FETC preview: Why empathy is a leadership essential

'Leaders have to ask, "Are there mirrors in the curriculum where students can see people who are like them?"'
By: | October 28, 2020
Brianna Hodges and Thomas Murray of Future Ready Schools will deliver an FETC 2021 keynote, "4 Keys to Effective Leading and Coaching in Any Environment."

The massive shift to remote instruction has, perhaps ironically, driven education leaders to focus more closely on relationships with students, families and staff, says Brianna Hodges.

This recommitment to strengthening connections and greater flexibility around when instruction takes place are two lasting impacts COVID can have on K-12 education, says Hodges, an education consultant and Future of Education Technology Conference® 2021 keynote speaker.

“Learning doesn’t have a location. What’s necessary are the relationships that go with it,” says Hodges, a national advisor with Future Ready Schools, a nonprofit focused on equity and student-centered learning.

“So much of our time right now is spent wishing for things go back to our comfort level,” says Hodges, who will share her keynote with Thomas C. Murray, Future Ready Schools’ director of innovation. “What I’m hoping for is that we recognize that learning is everywhere around us.”


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But the flexibility offered by online learning will also require a greater degree of empathy from educator leaders as they serve students with different needs.

For example, there have been instances of students not wanting to turn on their webcams because they don’t want classmates to see their homes.

“Everyone needs to be granted access to fair and equitable education but we don’t have the same guarantee for housing and environments,” she says. “If the location of remote is not equitable for students, it’s going to be still very challenging.”

FETC session description:

Keynote Title: 4 Keys to Effective Leading and Coaching in Any Environment

The 2020-21 school year has brought uncertainty at every turn. Opening this school year in the midst of a global pandemic created significant anxiety and loss of sleep for all educators, regardless of position or location. In the process, school and instructional leaders are working tirelessly to support, coach, and inspire teaching and learning in new and different ways.

Leading through adversity, how can educators surpass the survival stage and thrive, to design resilient and transformative learning, no matter what happens in the future? In this keynote, Future Ready’s Thomas C. Murray and Brianna Hodges will highlight four foundational keys leaders and coaches need, right now, to unlock success today, tomorrow, and moving forward.

Understanding the stories of students and staff

In their keynote, Hodges and Murray will ask educators to refocus on their “why” as leadership and instructional coaching evolves for the online-COVID era.

“The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ has changed tremendously for most people this year but the ‘why’—the purpose— has always been the same,” says Murray, author of Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime.

That requires leaders to understand how their staff and students are coping with COVID and what traumas and challenges they have experienced during the pandemic.

This builds the trust that is essential for successful leadership and coaching, he says.


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“The difference between making a judgment and having empathy is understanding someone’s story,” Murray says. “Instructional leaders, principals and superintendents must have deep empathy with what staff are being asked to do every day just as we’re coaching teachers to have empathy with students.”

A curriculum with mirrors?

The biggest lesson of the COVID crisis has been its amplification of the inequities students from some ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds face in accessing education.

This requires education leaders have to have courageous conversations in analyzing their district’s practices and policies to ensure equitable outcomes for each child, Murray says.

But establishing equity goes beyond providing every student with a device and internet access, he says.

“It’s imperative the educators remove their own blinders and biases to look at things like which students are taking certain courses, who participates in extracurricular activities and which types of characters are never seen in literature students read,” Murray says. “Leaders have to ask, ‘Are there mirrors in the curriculum where students can see people who are like them?'”


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Educators should begin to blend of synchronous and asynchronous instruction that allows students to learn at their own pace, Hodges says.

Administrators should also be prepared to adopt new approaches to assessing students’ progress beyond the standardized test. For instance, online learning allows students to make videos and recordings to show their knowledge, she says.

“As educators, we’re being challenged to move our mindset around delivering content,” Hodges says. “A natural outcome of that is having students demonstrate their learning in different capacities.”