The World Seems Complicated. Perhaps It’s Time to Be More Human

Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher
August, 2023

Originally published in EdWeek, this article outlines the need for leaders to be more human – building relationships, showing empathy, and displaying vulnerability.

Education is a human endeavor. It is a sector and a function that relies and thrives on relationships and the connections between people. We’ve known this for a while with our students, emphasizing the bonds that are created between peers and also between a teacher and their class. We seek positive school climates and develop functions for students to grow and work together across the school—from homerooms, to clubs, to peer learning. We also know it instinctively in our gut. Learning takes place most often when our classes feel safe, connected, and understood. We teach most effectively when we know our students, not just who they are but how they learn, collaborate, and respond.

The same applies—and it’s obvious when we state it—for our teachers and principals. Staff work best when they have colleagues they can connect, share, empathize with, and learn from. And the same applies for our school and district leaders.

But for some reason, we have resisted the urge—or need—to help our school and district leaders develop these relationships. We have maintained the old adage that we must separate our personal side from our professional side. We have ignored, or avoided, the need for our educators and especially our school leaders to show their human side.

We believe—and our research backs us up—that it’s the human side that’s currently missing and it’s the human side that is most needed right now.

“Thank you, this was the first time I exhaled all week.”

Recently, we worked virtually with a group of superintendents and assistant superintendents across the U.S. on using empathy to improve communication strategies and better engage with others, especially in challenging or difficult situations. Judging by reactions, it wasn’t their typical professional learning situation. It was less task-oriented and more human-focused. In our 60 minutes together, we shared strategies and provided opportunities for reflection and breakouts for partner conversations. At the close of our time together, we invited these leaders to share a closing thought, takeaway, or feeling. Several leaders chimed in with gratitude, others shared a new strategy; however, the response that resonated with all was from a superintendent who boldly shared, “Thank you, this was the first time I exhaled all week.” This meeting took place on a Thursday afternoon. Shocking? Or is this becoming the norm for school and district leaders who are constantly putting out fires and working on a neverending to-do list.

The human side of school leadership can be overlooked, yet it is critically important because it underpins the culture of a single school or an entire school system. Get it wrong, and the impact can be far reaching. Get it right, and everyone benefits. From what we are hearing from school leaders, it doesn’t sound like we are getting it right. Here is just a small sampling of reflections from leaders:

“My brain is going 1,000 miles an hour, all the time, I need to slow down.”

“I feel like I have to be everything for everyone and eventually when I can’t do it all, I feel like I fail someone. I also take on things I shouldn’t because I feel like doing so will preserve relationships which I value.”

School and district leaders may tend to overlook their own leadership development, opting to divert budgets to their teams instead. If they do invest in personal coaching support, experience tells us that it will predominantly be geared toward supporting them in the day-to-day running of their school—and is often delivered by other school leaders, typically retired principals/head teachers rather than professional coaches. At BTS Spark, we have coached over 16,000 school leaders and, as a result, have a strong point of view and insights as to what supports leaders are asking for to help them lead more effectively.

Every time we engage with a leader, our coaches work with them to establish a shift they want to make in their leadership. In analyzing data from these anonymized coaching conversations, we are able to uncover the shifts and areas of supports leaders really need. This isn’t data coming from districts or state mandate; this is data coming directly from school leaders. It’s personal and deeply human.

While all feedback is insightful, there is a key theme emerging from leaders at all levels within education. It’s the need to slow down, pausing to take a breath, and reflect on how better to accomplish the work to be done, perhaps by delegating some work or, better yet, empowering others to solve problems.

Slowing down and moving from task orientation to people orientation

“I’m usually the last on my list of priorities as I feel like I have to look after everyone. I feel like I’m the ‘glue’ for my team.”

“I can see just by talking things through that I have taken too much on. I see now that I can be the spark to ignite change, but I can’t be the one to keep the fire burning all the time.”

Over the past few years, our leaders have increasingly taken on more and more responsibility, for more people, and for more concerns and issues. When pandemic-related decisions had to be made, it often fell to school leaders to make them. When learning and accessibility concerns were raised, it was school leaders determining the solutions. At each step or month over the past two years, an increasing number of issues have fallen onto the shoulders of principals. And to cope—or try to cope and keep the school functioning—they have avoided asking others and avoided displaying any uncertainty. Such an approach can be admirable for the short term but ultimately flawed, self-destructive, and unsustainable.

As we found via our MESSY Leadership research, the human side of leadership was often the key missing piece to effective teams and successful schools during the pandemic. Those who showed their human side, their concerns, and vulnerabilities thrived along with their school teams during the past two years. By doing so, they allowed others to step in and grow. They developed stronger and more capable teams by distributing the leadership roles and actions. When they focused on their human side, they and their schools flourished. Our human side—our personalities, our likes/dislikes, successes/failures, strengths/concerns—is what makes us US and should not be dissected from our professional selves.

During November in the U.S., people’s thoughts and attentions move toward festivities and connections. The Thanksgiving holiday, besides being a time to give thanks, is also a time to reconnect with family, friends, and neighbors. It’s a much-loved holiday not because of any gifts that are given (there are none) but because of the personal connections that are renewed, reinforced, and even started. It’s a time when we celebrate our human-ness and our relationships.

As we enter increasingly uncertain times, the need for us be connected—both at home and in our work environments—is paramount. It’s time for our educators and our school leaders to know that they have permission to be human.