Leadership in educational contexts describes the context-dependent practices involved in creatively adapting to change, improving outcomes, and building positive relationships (Kouzes and Posner, 2019). The pandemic has highlighted how educational leadership calls for fostering resilience within one’s self, students, colleagues, institution, and community. Resilience refers to how individuals or groups respond to a crisis by creating positive responses that enable coping mechanisms.
Although often treated as a personality or character trait, resilience becomes more teachable and learnable when understood as an assemblage of communicative practices to anticipate, counteract, and successfully address adversity (Schwartzman, 2020). Resilience enables learning and growth to emerge from negative experiences. Multiple manifestations of resilience can occur across different communication environments (Frisby & Vallade, 2021; Schwartzman, 2022).
The best-known and most thoroughly studied form of resilience concerns the individual’s perseverance when confronted with obstacles. Angela Duckworth (2016) summarizes this courage to persist as “Grit,” which relies on firm dedication toward the pursuit of a passionately held goal.
Seeking goals and directing passions first requires a willingness to experiment and explore — and such a mindset runs contrary to the risk aversion that continues to linger in the wake of the pandemic. Leaders can structure rewards and recognitions toward acknowledging continued effort after an initial failure to counteract risk aversion. Offering many opportunities to engage in low-stakes activities that treat failures as learning opportunities rather than personal shortcomings to penalize can increase comfort with initial failure (Duckworth, 2016, p. 190). Furthermore, it improves performance by reducing pressure to match unrealistic (positive or negative) expectations (Steele, 2010).
Persevering despite setbacks still requires two initial conditions: (1) belief that one has agency to control their mindset and (2) belief that one’s actions could achieve desired results. The first condition aligns with developing an internal locus of control, embracing the role of an actor, and making change rather than being passively controlled by external forces (Findley & Cooper, 1983). The second condition addresses self-efficacy, the attitude that personal efforts can make a difference.
Leaders can encourage internal locus of control and self-efficacy by scaffolding tasks beginning with simple, achievable outcomes and incrementally progressing toward more complex and challenging activities that require more extensive, repeated attempts and permit only approaching toward rather than achieving solutions. For example, early career teachers may assume more specific instructional or service responsibilities that build their confidence, agency, and efficacy . On this bedrock, they can move into more challenging teaching assignments and comprehensive service duties. More significantly, internal locus of control and self-efficacy also are associated with better student academic performance (Hopkins et al., 2020).
The mandatory and self-imposed isolation associated with the pandemic led to the attenuation of many relationships.
The associated sense of loss continues as educational institutions struggle to optimize instructional and professional relationships to rebuild frayed interpersonal bonds. Leadership through lingering loneliness and grief calls for more than trying to reconstruct relationships that now have been permanently altered.
Annie Duke (2022, xviii-xxi) recommends balancing grit with strategically deciding when and what to quit. Perseverance ceases to be a virtue when pursuing a goal becomes pointless or self-destructive (e.g., athletes continuing their careers long past the body’s ability to withstand the demands). Resilience requires courage to persevere and the complementary temerity to determine what not to pursue.
Educational leaders can encourage reassessment of their relationships with — peers, classes, institutions, and themselves to determine what needs to change. For example, should students continue to form study groups primarily with other students who perform at the same level? How can students and teachers avoid self-segregation and develop a more diverse social circle? Should educators shift from their current duties to another, more fulfilling role?
A leader can support periodic re-evaluation of how students and professional peers reflect and define their relationships so that they can reassess those connections and avoid any ongoing dissatisfaction.
Leadership also can foster ongoing reassessment of ways to initiate or enrich relationships and thereby expand each person’s support network during crises. The pandemic revealed myriad ways that various technologies can connect people who are physically distant. Leadership operates on affective as well as on-task dimensions, so leaders can leverage various technologies as means of acknowledging everyone’s value. Teachers and students can be profiled regularly on social media—not only for significant achievements but simply to acknowledge that they have inherent value as members of the institution. Texts, direct messages, and other forms of rapid communication can convey everyday encouragement and recognition. For example, teachers can welcome students back after an absence or express appreciation for especially insightful questions.
The scope of educational leadership extends beyond the institution to include the communities that the institution serves. Educational leaders can activate a reservoir of knowledge and skills that energize campus-community partnerships. The pandemic exposed an urgent need to collaborate with community organizations to strengthen their capacity for withstanding unexpected interruptions to their labor supply and to their means of serving their clientele. Educational leaders can and should recognize each institution’s responsibilities to the community.
Leadership in the community sphere connects educational institutions’ expertise, labor, and resources with service organizations. Faculty and students can test and recommend different modes of serving the stakeholders. Taking lessons from telemedicine, some services might be offered remotely to circumvent logistical or health limitations on in-person interactions. Community-engaged research also can address personnel shortages through students assisting with tasks that an organization’s small staff has difficulty providing. Finally, colleges and universities can develop robust technological infrastructure to assist community organizations with publicity, record-keeping, or remote networking with similar organizations.
Leaders cannot simply instill resilience. Since leadership operates through relationships, resilience emerges only through the will of everyone involved to develop the strength to use adversity as a springboard to advance quality education. Therefore, leaders must model resilience in themselves if they hope to inspire others to build it. The strength to craft advantage from adversity requires the humility to embrace setbacks and incorporate the lessons learned into a continuous process of growth (Dweck 2016).