A Silver Lining in the Crisis

Crisis, turbulence, and uncertainty have become the new norm for SPED Directors as they navigate a pandemic, racial justice protests, and the politicization of issues as disparate as critical race theory and school masking policies.

“Crises come into our lives, no matter how we may try to avoid them,” psychotherapist Mel Schwartz, LCSW, writes in Psychology Today. “They are troubling, unwanted experiences or events that take us way out of our comfort zone. Typically, crises result in some type of loss. The very nature of a crisis is antithetical to our core values of certainty and predictability as they vanish in an instant.”

Despite being unwanted, when the dust settles, there are lessons for SPED Directors to learn to sharpen their professional skills for the next unknown crisis. A crisis is an opportunity for real-world professional development. The tricky part is adopting the mindset and developing the talents to extract the lessons those experiences offer.

Here’s what to focus on:

1. Cultivating Self-Awareness

Whether we like it or not, hardships force us to come face-to-face with who we are. Experiencing difficulties often exposes limitations, beliefs, and skills SPED Directors previously didn’t see or appreciate in themselves. This shift in self-awareness can be powerful and energizing.

For Trevor Goertzen, the principal of Spring Hill Middle School located just outside Kansas City, Kansas, a key to developing the mindset to learn from hardships is intentionally making headspace to reflect upon them.

“I have no control over the political climate, I have no control over the junk that goes on social media, the homes my students come from, but I have control over what I give headspace to,” Goertzen said. “If I am constantly worried about every little thing, I am going to be a negative person.”

Admittedly, it can be difficult to resist becoming consumed with worry over all of the dimensions of the setback, especially, said Goertzen, at a time when principals are substitute teaching, serving lunches, and taking on custodial tasks on top of their regular duties because of labor shortages.

But cultivating that self-awareness—and paying attention to his inner dialogue—helps Goertzen hone in on what benefits he can draw from a challenge.

2. Focusing on the Big Picture

Another crucial aspect of transforming a crisis into a new possibility is training yourself to think long-term. While your current crisis is not ideal, it is temporary.

“To achieve self-empowerment requires looking beyond that snapshot and envisioning what door of potential has just flung open,” writes Schwartz. “Learning to look at the larger themes and patterns that set up these challenges will help develop a vantage point from which you may break through the struggle. In other words, what are the recurring stories of your life? What is your participation in this storyline?”

Maria Langan-Riekhof, Arex B. Avanni, and Adrienne Janetti produced a report about turning challenges into opportunities for Brookings. They write, “To turn an existing crisis into an opportunity often requires reframing the problem or looking at the issues through a different lens.” If possible, allow yourself that perspective — attempt to see the bigger picture.

3. Developing Resilience

Surviving hardship and mustering the will to move forward strengthens us to tackle new challenges and more successfully face future failures. Resilience provides SPED Directors greater flexibility and durability as things change. It primes them to be open to learning and agile in their considerations of what to do next.

During times of crisis, you hear the term “resilience” a lot. Resilience is often defined as surviving or bouncing back after a challenge. While this is certainly the case, resilient people not only bounce back, they bounce forward as well. True resilience is not just about getting through a challenge, rather, growing because of it.

4. Welcoming the Departure from Your Comfort Zone

Change and growth rarely happen while we are in a state of comfort. Schwartz argues that being pushed out of our comfort zone is essential to finding opportunities in crisis.

Transforming our career, for instance, generally requires a great deal of dedication and intention. “Crisis, on the other hand, removes the self-motivating requirement as it places us squarely outside of our familiar zone…[this] is where the opportunity lies,” he says.

“Growth and fundamental levels of change only tend to occur when we are out of our comfort zone. So we might look at the crisis as a blessing in disguise, albeit an unwanted one.”

Yoram (Jerry) Wind, emeritus professor of marketing at Wharton, and entrepreneur Nitin Rakesh, who co-authored a book on transformations during crises, agree. They write: “Instead of viewing the present situation as a short-term necessary evil that we should try to leave behind as soon as possible and return to a comfortable pre-crisis past, we should ask how to use the current situation to speed up long-overdue changes.”

5. Becoming More Compassionate

A significant dose of humility usually accompanies hardship. Face it; there is nothing easy about confronting the unpleasant reality that we are not invincible, nor immune to things going wrong. But it is precisely this pain that can open a SPED Director’s eyes to better see the hardships of others and foster greater sensitivity to their plight.

It becomes more natural to be empathetic as you acknowledge the strain and pain that the crisis places on everyone. So, don’t be afraid to express your own emotions and reveal some vulnerability; it actually demonstrates your strength and helps enhance your connection to others.

It’s Your Choice

Do we hone in on the dangers and threats engendered by the crisis, or do we see them as a tremendous challenge we’re determined to overcome? Are we focusing on what could be lost if the crisis overwhelms us, or do we identify and go after what is to be gained from successfully meeting the challenge?

Don’t think that extracting something positive from a difficult situation means burying our heads in the sand or ignoring the dire reality of a situation.

Unlike toxic positivity, finding opportunity in a crisis doesn’t mean suppressing painful emotions. You must acknowledge and process all your feelings when a disaster or challenge occurs. Rather, seeking the opportunity is to reframe the incident within our life’s story and explore what can be done with it.

By adopting a positive — yet realistic — mindset, you are poised to meet the challenges and recover a modicum of control over the path forward. And by becoming aware of how you can grow from this protracted challenge, you will not only survive but thrive.

The choice is yours to make!