Preparing for the Unknowns of Spring and Beyond

Optimistic and terrified. Energized and exhausted. Anchored and unsettled. Many of us hold sets of emotions like these right now. Both feel true. Both feel contradictory.
These are a handful of the emotions described by independent school leaders during a recent workshop collaboration with the K12 Lab at Stanford University’s These emotions surfaced as part of an activity led by Lisa Kay Solomon, designer in residence at the Solomon held up a Post-it note to her Zoom camera and introduced participants to Vent Diagrams, which map two emotions or statements that appear to be both true and contradictory. They look just like their namesake Venn Diagrams, which map relationships between two concepts, except in this case, each circle holds an emotion or statement. Solomon then asked participants to create their own Vent Diagrams. Through the Zoom gallery view, there was a collective sense of unburdening among the 75 participating independent school leaders and community members as they identified their own contradictory emotions.
NAIS recently collaborated with the K12 Lab team to prototype this workshop, which introduced school leaders to futures thinking and led them through a series of exercises to envision multiple possible futures, anchor their perspectives in community member needs, and identify opportunities for innovation to meet those anticipated needs. Solomon was joined by an NAIS team of co-facilitators and her K12 Lab colleagues Ariel Raz and Laura McBain. School leadership teams from around the world––from Nepal to Maine to Tanzania to California to Columbia—participated in the virtual workshop and together found strength in discovering they’re are all facing similar challenges on how to best educate students and support school communities through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Embrace Futures Thinking

Perhaps the heaviest Vent Diagram that illustrates what school leaders are collectively feeling right now is: present and future. How can these two seemingly distinct strategic mindsets coexist? School leaders feel confused about how to shepherd their communities through shifting guidance on everything from remote learning to safety protocols––while simultaneously planning for what feels like an unknown future, particularly as they look ahead to the more immediate spring, which remains uncertain.
Futures thinking is a leadership capacity that can be leveraged to navigate these unknowns. According to Solomon and McBain, “Futures thinking helps us imagine a wider range of the possible, plausible, probable futures in which we will be learning and living… Through these lenses, we see the world not just as it is, but how it could be if we took a more empathetic and human-centered approach to uncover and solve complex challenges in the hopes of creating a more equitable, humane, and anti-racist future.” It encourages school leaders to ask: How might the world change and why? It’s less about predicting the future and more about exploring many possible scenarios for what the future could hold within our school communities. It encourages us to consider what people in our community might need in those future scenarios.

Conduct Empathy Interviews

In order to consider what their school community might need within these future scenarios, school leaders started off the workshop by conducting empathy interviews. A cornerstone of design thinking, empathy interviews are short conversations that help us understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, which can help identify their needs. During an empathy interview, it’s important to build rapport and seek stories to increase your understanding. (Find sample empathy interview questions from the K12 Lab here.)
Each school team conducted five to eight empathy interviews and connected with a diverse set of community stakeholders, including teachers, families, and students representing BIPOC and marginalized community members. Then participants shared their findings with each other.
“At the end of each day, I was exhausted from just following all our guidelines and ensuring my students were maintaining social distancing, not from teaching.”
“We are most scared about the lack of socialization for our children.”
Quotes like these bubbled out of the empathy interviews with school community members. Participants felt new emotional tensions arise while reading them together over Zoom. Each school leadership team took the time to analyze and discuss the implications of these quotes for their communities. These quotes guided brainstorming opportunities for innovation anchored in the future needs of students, families, teachers, and staff. For example, one school identified an opportunity to create a remote learning hub in the community where students who are off-campus, due to the space constraints of a hybrid model, could learn their remote lessons together in a supervised location. Another school started designing a remote experience for their families and community members to find joy together outside of school hours.
Consider conducting empathy interviews in your own school community. Which colleagues could support you with identifying community members and conducting the interviews? Ensure confidentiality and trust during the conversations. Then create space to come together as a leadership team to analyze the empathy interview notes. What patterns do you notice? What challenges or opportunities do you see these students, teachers, and community members potentially facing? Together you will gain insights into their emotions and needs.

Emphasize Fixed Elements

When preparing for and leading through uncertain times, it's helpful to remember that not all elements of the future are unknown. Solomon reminded us to consider fixed elements versus loose elements within our communities. Fixed elements refer to what is continuous and dependable in the present and future; examples could include your school mission, beloved traditions, or pedagogical values. Loose elements refer to opportunities for change and innovation to better meet community needs. For example, a loose element could be the timing of the school day. Specific fixed and loose elements vary within each school community.
According to an August 2018 Harvard Business Review article about helping people embrace change, “Effective change leadership has to emphasize continuity—how what is central to ‘who we are’ as an organization will be preserved, despite the uncertainty and changes on the horizon.” Intentionally grounding school communities within their fixed elements is a strategy for emphasizing this continuity amid this challenging school year. Emphasizing fixed elements could be as simple as starting faculty meetings by reviewing your school mission. It could also look like starting difficult conversations about an upcoming change by reminding your community of what fixed elements anchor you together that will remain continuous this year.
Use the insights from your empathy interviews to drive conversations with your leadership team about fixed versus loose elements in your school community. What opportunities do you see to better support your community members in a range of possible futures, such as extended remote or in-person learning? Opportunities will shine through in the loose elements you identify together and will likely be anchored within fixed elements as well.
Futures thinking isn't a one-time process or only relevant during disruptive events like a pandemic. Futures thinking is a leadership capacity and set of practices that we can weave into our ongoing planning and decision making to help us support our communities in more resilient and caring ways. How can we begin to model futures thinking with our students? With our teachers and staff? The future always has been and always will be unknown. Across the world, we remain unified in our unknowing, in our collective tension between present and future. Yet we also remain connected in our potential to deliberately step back from the day-to-day grind and proactively envision multiple futures of success within the school communities we care about so deeply.
If you’re interested in staying in the loop on upcoming opportunities to connect with fellow NAIS school leader futurists, please sign up here. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to [email protected].
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Claire Wescott

Claire Wescott is a former director of project management at NAIS.