Leading in Crisis

Uncomfortably Numb

Managing Crisis Through a Trauma Steward Lens

By Lee-Ann Hayen


Colorado is well known for its spectacular mountains and breathtaking views, but also for its dark history with gun violence and mental health crisis. There are very few students, teachers, parents, or colleagues that have not in some way been directly impacted by violence, fear, and mental health in some manner. I became a school leader bound and determined to make empathy our highest school initiative. I thought that if we could teach, model, eat, and breathe empathy in my school and with its precious cargo that I might prevent this mental health crisis from insidiously infiltrating our ranks. Six years later, and after two student suicides and countless risk assessments in a desperate scramble to better anticipate student pain, I have realized that, while I still believe that teaching empathy should be our number one priority, I carry my own trauma as I “manage” the trauma of others. 


As we face a new and different kind of crisis with the declaration of Coronavirus as a pandemic, I see so many of my leader peers doing what we do best. Outwardly, we put on a brave face, and show optimism, love, and care for our students and teachers, while managing our own fears, anger, and frustration inwardly. This is us. It's what we do. It’s the definition of leadership. However, it doesn't minimize the growing demons — the wondering of “What else could I possibly have to manage this year?” or the questioning of “Is this our new norm?” and “How on earth will I guide people through this uncertainty when I don’t have the answers myself?” These are some of the countless questions that we ask ourselves in any crisis; that we try valiantly to absorb on behalf of our stakeholders; that keep us awake at night before we put on a brave face and head back into the arena. 


And in that arena, we lean toward structures. The easiest way to build visible triage is to manage the madness with concrete and logistical solutions as it helps those impacted feel safe and that there is a plan in place. As we look at the current pandemic, we must acknowledge what is in our sphere of influence and control. When managing a crisis, we know the best plan of attack is to have a plan for 24 hours, 48 hours, and on — so that we are not only addressing immediacy, but also the near and distant future. In this case, many of us are creating a plan for now, two weeks, one month, and one semester. Our adage as leaders is to plan for the worst and expect the best. Once those plans are identified, we shift to those who we need to help us operationalize. We roll out these structures to our educators and ask them what they need to feel supported (and hopefully anticipate as much of this as possible in the plan). We ask our educators which students are weighing on their minds now that the safety and structure of a school are removed. We build check-in systems for our support staff so that our students to engage with our families in order to provide the support and security that we know will be needed. We send communications to parents to help them navigate what we know will likely be unknown and tumultuous times at home. In the arena, we go through every stakeholder and we build a plan, then we check in over and over as we monitor the situation. We take each day as it comes and put a smile on our face and tell everyone it will be okay. This is the most important work — and the most visible, as it manages the trauma of our stakeholders. 


What we don’t do enough, I would argue, is the most important thing of all. We are seeing burnout rates in education skyrocket. Leaders are leaving their roles within three to five years, and school mental health positions are being labeled as “hard to fill.” We are experiencing teacher shortages and substitute shortages, while our students need more from us than ever before. This is undoubtedly a complex time, but as we face this crisis right here and now, one thing we must consider is how we become “Trauma Stewards” — for others, of course, but just as importantly for ourselves. In order to prevent becoming uncomfortably numb and allowing trauma to change us at a fundamental level, we must find a way to, as Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes in Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, “bear witness to trauma without surrendering [our] ability to live fully.” We must continue to attend to others in times of crisis, but we must also cultivate a deep awareness for how to care for ourselves. We tend to put ourselves aside and say that we will get to that later, but our reality is that a new trauma then hits, and we manage that and continue to put our own care off again. This “triage” allows us to manage, but will inevitably create burnout. 


The question remains, what will you do when you leave the arena? Ask yourself these fundamental questions: 


  1. How this is impacting you as a person, as a parent, as a son or daughter? 
  2.  What you would be doing right now if you were not forging a path through this crisis? 
  3. What you would want to be told if someone were leading you through this crisis?


Once you know your answers, go and do them. That hike that you keep putting off for when the next task gets completed: go and hike it. That cake you told your daughter you would bake with her when you have a chance: go bake it. That moment of solitude that you never get because when you are not managing the crisis at school, you are doing it as a parent: go take it. If we do not model the behaviors that we desire to see, then we have become martyrs for the cause. We cannot be so busy with our empathy campaigns that we forget empathy for ourselves. 


Future Design School is making free resources available to schools in this global crisis. Get on the list to receive notice and access to available materials:


Lee-Ann Hayen is a former educator, coach, and administrator in Colorado Public Schools. Her passion for using human centered problem solving to help students uncover how content helps us tackle problems and challenges led her to her role as Partnerships Manager for Future Design School, where she cultivates relationships with school and district leaders across North America as they work to transform education for students.

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