Leadership Through Personal Crisis:
Connection, Support, Persistence
Leading through the pandemic has been a collective effort in staying nimble, in thinking outside of the box in addressing problems never before seen, and in finding ways to support, inspire, and connect with the many faces in our school communities. On any given day, this strategic and valuable work is often the source of considerable stress and pressure, but educational leaders find ways to recharge and reset in order to maintain the capacity to lead their districts through the myriad daily complexities of organizational life. Like many of my colleagues, my time with my family and friends is a wellspring of support and nourishment that fills my tank and provides me the balance necessary to truly show up as a superintendent for my school community. With the onset of the pandemic and ensuing challenges of disrupted teaching and learning, the last two years have awoken administrators to realizing the importance of balancing family and work time more than ever before.
I am extraordinarily grateful to have had a career path that is truly gratifying, from teaching in the classroom, to becoming a principal, director, attaining a cabinet level position in state government, and most recently a superintendency in a district close to home that truly “felt like home.” When I started my new position as superintendent of Lavallette School district in December of 2021, I marveled at the way life circuitously brought me back to the small school model that I feel inspired to lead, loving the many hats this type of position requires me to wear and allowing me the good fortune to be close to students, staff, and community members on a daily basis.
When three weeks into the position, my husband Tom unexpectedly passed away, my world was turned upside down. Leading through personal crisis is a complicated process. The very heart of the role of school superintendent involves a “community of care and support for students and in building the professional capacity of teachers and staff, while meaningfully engaging families and the school community.”1 However, the death of a loved one requires support and care for leaders themselves, as well as the ability to leverage the sustaining and nurturing power of family and colleagues. There is a special space of camaraderie in a community of leaders, and in my case particularly, a community of women leaders. Colleagues from across the state reached out immediately after Tom’s death, offering their support, some in the most meaningful ways.
For many, vulnerability is not viewed as widely synonymous with leadership. Yet being vulnerable takes great courage and fortitude. The outpouring of support from board members, teachers, staff, community stakeholders, and colleagues from around the state was tremendous. This support provided me with the catalyst to return to work shortly after Tom’s death. On that first day back in district, I called an emergency meeting with my staff. It was an important moment in letting them know that we would move through this challenging time as a community and persevere together, knowing that students are at the heart of our work. Grief is a universally uniting human condition, one we will all experience at some point in our lives. But the connection and support that is found in a strong school community is what allows us to persist through hardship and find joy in the purpose of our work.
Allowing myself to connect with others, while bearing the unbearable, became the framework and undergirding that relieved some of the stress of the grieving process. The only way through grief is through - there is no bypassing or circumventing it.
Superintendents approach each other frequently for a variety of reasons and find great value in each other’s insight and camaraderie. I am deeply thankful that this same network of colleagues and community stakeholders lifted me up during a significant tragedy in my life.
I am grateful for every student who excitedly shares their learning with me as I visit classrooms. I am inspired by the commitment of my teachers who work tirelessly every day to create work that is meaningful for students. And I’ve learned that even leaders need to allow themselves to be lifted up by others, and that joy can be found in the most difficult of hardships…if you persist, persevere, and allow yourself to receive it.
1 National Policy Board for Educational Administration (2015). Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA: Author.