OPINION: SOMSD Leadership Must Reevaluate Its ‘Triggering’ Communications Style

by Nubia DuVall Wilson
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To the Editors:

I write this as a concerned citizen, an exhausted parent and a communications professional who is disappointed that my pleading calls to Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor to re-evaluate the communications style of our school district was brushed off and disregarded, after I relayed that his announcement on September 6 about the delayed school year triggered parents in South Orange and Maplewood.

It is understandable that a delay to fix buses could take place after a terrible hurricane like Ida. What we cannot stand for is ignoring how a delay would affect the emotional and mental state of families and children. It is triggering when the district uses words like “tentatively” next to reopening dates and even “hope” in ongoing correspondences, without additional commentary on how the district is preparing to implement back-up plans and dedicating itself to getting school opened by a deadline. School district leaders must embrace becoming empathetic through their actions and words, especially during unexpected school closures.

The risk of PTSD for working adults is up 61% since the start of February 2021 and is now 83% higher than pre-pandemic levels (source). Mix in the uncertainty of children being in school full-time and a shortage of childcare and it’s “panic city” for parents. Whether they work or not, parents have been traumatized by the district’s communications since March 2020, and the district’s complacency with “status quo” is triggering. 

We have PTSD thanks to COVID and the disruption of school; therefore the district needs to adjust its language and become more emotionally intelligent to regain trust and adequately support us. When you have PTSD, you enact “fight or flight.” Flight reduced our student enrollment in fall 2020 by 4.5%–the biggest drop in 14 years. Fight has caused us to become control freaks to create safety and to get involved, fight for our kids, and speak out to protect our kids’ access to education. Our school district leaders need to up their emotional intelligence in order to support us in ways they probably never imagined would be needed.

Studies have shown it is a high EQ (emotional quotient or intelligence) not IQ that predicts workplace success, with EQ being 4x more powerful than IQ in predicting who will achieve success in their field (source). The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report designated 15 emerging skills employees needed for future success in the workplace, and many of them are soft skills: Creativity, originality, initiative (listed as #1); Complex problem solving (#2); Analytical thinking and innovation (#3) and Emotional intelligence (#8). 

Not to say that process and policy should be thrown out the window, but resting on the laurels of how “it always worked before” is counterproductive during an unprecedented pandemic. Refusing to grow, change, and nurture soft skills as a leader, employer, or employee will increase frustration, mistrust and chaos during a time of crisis. Having new modes of communication such as videos and newsletters is great, but if the content is triggering and/or misunderstood, it creates chaos. 

Many know I have been managing my own PTSD head on since 2016 from unrepressed childhood trauma, and I have shared what I have learned in public talks and behind closed doors to those who suffer in silence. I recently offered ongoing communications and emotional intelligence-focused counsel pro bono to Superintendent Dr. Taylor, but since the offer was declined, see below a snippet here for all:

Leaders with a high EQ:

  • Know when to ask for help or delegate vs. when to direct and take control.
  • Do not rely on “wait and see tactics” without having a back-up plan, and often relay that contingencies are in place to allay fears and gain trust/confidence in others.
  • Know they might have to change their leadership style daily to fit the needs of their constituents and they do so ardently. 
  • Empathy, insight, forward thinking, creative problem solving and communicating clear next steps with accountability are often on the forefront of their mind and included in their communications. 
  • Admit when there is room for improvement and growth with respect to their own and their team’s performances.
  • Listen and put their ego aside to ensure that the needs of their stakeholders are not only heard, but also validated–even if those needs cannot be met immediately.

Things to think about before sending communications to parents and students:

  • How might this trigger parents or students?
  • If I were in their shoes, how would this news make me feel?
  • If I were reading this for the first time, would I be confused? 
  • How can I allay any fears or mistrust?
  • How can our communications be a few steps ahead to avoid receiving multiple emails from perturbed parents who may misunderstand our goals and process?
  • What other potential questions can I answer in this update while staying within mandated protocols?

Words/phrases that will trigger parents without supplementary emotionally-intelligent commentary (examples given for clarity):
1. Tentative – you can back this up with a statement that relays other solutions are being considered and by a certain date those solutions will be enacted
2. Mandatory quarantine – reiterate that the goal is to get students back in session as long as XYZ takes place by a certain date
3. Temporarily close school – see above
4. Virtual learning – see above
5. Virtual mandate – see above
6. Take laptop to school daily – perhaps explain that this has become routine pre-COVID for many other districts in NJ to help with computer literacy
7. We hope we can open… – hope does not = a plan or strategy; parents have lost hope, so back this up with accountability & contingency statements

Our public school community has been traumatized. The best leaders during a crisis not only understand the tactical actions required for success, but also the ongoing emotional support necessary to maintain calm, trust, and safety. The question is: are our school leaders up to the task?

Nubia DuVall Wilson

 

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