Quality Leadership Matters Blog


Leadership Faculty and our Pandemic Response

May 19th, 2020 by


Leadership faculty and our Pandemic Response

By Margaret Terry Orr, Fordham University



I ended the Zoom call and counted up the students’ responses. I had nine students on the call, which I had scheduled to review the university’s course plans for the next few months. I used the time to ask how they were doing personally and professionally, three weeks into the COVID shut-down here in New York. We talked for over an hour, with their updates taking most of the time. This was my third such group call. This group was finishing their first year in our three-year doctoral program. They all talked about gratitude for their staff and students who had worked so hard to shift schooling to a virtual experience, on-line or otherwise. But around the gratitude was sadness, worry, and exhaustion. One was still recovering from the virus herself, talking to us while wrapped up in a comforter. Another reported that both of her elderly parents were recovering from the virus at long last, while two talked about having lost a friend or family member. One reported several losses and worries—for a sister and brother-in-law who had both tested positive and might become ill. Finally, two shared their relief that their first-responder spouses had finally been tested and were negative, for now.

These experiences were not unusual—I had heard similar stories among other cohorts—even seeing students struggling with the aftereffects of the illness.  All the students talked more about their need to support their students and staff. They now manage through email, Google chat, and Zoom conference calls. Many talked admiringly of their staff efforts to work differently and a few shared frustration about having to make instructional packets for elementary school students, because their schools and communities were too poor to provide laptops and internet access for on-line learning. I heard their pride in their student attendance rates, with one bragging that she had found one last student, who had moved to North Carolina, but could now connect on-line with his classmates.

Through Zoom, I see students who have turned their bathrooms into offices, to manage schools in private, and others who shared our discussions with curious children and pets. They joked about Zoom exhaustion and lack of privacy, sharing tips and strategies. A few described the challenge of juggling homeschooling for young children and caring for older parents with daily meetings and on-line teaching observations. They described seeing the harsh realities of some of their students’ living conditions, understanding, in some cases, the starkness in which some children live. And, occasionally, they shared heartbreak such as rescuing children from afar, when a desperate mother called late one night, and the loss of staff and students in their buildings and districts. Throughout, they described the emotional and physical exhaustion of jumping into remote schooling without guidance or break, and the disconnect from physical contact with students and staff.

As we transitioned into talking about how their courses were going and our university’s plans for the summer, they affirmed the importance of weekly class sessions. Many described it as a time to “be with adults”, to “talk about something besides COVID” and “to engage in bigger ideas.”  They found the course content of organizational learning, finance and economics and educational policy to be relevant to thinking about their systems’ responses to COVID and their own paths forward.

I would transition from these calls to faculty meetings where discussions ranged widely from disinterest or resistance in modifying teaching for a new normal (“my students don’t mind a 3-hour Zoom session”) to pride (“my students stayed on line an extra hour to hear each other’s presentations”), and hope (“do we know yet if we will have face-to-face classes in the fall?”). I listen to debates over whether pass/fail options will demotivate students and faculty.  Sometimes it feels like whiplash, going back and forth between the two realities—the extraordinary efforts my students are making in their work and personal life, and the seemingly mundane university matters —recruitment, admissions, course development, and late student assignments—all seemingly in a separate but intersecting reality.

A colleague of mine from another institution asked about how all this affected me, as a professor and program director. Is there such a thing as faculty PTSD, she questioned. While I face no immediate health dangers, nor does my family, I am overwhelmed by the immediacy of my students’ challenges as school and district leaders and am awed by their commitments, perseverance and resilience. I too am exhausted by the relentless Zoom meetings to move to remote emergency teaching and on to effective on-line learning and the work to redesign graduation, summer school, admissions and orientation as remote experiences. And, I am deeply frustrated over how much could have been avoided with better local, state and federal leadership, and the on-going debates over stay-at-home/social distancing/mask wearing policies.

So my insights and guidance for academic faculty are as follows:

  1. Self-care. Whatever your choice, self-care is essential for being able to care for others. For me this has meant daily long walks, yoga, gardening and cooking. All of this gives me a chance to slow down, observe spring emerging and feel a small sense of accomplishment, like when seeds come to life. This all entails noticing, reflecting and appreciating what is around me.
  2. Care for others, by making graduate learning experiences worthwhile. This means maximizing on-line learning course design as we shift our face-to-face courses, checking in periodically with students, fostering community among students using on-line tools, and creating new ways to celebrate graduation and other accomplishments. It also means helping students find a safe space inside our Zoom gatherings to talk and share, while imagining a possible virus-free future.
  3. Enabled learning. This new COVID reality offers much to learn about the nature of teaching and learning, teacher and leader collaboration, resource inequities, the centrality of schools as health, safety and nutrition centers for students in many communities, the importance of structures and routines for student and staff well-being, and the centrality of leadership. I will admit that several students and I have had conversations that intellectualize the enormous and sustained difficulties that they face{Sutherland, 2017 #3800} as crisis leaders {Sutherland, 2017 #2828}{Sutherland, 2017 #2828}(Smith & Riley, 2012; Sutherland, 2017) and even sketch out possible dissertation plans for real time inquiry as they navigate school and district efforts. More important, there is much to be gained from guided reflection in practice for all students (Argyris, 2002). As leadership faculty, we can aid our students most by structuring reflective opportunities on what they are learning and doing and how they make a difference in their schools and districts.
  4. Learning with and from my students’ experiences. I hold the challenges and inequities the students describe and struggle against as an impetus for strengthening how we prepare and support our leadership candidates, now and in the future. It is my responsibility to honor and reflect upon their experiences and draw meaning that can inform what we do and how. The new insights I and others gain about community, collaborative work, leadership and the centrality of schools in communities, particularly with technology, can be used to sharpen how we imagine school and district leadership development.
  5. Contribution to the larger community. While I cannot change the current political landscape, I recognize that we can all chip in, adding our own small efforts to others: like, making masks for health care workers and writing letters to urge voter registration. It gives us opportunity to positively respond to the larger challenges around us.

 Now, more than ever, it is clear that, as school and district leaders, our students play a significant role in holding together their communities and student lives. Consequently, we must contribute all we can by enabling their work and providing the forums, tools and resources to help them lead well. By so doing, we can protect ourselves and others from the emotional toll we all experience, however, directly and indirectly, through our shared community. Most important, we can help shape a better future in supporting the work they do.



Argyris, C. (2002). Double-loop learning, teaching and research. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1(2), 206-218.

Smith, L., & Riley, D. (2012). School Leadership in Times of Crisis. School Leadership & Management, 32(1), 57-71.

Sutherland, I. E. (2017). Learning and Growing: Trust, Leadership, and Response to Crisis. Journal of educational administration, 55(1), 2-17.


By Margaret Terry Orr, Fordham University

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