Using Crisis as an Inadvertent Tool for Organizational Assessment

This article, Organizational Assessment in the Independent School, was originally written following September 11, 2001. It examines how crisis – in the independent school – can be used an an organizational assessment tool. Although it focuses on 911, the ideas detailed can be applied to any independent school crisis.

A crisis, its turmoil and upheaval, provides an opportunity for assessment, self-understanding, growth and change. The events of September 11th prompted many of us to take personal inventory, to examine the value of our lives. We asked ourselves, am I with the people who I love? Do my loved ones know how I feel about them? Are my relationships meaningful and gratifying? Am I doing work that I love? Am I making a valuable contribution to society?

From this self-assessment, we learned more about the gap between where we were and where we wanted to be. And, this self-understanding prompted us to take steps to enrich our lives. We embraced each other. We extended ourselves beyond the familiar and comfortable boundaries to build bridges with others who were very different for ourselves. We asked ourselves why we were alive and attempted to articulate our personal missions. For many thoughtful people, the tragedy provided a catalyst for self-examination, increased intimacy and change.

Organizations, in this case, independent schools, are comprised of people. Like individuals, schools can grow and mature from crisis. In fat, the opportunities for growth are exponential because the sum of the total is greater than the sum of the parts.

Together, members from organizations can use their reactions to crisis as a kind of “self-study”. They can learn from their experiences and use what they discover as a springboard for creating healthy change. Leaders can learn a great deal from examining how they as an organization responded to the life-altering events of September 11, 2001.

In fact, a school’s response to these events can provide a bird’s eye view of its organizational dynamics and organizational functioning. Careful organizational assessment can lead to a plan for building a more supportive, inclusive, caring community. When we feel that others care about us, we are better able to use our minds and our hearts.

How might independent school leaders and faculty go about assessing their response to September 11th or any other crisis? First, they might consider four points: (1) All behavior has meaning. (2) All behavior can be understood. (3) All behavior is purposeful, but the purpose may be unconscious. (4) Our responses are, to some extent, driven by factors hay may be outside of our awareness. Thus, we may not fully grasp the motivations that underlie our behavior.

As a preliminary step, you might form a group comprised of several members of your community including faculty, staff, students, parents, trustees, alumni and possible an organizational consultant. Ask group members to describe, in writing, what happened at your school during the crisis and its aftermath. Request that they attempt to focus exclusively on the “facts” and that they take a descriptive, non-judgmental approach. That is, encourage them to describe the events that transpired without passing judgment or offering interpretation.

How can these descriptions be used as a catalyst for organizational assessment? In reviewing the responses, assume a non-judgmental stance. Specifically, consider operating with two organizing assumptions. First, assume that constituents expounded in the way that they did because they, in effect, “needed to”. That is, it is important to assume that all behavior was “driven” by the collective unconscious of the entire community. Second, and concomitant with the first assumption, one should assume that individuals who were reacting were not reacting simply at their own behest. Rather, they were serving as crucibles for the entire community. Thus, the courageous and caring behavior on the part of an individual can be viewed as reflecting some aspect of the entire community. Because, in fact, it could not have taken place without the implicit support and tolerance of the community.

Similarly, dismissive, avoidant, or intolerant behavior can be understood as reflecting some aspect of the entire community. Consequently, individuals who reacted in insensitive or indifferent ways can be viewed as crucibles carrying some negative or unwanted aspect of the collective unconscious. For this reason, it would be a mistake to scapegoat or condemn them. Rather, they can be construed as carrying unwanted, denied, split-off, aspects of the organizational culture. The group might wonder what about how the community functions may have precipitated and maintained their untoward behavior.

How can school leaders use this information to learn more about their organizational strengths and to identify those areas that warrant further development? An examination of a few vignettes shows how descriptive information can be used in organizational assessment. Although the focus in these examples is on identifying organizational strengths, a similar approach can be used in identifying areas that merit further development. For purposes of brevity, all vignettes were truncated. Hence, it was not possible to include many of the creative, innovative things that happened within each setting.

Three vignettes illustrate how descriptive information can be used in organizational assessment.

Ken Smith, the head of Sandy Spring Friends School, a Quaker day and boarding school outside of Washington, DC, describes his experience.

We were different than most schools in this area: we decided to remain open. We felt that kids, particularly younger kids, would view the footage again and again. Many parents work. We are here for the kids. Of course, as always, parents were free to take their kids out any time. We wanted to provide a safe place. We asked people to go ahead with classes. As in any Quaker school, we had well-established ways of dealing with crisis. We have the luxury of calling a “Meeting for Worship”.

Kids and faculty had a chance to express themselves through this normal channel. As a faculty, we did not have to address the issue of diversity and inclusivity. In the first meeting for worship, students began standing up and saying that the terrorist attacks were not a reflection of true Islam. They reflected on the dangers inherent in racial profiling. An outpouring of concern was expressed for the Muslims in the room who might be suffering from inaccurate of generalizations about their faith.

Shortly thereafter, we had an assembly to which we invited refugees who had lived in Afghanistan and representatives from the Red Cross. Beyond this, we reached out to the community in an array of ways. Also, we identified a shortcoming in our curriculum. We do not have a course in comparative religion. We are going to change that.

From this brief summary, you can begin to glean a bit about the school as an organization. We learn that the community already has well-established ways of coming together in times of crisis. Thus, when crisis occurs, the head does not have to consider how to mobilize community support. Rather, he follows a well-grooved path. Similarly, the fact that students spoke out during Meeting and expressed concern about the welfare of their Islamic peers suggests that this school may promote a more egalitarian approach to the community and education. The Meeting appears to provide a context in which natural connections between — faculty, staff and students — can emerge. In effect, the Meeting allows many of the responsibilities of leadership to be shared. The decision to remain open placed the needs of the students well ahead of those of the faculty, a decision with striking implications. It reflects a sincere and impressive commitment to child-centered education. Of course, a potential peril to such an approach may be that faculty may subordinate their own needs, and the needs of their own families, to those of the students. That is, they may give themselves and their families short-shrift.

Juxtapose this experience with that of Peter Kountz, a veteran head, had assumed the headship of Berkeley-Carroll School, in Brooklyn, just days before the attacks. A Thomas Merton Scholar who spent his college years in a Benedictine seminary, Kountz served on the board of a psychoanalytic foundation for many years. Thus, his approach to leadership is enriched by multiple disciplines. He views headship as a kind of “secular ministry”. He describes his experience.

“As I watched the towers fall,” I thought, ” ‘this isn’t a dream’. I know it happened because I watched the towers go down. Maybe that’s what moved me, seeing it happen. This is so extreme. We have to respond in ways that we never responded before I consulted with the faculty; we decided to send the kids home. By 4:00, the faculty, staff, parents and our psychologist came together. We had a quasi-Quaker service. It was very inclusive. The thing that we did right was to pay attention to the adults. We brought in a team of psychologists. We had a special lunch. We gave people a lot of room. We asked, ‘are you ready to bring the students back on Friday?’ Then, the psychologists worked with faculty about how to talk about it with the kids.”

“I learned quickly that we had a good faculty who were comfortable with their own vulnerability. I can talk with them and they will give a fundamentally human response. I learned that there were thoughtful people to whom I can attach myself. The school enjoys a very good relationship with parents. I learned that their were thoughtful parents on whom I could count.”

“What this horrific event did for me was to provide me with a lens through which to see the school at its most vulnerable point. Everyone saw me at my most vulnerable point. There was authenticity. The faculty are better for this horrific event because they learned about themselves things that they didn’t know, their own strengths, their ability to care and be empathic. Their ability to listen; their competence. Many people learned that they could do good things.”

“Brooklyn is a great center for Islam. It’s a multi-cultural community. The faculty made an effort to actively incorporate 9/11 into the life of the school and its curriculum. Some of the history faculty began ‘Crisis Cafe’ a kind of teach-in over lunch, where students could learn and talk about their reactions. The library got involved, as well, with special exhibits and displays.”

From this description, you can make assumptions about the nature of the school’s culture. An equal value appears to be placed on the emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives in the community. Kountz appears to display sophistication about organizational dynamics and psychological needs. This school is relatively near to ground zero and Kountz appreciates that faculty are likely traumatized themselves. Sending students home allows the community to focus on “taking care of the caretakers.” Taking care of the adults, it should be noted, is notoriously difficult for independent schools to do. Yet, Kountz seems to recognize that nurturing the faculty may be a requisite to their nurturing the students. Organizing a team of psychologists with the dual goals of helping faculty to deal with their own concerns and preparing them to talk with students reflects an awareness of a cascade or a trickle down effect: faculty will do for students what their leaders have done for them. The, “crisis cafe” is an impressive measure that provides a venue for students to identify their emotional needs and address them.

The informal “teach in” at lunch suggests a vibrant faculty and student body who are invested in learning more about the world around them both in class and outside of it. Incorporating the tragic events into the curriculum and the library reflects a flexible, intellectually-stimulating, living, learning, environment.

David Hicks, President of the Darlington School, a boarding and day school in a small, idyllic town in Georgia, describes his experience.

Despite our location, there was great anxiety on September 11. Some of our students come from New York City and had parents who worked in the World Trade Center. Initially, we could not account for all of the parents. We did not cancel school. We wanted to keep the students. The chapel was open. Our school has a Christian tradition. Many of the students were in it praying.

The next day, I talked to the entire school. The focus of my talk was, it’s not our role to do “justice”. Our job is to give love and support to each other. We talked about what students could do to support each other. Our biggest suggestion was to support those who were hurt and frightened. Everyone could identify with that.

Some kids gave blood. Some raised money for the victims. Some attended prayer services. Each student in the middle school wrote a reflective essay. We posted them on their lockers and students walked from locker to locker reading each other’s work. It created a community of interest. It involved writing. It involved reflection. We identified a central bulletin board on which information about, and reactions to, the war on terrorism could be posted. We put all opinions up except those inspired by hatred. We had left and right perspectives. We invited the local Imam to talk to our students.

We have Palestinian and Saudi students, a number are practicing Muslims. The kids were incredibly supportive of them. In fact, one of them came to see me and told me how wonderful the other students were. Our school is a very friendly place. The students are lovely, very courteous to adults. It’s partly being in a small, Southern, town.

I met with our department heads because I did not want them to go ahead and ignore this. I asked how they were going to incorporate this into our classroom work this year. We looked at history. In science, we can study anthrax. In technology, why did the building collapse? I said this is going to consume us — let’s bring it into the classroom.

My board did something very supportive. A retreat had been scheduled the week following the attacks. I called the president of the board. He said he thought that we should still hold it. We had a 100% attendance. It would have been so natural for everyone to withdraw. We devoted three days to planning for the next 10 years. I was with 35 men and women who so profoundly believed that the right response was to move ahead with life more than ever. We were afraid that people would not be in the mood to look ahead. People said that it was a providential act that we met with them. These are the movers and shakers in various cities. It was like a ‘love in.’

This description reveals much about how the Darlington school functions. The community is clearly a spiritual one, in which students are nurtured intellectually and emotionally. The emphasis on reflection and support suggests that this is caring community in which members are concerned with each others’ welfare. Calling the community together and talking with students about how they might respond to each other suggests that this is a community in which kindness is valued. One has the sense that aggression will not be tolerated, and while such a position makes complete sense in reaction to tragedy, one wonders how healthy, everyday aggression is managed and/or tolerated in this organization. Beyond this, the bulletin board on terrorism and the augmentations to the curriculum suggests that there is an emphasis on making the practical applications of in class learning relevant and explicit. The board supports the president in a very compelling way. This support will likely have a trickle down effect on faculty and students.

Heads of the schools were interviewed because their schools appeared to have sensitive and innovative responses to the national tragedy. These vignettes were used primarily to identify areas of strength. Ideally, vignettes can be used to identify strengths as well as areas that warrant further development. From the description of these heads, all three schools appear to be “state of the art” academically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In contrast, some schools responded to the national tragedy with a “business as usual” approach. Their curricula remained unaltered despite these catastrophic events. Although maintaining continuity is essential for students, it is important for them to have an opportunity to talk about and deal with reality, including their sadness and grief. Some schools did not change with respect to how they dealt with the academic, emotional, and spiritual concerns. It may behoove those schools to examine what obstacles stood in their way. In sum, the events of September 11 present an opportunity to learn more about how a school functions in a time of profound crisis and to use the information to plan changes designed to nurture the academic, emotional and spiritual worlds of their constituents.

Organizational Assessment in the Independent School —- September 11 (or any crisis) as a Springboard for Organizational Assessment

Questions an Organizational Assessment Team Might Consider

1. How did your school respond to September 11 (or any other crisis that you designate)? Who responded? What did they do? What were the most effective things about the response? What were the least effective about the response.

2. How did the de jure and de facto leaders respond? What steps did they take to take care of their constituents? Who were the de facto leaders? Did any leadership emerge from the ranks? Who were these leaders? How were they helpful or unhelpful?

3. How did the community manage its grief? Was it in a state of denial? Or, was the community able to grieve? What sorts of formal and informal supports were provided to help people grieve?

4. Was there a recognition that there is a “cascade effect”? That is, leaders who are nurtured are more able to nurture faculty; faculty who are nurtured are more able to nurture students. Did the board support and soothe the head? If so, how? If not, what obstacles got in the way of the recognition that special supports are needed in the time of crisis? In what ways did the head support the faculty? In what ways did faculty support students and parents?

5. How did the various constituents support each other?

6. How did the school balance the need to preserve predictability and consistency with the need to grieve and the fact that our lives have irreparably changed?

7. Did the community take care of and/or respond to those who were most hurt?

8. Did the school have a built-in mechanism for building community and/or reaching out to those most hurt? If so, what was the mechanism? If not, why not? And, what, if any, steps were taken to alter that?

9. Did the school use this experience as an opportunity to embrace diversity? If so, how? If not, what took precedence and/or what got in the way? What steps did they take to teach students about Islam?

10. How did the school address the psychological needs of the constituents? Did they have psychologist and/or counselors on staff? Did they partner with psychologists? If so, what does this say about the school’s culture? If not, what does this reflect about the school’s culture?

11. How did the school address the spiritual needs of all of the constituents? Did they have religious or spiritual orientation? Did they partner with clergy?

12. How did the school take protective steps to embrace Islamic students and others who might be vulnerable? Did they partner with Islamic schools? What steps did they take? If they did not, why not? What steps did students take to reach out to those who were vulnerable? Were there any ethnically-motivated incidents? If so, how ere they addressed?

13. How did the school address its organizational response? Does the head, and/or the diversion directors, have ongoing organizational consultation.

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