her own children at home — especially if those children are not yet school-age. Several school leaders described creative “virtual babysitting” programs that allow employees with a bit of extra time to care for their colleagues’ preschool and elementary age children through guided activities and reading online for up to 30 minutes at a time. One school offered a particularly robust virtual babysitting program that included training for all babysitters.

Pastoral and Social Emotional Support

At many schools, counselors and chaplains are assuming much of the responsibility for the social-emotional care of employees. Human Resources offices are intentional about promoting outside counseling services (and in some cases adjusting insurance coverage to make counseling more accessible). Nearly every school with which I spoke is also offering robust self-care resources, including virtual yoga classes, mindfulness trainings, and counselor-led trainings. One head of school shared this Harvard Business Review article with his employees; it offers common language for describing the emotional journey of the past few months. Schools with religious identities have continued to offer virtual chapel services that are sometimes silly and sometimes somber, but which bring the community together in a way that is familiar and faith-filled.

Whether in meetings, informal chats, or one-on-one phone calls, senior leaders have been intentional in modeling and offering space for employees to be open and vulnerable. While it is normal practice in independent schools to encourage parents to reach out directly to teachers when they have a question or concern, several schools shared that they have shifted that protocol during the pandemic, very intentionally asking  parents to channel their questions towards division administrators rather than teachers, so as to allow teachers to maintain focus on the students.

A favorite idea: A few schools have provided online affinity spaces for employees who are wrestling with the same challenge to come together. Groups include parents of toddlers, individuals living alone, employees caring for their parents, and so on.

Empowering Faculty

In his book “Drive,” Daniel Pink popularized the idea that adults are motivated by a combination of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That is no less true as we navigate the challenges of working from home. Amid the current uncertainty and with work demands that undermine teachers’ mastery (making most faculty feel like first-year teachers again), anything schools can do to further support teacher autonomy can help faculty feel more engaged and present. Many schools are accomplishing this by giving teachers the freedom to balance synchronous and asynchronous teaching in the way that works best for their family and their students. Some schools have also given faculty the option to choose when and with whom to hold conferences and how to assess students in lieu of year-end exams.

Community Building

Absent the hallway, faculty lounge, and dining hall banter, it can be challenging to feel the connections to colleagues that are often a highlight of the day. Some schools were intentional about designing back channels to replace the water-cooler conversation — a virtual faculty lounge available over lunch each day, a Slack channel full of non-work-related banter, and lighthearted posts on social media. While almost every school mentioned Zoom happy hours, only one head of school confessed that he was considering goat-bombing a faculty meeting. Schools are also bringing employees together in virtual book clubs, trivia nights, wellness challenges, recipe sharing, and game nights. Perhaps the unexpected blessing of so many video meetings is that leaders and faculty are able to see a new side of colleagues’ lives — how they interact with their children, partners, and pets; how they decorate; and what they look like when a haircut is long overdue!

A favorite idea: During an in-person faculty meeting, teachers generally sit with their friends; on video, however, where your video shows up in relationship to others is outside your control. One school took advantage of this by encouraging each teacher in the faculty meeting to send a card to the person whose video was to their right.


Large-scale remote learning by any name is new for every school with which I spoke. Getting it right, especially given the constantly changing landscape, means collecting feedback regularly. Most schools have surveyed their faculty at least once; some do so weekly. Other schools provide faculty and staff with the opportunity to offer just-in-time feedback through a Google doc or Google form that is always available. In addition to this written feedback, leaders collect information about what is working, what is not working, and how individuals are faring through frequent meetings, individual check-ins, and town halls.

A favorite idea: When there is a policy, program, or process under consideration that will impact teaching and learning, one school is disciplined about first discussing the situation in an online faculty meeting, then opening a Google document for additional discussion and questions, and finally reporting back as transparently as possible about how and why the decision was reached.

Tangible Expressions of Gratitude

Schools have augmented their words of appreciation with tangible expressions of gratitude in a variety of ways — many that require little, if any, money. School leaders are showing appreciation through email, social media, and Folio “shout-outs” to specific faculty; thank you calls from members of the board of trustees; handwritten notes to faculty and staff; and with celebratory yard signs. Especially in conjunction with Parents Associations, a number of schools have been able to provide gift cards to faculty for Teacher Appreciation Week and some schools sent school swag (a mug, a sticker) carrying encouraging messages. While year-end cash bonuses for faculty and staff aren’t feasible for most schools, some schools are considering taking a one-year break from year-end faculty awards, which often carry a stipend, and instead distributing that money evenly across the faculty. One school is supporting faculty financially by repurposing professional development money: faculty will be paid for required summer training on teaching and learning in a virtual environment. Teachers earn some additional money, and the school benefits from their increased capacity and expertise.

A favorite idea: In a variation on the gift card theme, one school is partnering with the local independent bookstore to provide a credit for each faculty member. The bookstore benefits from the business, and faculty get to choose a small gift that they will enjoy.

Intentionality and Creativity

There are as many ways to support faculty and staff as there are faculty and staff who need to be supported. I remain in awe of the intentionality and creativity with which independent school leaders have navigated this unfamiliar terrain. It is at times like this that we see even more the power of robust relationships, which continue to pay dividends even when we can’t be in the same school building. I closed each conversation by asking what has surprised the school leaders about what their faculty and staff have needed over the past few months. The most common refrain was a version of this: “It’s not a surprise, but I am so amazed at the way my faculty and staff have risen to the occasion. They have been innovative and flexible and have impressed me with how hard they are working in support of our students. I am so grateful to them.”

Author’s Note:

I am deeply grateful to the heads of school and senior leaders who spoke with me for this article. I only wish I had been able to include every great idea they shared. Thank you! My colleagues and I are grateful for the leadership, wisdom, sense of humor, transparency, and compassion of each of these dedicated educators.

Thank you to the leaders at the following schools for sharing their time and expertise:

Athens Academy (GA), Atlanta Girls’ School (GA), Atlanta International School (GA), Bancroft School (MA), Boys’ Latin School of Maryland (MD), Breck School (MN), Collegiate School (VA), Darlington School (GA), Durham Academy (NC), Episcopal Academy (PA), Episcopal High School (VA), Galloway School (GA), George Jackson Academy (NY), Girls Preparatory School (TN), Greenhill (TX), Greensboro Day School (NC), Harvard-Westlake School (CA), Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School (GA), Kent Denver School (CO), Mary Institute and Country Day School (MO), Mount Vernon School (GA), New City School (MO), Noble & Greenough School (MA), North Shore Country Day School (IL), Oregon Episcopal School (OR), Parish Episcopal School (TX), Polytechnic School (CA), Ravenscroft School (NC), Sage Hill School (CA), St. Christopher’s School (VA), St. Mary’s Episcopal School (TN), The Children’s School (GA), The Lovett School (GA), The Walker School (GA), The Westminster School (GA),  Trinity School (GA), Woodward Academy (GA)

(attribution: Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash)

Marsha Little is a search consultant for CS&A’s Key Administrator and Head of School Practices. She brings over two decades of independent school administration and college admissions experience to the Search and Consulting Group. She joins CS&A from The Lovett School (GA), a K-12 day school with approximately 1,600 students, where she served as Director of College Counseling, Upper School Dean of Academic Affairs, and — most recently — Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs.

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Thad Persons 5/5/2020 at 7:33pm

Marsha–What a gift this is! Thanks for capturing the arc of this experience from so many different schools and sprinkling helpful “favorite ideas” throughout.