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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Inside of one year
How educational leaders engaged design thinking
By Teri Marcos, Erin English and Tracy Robinson | September | October 2021
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Although a plethora of published journal articles currently address the effects of COVID-19, none reflect the perspectives of educational leaders’ use of Design Thinking during the pandemic as related to serving their communities during school closures and subsequent reopening in California. Further, none address the perspectives of California school leaders from the lens of creating psychologically safe schools over the past year, yet, for this sample of administrators, this is exactly what they accomplished. Our purpose was to add to the literature while surfacing the voices of administrative leaders who created the inertia needed for their school communities to succeed during COVID-19.
As members of the ACSA-CAPEA Committee, our interest in co-publishing an article began with the traditional selection of a book. Historically, the committee adopted a work to ground specific areas of collaboration as we prepare school leaders. Over 2020-2021, our shared experiences in PK-12 and institutes of higher education mainly surfaced issues of COVID-19; thus, our selected literature, Amy Edmondson’s “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” (2018), offered a rich, contributive conversation. We found that while empathy emerged as a key theme in her book, it was also a theme of many models of Design Thinking.
We dialogued during our 2020-21 ACSA-CAPEA meetings while inviting a shared research experience across our membership. We desired to learn the perceptions of educational leaders serving in county offices, local schools, and institutes of higher education as to what was working or not working during COVID-19. While advancing our co-learning across California educational agencies and partnerships, we also desired to learn what recommendations these educational leaders might make to ensure that leadership practices are operationalized for a psychologically safe organization.
Through two focus group interviews with county office of education administrators, school principals, district office personnel, teachers and parents, we investigated Design Thinking (Empathize, Describe, Innovate, Prototype, Test) and its relationship to psychological safety in the workplace. We learned about leaders’ perceptions of the characteristics, traits or attributes that were helpful, inspiring and meaningful to keep them grounded in work as they navigated the uncertainties of COVID school closures. We also sought the tools or strategies they engaged in to ground their presence at their work site, as well as support the mental health of their staff and community. We asked what worked well or did not work well. We asked what protocols were established that were different during COVID that helped the unification of the staff and if there were key learnings from the COVID-19 season that would assist them in becoming better leaders.
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As participants shared their perceptions of the characteristics, traits, attributes, tools, strategies and protocols that assisted them as leaders through COVID-19 and school reopenings, three themes emerged from the two focus groups:
Theme 1: Understanding self as leader
The school and district leaders interviewed for this research project shared that they developed a greater sense of themselves as leaders during the pandemic. They empathized with their colleagues when they struggled with the complex situation of unexpectedly working from home and suddenly juggling their own children, their spouses, and sometimes their parents under one roof. They also appreciated the frequent informal check-ins with their staff. Luckman et al. (2019) suggested the following in their journal article:
A key element of leadership is monitoring how your statements and actions “land” on other people. Self-aware leaders can understand how they affect those around them and seek guidance or advice to improve outcomes. In addition, they can infer from others’ reactions whether and how their messages are received; leaders can cultivate a deeper sense of empathy — to understand the feelings of others — so much the better.
One aspect of respondents’ understanding of self as a leader emerged in how they related to people under the stay-at-home orders who could not work in a classroom with young children. People were not talking openly about working from home or taking care of their own children. Thus, compassion, empathy and listening became essential to extending Psychological Safety within these leaders’ organizations.
Participants shared that the notion of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) kept school and district leaders grounded in serving students and families. Participants described that they were collaborative and took time to empower teachers, but more, they leaned into the opportunity to be leaders, to demonstrate leadership. Participants noted that they developed as human beings and did not have to act so urgently when they failed. They learned boundaries about not working too many hours at home. They learned to assert themselves to avoid burnout. They prioritized what was important, built relationships, communicated well and understood the tension between staying healthy and taking risks. They began looking at how their staff were spending their collective time together and built a professional learning schedule geared toward collaborative effort and distributed leadership. Some took an EdCamp model and revised it to make it virtual with teacher-selected topics identified.
Respondents noted the importance of everyone speaking a common language as they geared up for reopening. Respondents wanted to recognize the idea of being resilient by providing rewards while thinking of those things they wanted to celebrate and acknowledge. This was not a phenomenal instructional practice necessarily, but more for the people who were doing home visits and food distribution at the school, making extra phone calls to families, and building relationships online, etc. They built structures with communication that helped unify the staff throughout the year under some very challenging times. Leaders adapted existing protocols, the number one being brevity. For example, a traditional six-hour, all-day meeting became 90 minutes.
One aspect of respondents’ understanding of self as a leader emerged in how they related to people under the stay-at-home orders who could not work in a classroom with young children. People were not talking openly about working from home or taking care of their own children.
Theme 2: Eliciting freedom to share in collegial groups
In her book, “The Fearless Leader,” Amy Edmondson offers the following thoughts on providing a safe place to share ideas and give feedback:

  1. Workplaces characterized by candor can provide immense benefits for creativity, learning and innovation.
  2. Leaders who are willing to say, “I don’t know,” play a surprisingly powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of employees.
  3. Creating an environment that values employees yields benefits in engagement, problem-solving and performance.
Before the school closures, many leaders were comfortable showing up for meetings with the answers. The radical shift of the pandemic set the stage for leaders to join the ranks and become learners along with their staff. The leaders who learned along with their team and authentically told their employees they did not have the answers developed deeper relationships. The groups that reported the most success were those that implemented “mindful moments” or focused on the social and emotional well-being of the people they work with.
The school and district leaders we interviewed noted that they used the concept of teaming in Learning Circles while becoming more reflective with their staff. While remaining autonomous, they gained shared experiences in affinity with one another. It was very much an SEL mindset. Regarding psychological safety as related to empathy, one principal noted:
“Just having a sense of grace. It was a term that was thrown out a lot last spring, and then as the pandemic grew and expectations were different around school, the more we needed to give grace to each other. I think we really tried to stay true as a leadership team toward that sense of grace and to model it at school. Grace was something that had not been introduced as much into our vernacular prior to the pandemic. I hope it continues into the upcoming years as we continue to try to navigate what it looks like next year.”
Also noted was the importance of soft skills and how these became especially important to human safety as they navigated COVID-19. “An extension of understanding, communication and affinity was the important place where the phrase ’mental health stability’ assisted us through this challenging time. There were other related issues around isolation.”
Theme 3: Leadership that is inspired through vulnerability
Edmondson provides the phrase, “Don’t be a knower,” within her book and relates this to how “vulnerability and humility unsurprisingly help to create psychological safety in the workplace” (p. 13). Participants described how they were inspired as leaders by discovering just how vulnerable they were in their leadership roles through COVID-19. They told how they had to figure out many aspects of technology they had never used before the pandemic, including Zoom. They described training that was very helpful. Yet, most beneficial were the meetings in which colleagues shared best thinking and practices. They specifically named the tech teams that were in place and very helpful. One participant noted, “I was inspired by people who showed their vulnerability.”
One leader shared, “Be visible. The systems and structures of our field do not always lend themselves to being accessible and visible.”
While the three themes noted above emerged within our participant interviews, their clear recommendations to other leaders left us with the following key learnings and takeaways as we considered the importance of each to ensure a psychologically safe organization during crises.
The first takeaway was the importance of Learning Circles with staff and leaders to encourage reflection while staying authentic, open and flexible. One leader stated, “Keep thinking about the system.” Another leader reminded us to invite a variety of perspectives, saying, “as a leader, don’t be the first to give a response. Value the personal feeling behind every voice. Take time to listen even if you disagree.”
Another school leader offered that as communities endure crises, they get to know each other at deeper levels. “Stick to that moving forward and hope to see that kind of humanity in each other in the crazy pace of the day-to-day moving forward. As a leader, hold yourself accountable for that. Accept what you do not control and how you will react to things you do control. Focus on that, particularly in meetings. Reduce and minimize complaining. Focus on what needs to get done and be productive. This creates a psychologically safe organization because people feel like they’re contributors and that their voice and contributions to processes are important.”
One leader shared, “Be visible. The systems and structures of our field do not always lend themselves to being accessible and visible. Have a lot of intention behind this. Getting back behind the keyboard as we return may be a wrong turn. Make ourselves available. Build relationships with everyone.” Yet another leader offered that we should remain agile, particularly as related to the programs we offer. “Be rid of monolith programs. Consider program offerings. The student that left us is not the same student walking back through the door. We don’t know what they need nor the budgets to include.”
As ACSA and CAPEA Committee members, we intended to explore how educational leaders survived and thrived under the extremely tumultuous school closures brought on by the pandemic. But, more importantly, we wanted to find out if there were any consistent key learnings or themes that stood out that would strengthen the educational community as we re-enter our schools and begin to heal from the experiences brought on by the pandemic.
In her book, “The Fearless Organization,” Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety in the workplace as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Our research led us to connect psychological safety and how it relates to design thinking. Our panel participants presented us with three themes: Understanding Self as a Leader, Eliciting Freedom to Share in Collegial Groups, and Leadership That Is Inspired Through Vulnerability. There is a clear relationship between a psychologically safe environment and an environment that uses the Design Thinking model when addressing workplace issues, especially issues of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature that we experienced during the closures.
We learned from both our panelists and from the book that fear is not an effective motivator. The brain is inhibited when fear is present. However, in an environment where empathy and understanding are present, it is possible to thrive under the circumstances that the pandemic closures presented. Employers who had a high level of empathy for what their employees were experiencing created a safe workplace for their employees to be vulnerable. We know that we are not the same people as we were before the pandemic. School and workplace communities are also changed. To what degree, we do not know yet. We know that leaders who showed a deep level of workplace empathy created environments where there was a higher level of trust and higher levels of job satisfaction.
Edmondson, A (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Boston: Harvard Business School.
English, E (2011). Principals’ Servant Leadership and Teachers’ Job Satisfaction. University of LaVerne Ed.D. Dissertation.
Greenleaf, Robert K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. New York: Paulist Press.
Luckman, Elizabeth A, et al. “Inside Higher Ed.” The Importance of Understanding Yourself as an Academic Leader (Opinion), Inside Higher Ed, 2 (Aug. 2019), www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/08/07/importance-understanding-yourself-academic-leader-opinion.
Paul, Zak J. (2017). Neuroscience of Trust, Management behaviors that foster employee engagement. Harvard Business Review.
Teri Marcos serves at National University and is a CAPEA liaison with ACSA, Erin English is the Executive Director of Innovation with the San Diego County Office of Education and Tracy Robinson is the Senior Director of Educational Services at ACSA.
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