A Framework for Leading through Crises

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School leaders across the nation have been called on in new ways as people in their care seek clarity, reassurance, and direction in a time of global crisis. To discover what others are doing to keep themselves and their staff rejuvenated, I asked Dennis Copeland, principal at Randolph Middle School—a 2019 School to Watch award winner, and the only New Jersey school to take this prize last year—about his approach to leading during sudden and rapid change, uncertainty, and concern. Dr. Copeland shared that his approach to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis was grounded in a framework he had leaned on for years, including during two times of profound grief when his school community experienced the tragic loss of one of its students.

During our conversation, Dr. Copeland summarized his overall approach, rationale, and faith in others in crisis this way: “These are trying times for all and the role of the school leader is to provide comfort and compassion in a caring manner to every individual throughout the school community. Through the 4 C’s of Communication, Consistency, Compassion, and Credit, a leader can foster collaboration and strengthen others by increasing their capacity to make good decisions that benefit the school community, and as President Lincoln stated, ‘Be better angels of our nature.’ ”

I asked Dr. Copeland to expand on what these four words—his 4 C’s—mean for school leaders, how each was reflected at RMS last spring, and how he envisions each manifesting in the school year ahead.


Grounding Beliefs

Effective organizational conversation is intimate with leaders relating to employees, interactive with the use of communication channels, and being intentional with clear messaging and inclusive of all voices (Groysberg & Slind, 2005). Leadership at RMS strives to be honest, be clear, and be accessible.

The adult community and culture fosters two-way communication and face-to-face personal interactions—staff are spoken with, and not to.

It is essential that everyone actively participates in discussions that impact the whole school. It is important that key staff are empowered to message administrative decisions and initiatives to the larger community.


  • Daily 9:00 AM messages from the principal to students and staff ensure shared understanding and sense of purpose for the day ahead.
  • Weekly all-staff meetings guarantee communication is timely, inclusive, and ongoing.
  • Weekly updates to parents and school community to keep all stakeholders informed and connected.
  • Parents are provided and encouraged to call principal’s cell if needed.
  • Schoolwide commitment to using clear, direct, and positive language with students and colleagues.

Vision for 2020/2021

  • Have clear agendas and messages that inform and comfort. Staff need to receive information that is clearly and carefully explained.
  • Practice inclusion by seeking input from staff, students, and parents. Good ideas are then shared with others in larger formats.
  • Continue to make communication personal and direct.
  • Continue to value and trust the opinions and ideas of staff.
  • Continue commitment to using positive language throughout RMS community.


Grounding Beliefs

Administrators manage while leaders create and motivate. Both skill sets are required during a crisis. The basis of the dispute appears to be that administrators emphasize stability and efficiency, whereas leaders stress adaptive change and getting people to agree about what needs to be accomplished (Kotter, 1990).

Consistency in daily routines for students and staff is a key to success. My approach is to pick
a schedule, get feedback, be flexible with the design, and stick to it.


  • Sticking to the same schedule week after week to provide staff, students and parents a sense of comfort.
  • In grading, expectations of what would get done changed to reflect the crisis circumstance, though expectations for how the work would get done remained the same whether students were physically in school or learning remotely.

Vision for 2020/2021

  • Maintain teams of teachers together for the next school year. During a crisis whether short or long term, team teachers develop unique routines and a special relationship that can extend into the next school year.
  • Keep special education ICS teachers paired with their general education partners.
  • Loop teams of students and keep them together for the next school year. This will create important relationship-building opportunities for last year’s teachers and this year’s teachers to better understand individual student academic and social-emotional needs.


Grounding Beliefs

Compassionate leadership in the schoolhouse begins with the principal. According to Kouzes and Posner (2003), leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities.

It is vitally important that school leaders clearly understand that everyone has a personal crisis they are dealing with. This focus on individual employee crisis during a larger crisis can be difficult for a school leader. It’s not always easy to be patient and understanding, especially with everything going on (Gallo, 2020).

The concern I have as a school leader is anytime there’s external tension it can manifest between coworkers (Caza, Olekains, and Vogus, 2020). That external tension includes the threat of global pandemic (COVID-19) or systemic racism resulting in threats to life.


  • Review and ease grading policies during a crisis. Children, their families, and teachers need to feel that ample time will be given to them for completing assignments.
  • Take time to listen. Whether it is an individual student or a group of teachers, it is important to take time to listen to your stakeholders.
  • Foster hope that this crisis will pass. Be inspirational and motivational in your thoughts and words.

Vision for 2020/2021

  • Model the way for how the school community should interact and engage in their speech with one another, and their verbal interactions.
  • Provide opportunities for people (staff, students, families) to share about their experiences, fears, and questions.
  • Use conversation protocols in classes and in team and staff meetings to help ensure every voice is heard and to demonstrate the value the community holds in varying perspectives.


Grounding Beliefs

Leaders need to be humble and display humility not only during a crisis, but every day of their lives.

During a crisis giving credit to staff, students, and parents is a requirement for keeping the school organization healthy. Kouzes and Posner (2003) encourage leaders to recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.


  • Public thanks of appreciation for efforts by staff in small and large group meetings.
  • Press releases/letters to the community highlighting the accomplishments of staff and students.
  • Recognizing specific efforts and accomplishments of staff, students, and families during uncharted times.
  • Individual notes of thanks, texts, or phone calls to staff providing acknowledgment and giving credit to individuals.

Vision for 2020/2021

  • Summer updates to full staff recognizing and thanking them for a “job well done” this spring.
  • Start the school year with a “pep rally” for staff where their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated.
  • Post quotes from students and families acknowledging staff and the positive impacts of their efforts.
  • Build new processes and protocols based on the successes and suggestions of others.