Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

How to Be a Trauma-Informed Department Chair Amid Covid-19

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As a faculty member preparing for the fall semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma-informed teaching amid Covid-19. But I’m also one of those academics who wears multiple hats — in my case, department chair and interim director of a multicultural center. And I’ve realized that I need to offer trauma-informed leadership, too.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being in a management position right now is balancing the work demands of the institution with the human needs for compassion and self-care. Most of us feel fortunate to be employed, yet we are also juggling our own family responsibilities, financial concerns, and mental and physical well-being.

So I’ve drafted a list of leadership goals to guide me during the fall term, which is certainly going to be some degree of trauma-inducing. I plan to hold myself accountable to the following:

Put people first. Every administrator will face a pile of pandemic-related paperwork in the coming year. In working your way through the pile, remember that people are the priority. They have lives outside of the workplace, the details of which chairs, directors, and deans may not be aware. Be cognizant of how easily your own reality can be imposed upon someone else whose life circumstances may drastically differ. Before you send an email or make a call about something you need done, pause and consider whether it’s truly necessary to add one more thing to another person’s plate.

Check in with your team. Remote work has meant more work — more problems to solve, more meetings to discuss the problems, and more urgency to solve problems. There were days in the spring that I would look at the clock and realize the workday was over and I hadn’t spoken to a single person. In normal times, you as an administrator will check in with your team frequently, yet informally — in the department kitchen or when someone happens to walk past your office. But when working remotely, you have to schedule intentional check-ins and force yourself to take a break from the computer screen, walk outside, and have a casual conversation on the phone while enjoying fresh air.

Be vulnerable. During those phone calls with colleagues this spring, I often found myself forgetting about the department work and, instead, just chatting about dogs, partners, TV shows, anything. What was intended to be a 15-minute conversation could easily turn into an hour. And I was OK with that because, clearly, we both needed that social connection. When you chat with someone who reports to you, thank them for listening, for sharing aspects of their lives, and for remembering that, while you are an administrator, you are a person first.

Arrange virtual hangouts. I asked everyone in the department to take turns organizing virtual hangouts. That was fairly easy because we (used to) get together once a month for happy hour, anyway, so we kept the schedule and moved the party online. Almost everyone attended, which wasn’t always the case for our in-person happy hours when people had other meetings to attend or had to get home by a certain hour. As an administrator, you must find ways this fall to help people reconnect, both to boost morale and to maintain relationships so that folks won’t feel disconnected when they do return to the campus.

Reach out to students. Teaching is a calling. It’s why you entered this profession. Conversations with students will give you energy, get your cognitive juices flowing, and (usually) leave you in a better mood. Make time for such conversations this fall. They will remind you of your own talents, strengths, and accomplishments, and give you a break from the sometimes-mundane demands of administrative jobs.

Organize the workweek. Being a leader often means doing things you don’t want to do or feel like doing, especially now. While you should certainly be attentive to your own social, emotional, and mental needs, you are still an employee with job expectations: staff meetings, budget decisions, hiring needs, tenure cases. Working remotely complicates how you handle the business of the institution. In the office, you can mark a clear start and end to your workday (though you may take some work home). Stuck home, you need to create your own work limits — and adhere to them. Set a strict beginning and end to the workday, and to the workweek. Give tasks a dedicated time slot. Being hyper-organized will help you avoid dropping too many balls.

Stay informed. One of the more difficult aspects of juggling two leadership positions remotely is making sure I am aware of the most recent policies and plans — particularly related to Covid-19 — for each of them. Not a single day goes by that I don’t get at least one question from one of my team members about our college’s plan for online learning, for returning to campus, for ensuring safety, for budget cuts. In recent months I’ve said the phrase, “As of right now, here is what I know,” more times than I can count. The point is: People you oversee expect you, as their boss, to have answers or be able to get them. Not everyone feels comfortable (or has the job security) to go directly to the top (that is, to a dean, a provost, a vice president) with a question for information. It is your responsibility to serve as the interlocutor.

Communicate early and often. It is not enough to just be aware of campus updates; you have to proactively share them. That can be tricky because plans are changing every day, and you don’t want to send misinformation or have to send daily emails with new updates that will ultimately confuse people. My solution is to send updates every other week. The emails are long, but I organize them from most-to-least-important information. I highlight the critical news, and bold requests so that anyone who skims will get the gist. Aim to send clear, comprehensive, and consistent communication.

Be an advocate. After every communication you send, you will hear from someone (or a few someones) with concerns. Do what you can to find answers to their questions and resolve their worries. Check with other chairs and directors whose department members may have shared similar concerns. Collaborate with them to draft an email to the dean or the provost, sharing the issue and proposing solutions. Don’t fire off emails in anger (because the senior administrators tasked with making very unpopular decisions are people, too). You won’t always get a clear resolution quickly, but you’ll feel better knowing you did all that you could on your department’s behalf.

Celebrate accomplishments. Amid our new work-from-home culture, people have earned tenure, secured a promotion, published scholarship, celebrated a family member’s graduation. Accomplishments in these stressful times are a testament to people’s ability to manage life’s difficulties. So take the time in Zoom meetings and emails to acknowledge achievements and say thank you for contributions. Right now, more than ever, we need to be grateful for one another.

Encourage people to take breaks. Summer is usually the season when those of us working in academe can finally take some time off. That is not the case in 2020. Faculty members who would normally not even bother to check their email in the summer are having to attend virtual meetings to learn their professional fate. And we are all engaging in emotional labor as we worry about our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. Encourage people to take a day or a week off, here and there — and really take it off: no emails, writing, professional reading, course planning, nothing. It is imperative to step away from the screens.

Take care of yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Don’t work on the weekends. Lower your expectations for how much writing you will get done. Make sure you get enough exercise, sleep, and food. Ultimately you will feel more rested and, consequently, in a better mood. When you are your best self, you can give your best to your colleagues. They deserve it.

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