The moral paradox of student care

by Cristy Guleserian – May 27, 2020

A hand writing words like leadership and strategy.

Recently, I had a conversation with a school leader who shared his approach to supporting and communicating with faculty and staff during this time of great uncertainty. Like most school leaders, his response was aimed at a student-centered outcome; yet his approach was a bit different. Faculty and staff, not students, were his frontline of concern and the starting point of his directive for care. With news of a sudden shift to remote learning, he asked his educators to consider three priorities.

First Priority: Take care of yourself

An educator’s first priority should be their own well-being. Take care of yourselves first. Do what’s necessary to ensure your own oxygen mask is in place. Take the breath, sit with your emotions, ask for what you need, receive the support, and nurture your own mental and physical well-being. You cannot give away what you do not have, so fill your own bucket to prepare yourself to help others.

Second Priority: Take care of your families

Our families, however we define them, are an extension of ourselves. If we are worried about the safety and well-being of those we care about, we may be preoccupied and have limited mindspace to care for others. Take the time you need to show up for your families and provide the care and compassion they need to feel safe, loved, and nurtured.

Third Priority: Take care of your students

When an educator has their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs met, they are better prepared to wholeheartedly care for their students with patience, love, and kindness. Compassionate responses to the needs of educators, increases their capacity to create caring, fair, and equitable experiences for learners. The paradox is that when the focus is on the educators, it is truly for the benefit of the students.

A meaningful leadership response to challenging situations requires moral character. Moral character assets help us keep sight of the humanity of all people, and of the realness of their experiences as we navigate our decisions and actions. A truly human-centered approach to leadership necessitates the practice of compassion, empathy, humility, and gratitude on all parts of the school community. When leaders, educators, and families show up for each other and themselves with care and kindness, the collective response creates safe and caring environments for students. While compassion fatigue is real, it can be mitigated by self-care practices that renew educators’ energy and capacity to engage empathy when making decisions.

Many leaders truly care for their educators and may even verbally express this to them. But leaders can also go deeper by reflecting on the moral and ethical considerations of the decisions they make and the actions they take. Considering questions such as, do they clearly communicate to their faculty and staff the permission to take care of themselves? Words do not mean much without action to back them up. As leaders, do they actively look for signs of distress and rally the school community to give and receive help when necessary? And- this is the big one – do they model self-care, self-compassion, and vulnerability? This is where humility comes into the picture. Even leaders need support and mental health days. And that’s okay! It’s more than okay – caring for yourself is ultimately caring for others as it bolsters your ability to be present and lead effectively. Further, when the person at the helm can be vulnerable and admit they need help or a break from the complexity of today’s world, it gives the school community permission to truly be kind to themselves, which in turn prepares them to extend compassion and support to others.

Caring for yourself is easier said than done, especially for people in caring professions such as education, nursing, or social work. There is often a pull to abandon our own needs in order to help others, and we totally forget we need care too. So, it helps to have exemplars to model the behavior, and guiding reflection questions to prompt empathy for ourselves so we are prepared to practice compassion for others. Some strategies include:

  • Pause and acknowledge the realness and validity of your experience. We must first accept the reality of the challenges we face before we can effectively address them.
  • Take a step back. Take a deep breathe, or two, or ten. Take what you need to calm the mind and body. This prepares you to make decisions with a clear mind and an open heart.
  • Take a body scan. Ask yourself, what am I feeling right now? Where am I feeling it? What can I name it? How might I navigate it? When we can identify and name what we are dealing with it is easier to address it.
  • Use the HALT method. Am I Hungry? Eat a snack. Am I Angry? Meditate and journal about it, then share your feelings with someone you trust. Am I Lonely? Call a friend, a family member, a counselor. Am I Tired? Take a nap. Address the base of Maslow’s pyramid to build a foundation to greater caring, compassion, and decision-making.

Once the mind is centered, you may choose to reflect on the following questions:

  • How might I ensure I am practicing authentic communication with myself and others?
  • What are the opportunities and practices in place that encourage the development of authentic relationships?
  • How will this decision affect my students? My colleagues? My family? Myself?
  • How might others perceive this decision or action?
  • Is this decision or action guided by my values?
  • Am I contributing to an environment that values others?
  • Am I honoring my humanity by establishing boundaries and preserving time for self-care?
  • Am I doing the fair and equitable thing for others and for myself?

Leading with compassion for ourselves and others is one of the kindest, and most beneficial, things we can do for our students and our communities. And you don’t need a title to be a leader in this capacity. By modeling moral character, we create an environment that earnestly supports others’ practice of self-care. Adult well-being contributes to student flourishing. It’s up to us to lead the way.