Empathy Matters: Ten Leadership Strategies in Times of Uncertainty

Mays IMAD
Pima Community College

In her second post (read the first one here), Mays reflects on ten ways in which campus leaders can support their faculty colleagues as they navigate through this uncertain time.

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Story written by Mays IMAD

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” – Excerpt from Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

Uncertain Times

In times of uncertainty, we look to our leaders—at home and at work. Even if we know that they do not necessarily have solutions, we want their reassurance that things will be okay. Our faculty, especially adjunct and contingent faculty, look to their Department Heads, Deans, and teaching and learning centres for that reassurance. Give it to them.

Reflecting on that childhood experience in Baghdad, I wanted to be the friend that could reassure struggling colleagues. Here is a list of ten ways in which campus leaders can respond to instructors facing uncertainty.

  1. Accept the known. Accept the fact that you are not going to solve this global health threat and its impact on higher education and our campus. This pandemic is bigger than us. As the coordinator of a new teaching and learning centre, I am overwhelmed by questions I have no answers to. When a colleague reminded me that we are all asking ourselves these unprecedented questions, I found some needed solace in the unknown.
  1. Have empathy for yourself. Do not become frozen because you are unsure about whether you are taking the best approach, or you fear looking back and saying: “I should’ve done such and such.” Remind yourself that you are doing your best, and there is no manual or protocol out there to guide you through this unique crisis.
  1. Communication is more important than ever. Even if you have no concrete plan, reach out to your colleagues—whether via a recorded video or a personalised audio message. Talk about how you are approaching the situation and how you are keeping their well-being in mind.
  1. Hold “office” hours. Create specialised blocks of time in your schedule where you address faculty members’ pressing questions.
  1. Encourage your faculty to share their concerns. Your colleagues are likely inundated with questions from their students and themselves. Our contingent faculty members are worried not only about teaching their courses effectively, but also about job security. Let them know that you will be their advocate.
  1. Be mindful not to inundate your faculty with documents and resources. They, like our students, are experiencing cognitive overload. There are so many resources about teaching online that colleagues throughout the country have quickly compiled and shared with us. You do not need to forward everything. One colleague told me she did not know which email to read or where to begin. Forward only information which is necessary. Remind your colleagues that this is not about them becoming expert online teachers, and student engagement is still key.
  1. Empower your faculty to exercise flexibility over their course materials. I was speaking with an anxious colleague about how much content she had to cover. I shared with her my approach to a similar situation; for example, if I had to cover three organ systems (the eye, skin, and the heart) in my physiology class and could only cover one system due to an emergency, I would make a judgement call based on my expertise (and cover the heart).
  1. Ask your faculty how they are feeling mentally and physically. We now know that the most vulnerable in the population are the elderly. You likely have faculty in that category who might be scared or feeling ill. Physical isolation does not mean forgoing communication with each other. Encourage your faculty to check on one another. Many colleagues look forward to coming to work and chatting in the break room or the hallways.
  1. Ask your faculty what they need. The Latin phrase Nihil de nobis, sine nobis (“Nothing about us, without us”) guides us to invite our colleagues to the table at the beginning of any teaching- and curricula-related discussion even in, and perhaps especially during, uncertain times.
  1. Remind your faculty that we have a common mission to help students. Also, although we are navigating uncharted land, we are not alone—as the Persian poet Rumi says: “Friends, we are travelling together.” Remind yourself and your colleagues why we do what we do in the first place. In his book Radical Hope (2020), Kevin Gannon reminds us that “we teach because we believe it matters.”

I invite you all to reflect on what else might help you and others to navigate this crisis.

 

Mays IMAD teaches pathophysiology and biomedical ethics at Pima Community College, and is also the Founding Coordinator of the College’s Teaching & Learning Center. She received her undergraduate training in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and her graduate training in Cellular & Clinical Neurobiology from Wayne State University-School of Medicine. Mays completed a National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona. Mays is a fellow at the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and as well as the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE). Mays’s current research focuses on stress, self-awareness, advocacy, and classroom community, and how these relate to cognition, metacognition, and, ultimately, student learning. Through her teaching and research, she seeks to provide her students with transformative opportunities which are grounded in the aesthetics of learning, truth-seeking, and self-realization.

Mays can be reached at mimad@pima.edu.

References

Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (Teaching and Learning in Higher Education). Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York: Knopf.