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Shifting Inward During a Storm
School Administrator, March 2022
During a school visit in November, the superintendent feels a tug on her sleeve. It is the dedicated school psychologist, who explains she has been adversely affected by fallout from the pandemic and wants to take a leave of absence to become a stay-at-home parent for remainder of the school year. Clearly, she feels guilt shifting her focus inward, knowing there’s a skyrocketing number of students with mental health needs and dearth of providers able to fill her role. She asks: “Is it OK to leave my position, out of choice and not necessity, during this especially turbulent time?” How should the superintendent respond?
The superintendent has an obligation to respond to students — and staff — with compassion and understanding. Everyone has been under stress through the pandemic, and it is not at all unusual or unreasonable to expect some to require accommodation. While it will be a challenge to secure a suitable substitute for the school psychologist, she should not be treated differently due to her specific job.
Further, the superintendent should thank her for recognizing and addressing her own mental health issues. District policy may or may not cover this situation. Prior to the pandemic, most districts had very detailed policies that outline the conditions and requirement of an extended leave. Now, with the trauma of the pandemic affecting so many staff members, these policies may not be sufficient, or may require revision. The superintendent and the board should review all leave policies to ensure they meet district and staff needs.
On its face, this dilemma appears as a personal plea to the superintendent for a leave of absence from a dedicated school psychologist concerned about abandoning students. The superintendent can and should provide empathic support but be extremely careful not to give advice or lead her in her decision-making process.
The superintendent’s professional responsibility is to ensure the psychologist seeks a trained professional to assess her well-being. Her perspective for requesting a leave based on "choice and not necessity" could be a manifestation of her internal struggle about her students’ needs, leading to a misunderstanding of her emotional well-being.
The role of the superintendent is always to ensure the well-being of all those in her care.
The superintendent is always concerned with the needs of students. Still, she holds an equal responsibility to make sure that this dedicated mental health professional is acting in her own best interest and those of her students.
It is also important in this instance to remember that the school psychologist is a member of the teachers association and employed under a contract that provides leave provisions that must be respected. I would actively engage union leadership to make sure the employee’s needs are assessed with outside counseling, EAP if available, and that all rights under the bargaining agreement are carefully protected.
While it is admirable and heartening that a school psychologist would feel this level of personal connection to the superintendent, he has a responsibility to act in the students’ and employee's best interests.
Educational leaders probably have faced this dilemma multiple times over the past two years. So many educators have made incredible sacrifices to continue with their work to support their students when others in their life may have suffered. So the question this psychologist has as to what to do if she feels she needs a leave of absence is of major importance for her.
The superintendent should thank her for the support she has given to the students in the district so far and tell her that she will have all the information regarding professional leave of absence provided to her so she can make whatever decision is necessary. There may be options for part-time work or job sharing that could be pursued.
Regardless of the decision, the staff member has to feel supported to make the decision she believes is necessary to support her own family. Ultimately, she will be a great employee — whether now or in the future.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that empathy and compassion are essential in our response to staff, students, and the community. Many have been adversely impacted through illness, loss, and emotional trauma. As a dedicated psychologist, she is the best judge of the difficult balance between her capacity to care for others and her need to care for herself and her family. Her expression of doubt and guilt about not being present at school to address the escalating needs of students speaks volumes about the seriousness of her situation.
As the airlines advise, in the event of an emergency we must put on our own oxygen mask before attending to those around us. Given that the psychologist so clearly recognizes that she herself is physically drained, emotionally wounded, and/or mentally distracted, it is doubtful that she could function from a position of strength in offering assistance or guidance to staff and students.
What guides effective leadership in situations like this is the understanding that care for oneself and one’s family must come first — even before work. This is a time for the superintendent to communicate support for the psychologist, express compassion for her situation, and encourage her to talk with human resources to determine a way she could take a leave.
The Ethical Educator panel consists of
, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.;
, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent;
Chris Lee Nicastro
, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and
Louis N. Wool
, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.