Reground, Prioritize, Plan, Connect: Bellwether’s Tool for Education Leaders During COVID-19

Update: We’ve now turned the tool from this blog post into a full customizable toolkit. Read more here.

Over the last two weeks, education leaders across the country have had to make a flood of challenging and unfamiliar decisions: Should we close our school doors, and for how long? How do we quickly and radically change our operations and instruction to support kids and families, possibly indefinitely?

Education leaders typically make hundreds of decisions a day under extreme pressure, but the past weeks’ events could leave even the best decision-makers feeling overwhelmed. The uncertainty of how the next several months will unfold only makes it harder for leaders. One leader we spoke to shared: “There is a knee-jerk reaction to do everything right now.” Direct-service providers and nonprofits are similarly facing knotty challenges. We empathize deeply with leaders on the ground.

If you’re a school or nonprofit leader, strategic planning might be the last thing on your mind during this current crisis. Certainly, it has been an unimaginable few weeks for us, as we think through the real needs of students and families. However, moments like these are when it is, in fact, most important to take a moment to breathe, reground yourself in your mission and values, and make a simple, yet flexible plan. 

To cut through the noise and focus limited time, energy, and resources, we recommend the following four-step approach:

1. Reground in your “why”: At this moment, it can be hard to make clear-eyed decisions. Your mission, vision, and core values can serve as your “North Star” and a lens through which you make tough decisions — about what you prioritize, what resources to deploy, and how to approach connecting with your stakeholders. We often start strategic planning with organizations by having them revisit these key culture anchors, and crisis planning is no different. Questions to consider: What mission are we trying to fulfill? What are our stated values and how will we, as a community, need to embody them at this moment? How do we normally live out our mission in relation to our students, staff, and families? What does this mean for how we will respond to this crisis? 

2. Prioritize: During a crisis, everything can seem essential. And right now many actions are high-stakes. Focus on the most urgent and high-leverage needs — in a manageable way. Ask yourself: What is most essential to get accomplished right now? In the next 2-3 days? In the next week? In the next 1-2 months? You may not get everything on your to-do list done — and that is okay. But you should focus your limited time and resources on the actions that you must take. 

3. Plan: Once you have prioritized, think about the best way to organize yourself, your teams, and your resources to drive that narrow set of priorities. What are the most essential 3-5 steps to accomplish now? In the next 2-3 days? In the next week? Write these steps down and share them with your team, assigning clear owners to help execute. This helps everyone focus on the most important priorities. As you plan, consider the resources at your disposal and the roadblocks in your way. The goal is to create simple, actionable steps for everyone to follow. You may need to regularly revisit or revise your plan as circumstances change, but a dynamic plan is better than no plan at all.

4. Connect: Finally, you need to regularly communicate with key constituencies so they know what to expect. Communication should be clear, frequent, and empathetic. Give stakeholders direction but don’t over promise. Ask for and extend grace as you communicate because plans will change. In addition to providing regular tactical updates, use connection as a way to strengthen relationships. Ensure a system exists to regularly check in on stakeholders personally. At this moment, connecting through phone calls, texts, chat groups, etc. are essential ways to help stakeholders feel a part of a community.   

Bellwether is developing resources for leaders in the field as they work to address these extraordinary circumstances, including a playbook with simplified strategic planning tools. My colleague Alyssa Schwenk will build on step four by offering simple tips around crisis communications and how to share the priorities you’ve developed with your stakeholders — you can read her post later this week here. You can also view a webpage we’ve created with a regularly updated list of external resources here.