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How To Lead With Impact During COVID-19

Episode 221 – In this episode, we talk about how to lead with impact when navigating the challenges of COVID-19. We interview Chanie Wilschanski, the Founder of the Early Childhood School of Excellence, about compassion fatigue, how to set boundaries, and how to streamline your leadership to get through volatile change with your team.

Episode Transcript

Chanie WILSCHANSKI:

It is so important as a leader to educate yourself on what these symptoms look like to you can lead with compassion and accountability.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Chanie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

WILSCHANSKI:

Hi, Ron, thanks so much for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We are, of course, delighted to have you back. It’s actually our first three-peat on the Preschool Podcast! We have with us Chanie Wilschanski. She is our first podcast guest to come back for a third time. And I was looking at my notes and it’s way back in 2017 – almost three years ago the last time we had you on the show. So, we’re excited to have you back. Have you been?

WILSCHANSKI:

I’ve been doing really well. I’ve actually had several life changes since then. So, it’s exciting to see what this conversation will bring.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Alright, cool. Well, maybe that’ll be a good place to start, is to get a little bit of an update on what you’ve been up to. For those that don’t know Chanie, she is the CEO of Schools of Excellence. She’s very knowledgeable about running an excellent, high-quality, early-childhood education program. And so what have you been up at Schools of Excellence. What’s new? Obviously, lots of changes in 2020. Tell us what kind of rollercoaster ride you’ve been on.

WILSCHANSKI:

Yeah, so the last time we spoke in 2017, I think I was pregnant with my fourth child and we were living in New York at the time. So, right now, we actually just two weeks ago moved our family to Coral Springs, Florida. So, we bought a house here and we’re settling down our roots here in Florida. So, big, big move; big life change. Kids are in all different schools now and we’re really excited about what’s possible by moving down here.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, cool. That’s a big change. And what about on the professional front? Sounds like lots of changes, too.

WILSCHANSKI:

Sure. So, we’ve had a number of different changes in Schools of Excellence. We really took the time to develop diagnostics and tools and how we can help owners and directors get more to the root causes, some of the challenges that they’re seeing in their schools so they can stop the cycle of being squirrely and trying all these different ideas and it not really sticking or working consistently.

And really creating better diagnostic tools of like “What is really the root cause of this issue? Where is this issue coming from? And then how do we tackle it in a process so that you can have the tools to do it again, even if I’m not sitting right next to you?” So, we spent a lot of time developing our intellectual property and trademark and how we’re really bringing content and training into the world.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s pretty interesting because I do think that’s a challenge, not just in early-childhood education but just generally in terms of getting to the root cause of things, right? Because oftentimes we’re kind of dealing more with the symptoms and that kind of thing. Can you give us a little bit of a teaser on sort like your framework for approaching this?

WILSCHANSKI:

Sure. So, we created something called the Pyramid of Excellence, which is the five stages to build and sustain a school of excellence. And so the five stages are: At the very bottom of the pyramid you have Survival. And on that stage, it’s exactly like it sounds – you are literally trying to survive.

And right now, no matter the size of your school, no matter your profitability or your sustainability, every one is in survival right now because in the survival phase, you’re trying to figure out who you serve, who are you taking care of, what your curriculum looks like, what your structure looks like, who your staff are.

And even if you’ve been a pretty stable school, who you’re serving now is different because parents needs have changed in the psychology and buying behaviors have changed because of COVID [19]. Even if you weren’t hit very strong like we were in New York, it doesn’t matter. The landscape of education has changed forever. So, that’s in the survival phase.

The next phase up is Disordered. That’s a phase where you’re really trying to figure out, what are your roles and responsibilities? Who does what? Where does your time go? What’s important? What’s urgent? What’s not?

And the next phase is Integrated. That’s what you’re trying to start really working on your culture and integrating all the moving key stakeholders in the school – teachers, parents and yourself – and the impact that it’s really going to have. So, that’s where you really start working a lot more on the systems in your school because you’re off of that treadmill of Survival and Disordered.

Next you have Aligned [the fourth phase]. In the Aligned phase is where you start getting buy-in from teachers for culture. That’s where your teachers start coming forward and saying, “I want to be part of this. What can I do? How can I help? How can I be part of the mission here?” Your Why is very, very articulate and clear and your vision is clear that your parents are on board with that, as well.

And Legacy [the fifth phase] is about acquiring other centers. And it’s about, “What am I doing now to leave a legacy even when I’m not here?”

And your school will go through different phases at different times. So, I had a school that was in the Integrated phase right before COVID hit. They’re right back in Survival right now but they’ll jump right back up again. So, really it depends on where the biggest need right now is in your school. So, that’s a 60-second version of a much greater diagnostic and tool.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, I like it. Even with HiMama as a software company, these things resonate in terms of the journey of a company. So, that’s cool. And you mentioned you can be in different stages at different times and kind of go up and down.

And certainly as we’re dealing with this global pandemic, a lot of folks will be in probably sort of the Survival or Disordered mode at the moment. And so one of the things that we’re hearing and seeing a lot in conversation is about mental health. We’re all now in an odd situation right now. Can you tell us what you’re hearing and seeing there?

WILSCHANSKI:

Yeah, so, I think mental health needs to create its definition of what that looks like in an early-childhood center because, depending on the context of who you’re speaking with, mental health will have a different definition. If you’re sitting in a therapist’s office or a psychiatrist’s or you’re having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician, mental health is going to have different contextual meaning depending on where you are.

And so in this context, on the Podcast, where we’re talking to the listeners who are early-childhood directors, executive directors, owners, administrators, whoever, the context of mental health is really about the emotional baggage, the belief system, the trauma of a global pandemic, and what that does to every teacher, to every parent, to the people on the leadership team and how they bring that into the center.

So, I think that it’s extremely important to understand context because it matters. Every single person has endured grief, loss and trauma. It doesn’t matter if you live in a hick town and no one got COVID it in your town. A global pandemic creates grief and loss and trauma. And every person processes it in very different ways.

And the tools that we have to deal with loss and grief are the tools that were given to us when we were kids. Or if you’ve been to therapy before, if you have different tools that were taught to you.

Many, many teachers don’t have tools of how to deal with grief and trauma and loss. And so they deal with it with their reflexes, which might be to shut down, which might be to be unresponsive, which might be true over-function or under-function, which might be to over-share or to vent or to cry too much or come late or start missing deadlines or procrastinate or get angry or be short with people. Those are all manifestations of grief and loss and trauma.

And it is so important as a leader to educate yourself on what these symptoms look like so you can lead with compassion and accountability. Just because someone has experienced trauma and now they’re manifesting itself with anger in the classroom, it doesn’t mean you don’t hold the person accountable. That is not what I’m saying.

You need to understand where the teacher is coming from and then learn the tools of how to show compassion and accountability because there are still standards of excellence and there are still standards of the way that we teach and educate and inspire the next generation of leaders.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a very good point about finding that balance, which is difficult to do. So, what are some of those tools? Any tips you can give us there?

WILSCHANSKI:

Yes, sure. So, I think the first exercise that I want to walk the listener through is understanding what compassion fatigue is. So, the terminology is coined by several different psychotherapists and different psychologists.

And this is experienced more specifically with female leaders in the early-childhood space because females are, by nature, more nurturers, caretakers. We listen empathetically; we care like mama’s do, right? We have this mother bear inside of us.

And when you’re listening to the stories and to the troubles and challenges of dozens of teachers every single day, it is physically going to exhaust you. Even though you’re not physically running a marathon, you are mentally running a marathon.

And compassion fatigue shows itself in that you don’t want to hear anything anymore; you want to just shut your door; you don’t want to go to work. You’re tired; you’re short with your staff. You are looking for a quick fix or whatever it is.

And the first thing I want you to recognize – for those who are listening – is, one, everyone is experiencing some element of this right now, some element of compassion fatigue. So, you’re not crazy; you’re not insane and you’re not alone. You are part of a collective group of leaders who are trying to navigate a very difficult season of their life. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, compassion fatigue is about creating the right boundaries. And boundaries are something that is spoken about so much and overused ad nauseam. So, I want to break it down very concretely here: Boundaries is about creating a specific perimeter around yourself, whether that’s physically, like closing the door, or spiritually or mentally like, “Okay, I turn off my phone at a specific time,” or “I don’t open my e-mail after a specific hour,” or, “I don’t answer phone calls that I don’t recognize a phone number,” or whatever boundary you want to put in place that protects your mental sanity.

And every person who is listening to this is going to have a different boundary because you’re all different people. But I think it’s important to put some boundaries in place that remind you that when you walk through the doors at home, you don’t own the baggage of all of your staff and families. You are not a baggage owner; you don’t own everyone’s baggage. You walk into the house with your own trundle, not everyone else’s.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And certainly some lessons that we can all take out of that and myself included. It’s interesting, too, to hear the definition of compassion fatigue because it’s one of those things where maybe you’re feeling some of those things but you never really knew what it was. So, I’m sure that’s something you’ve heard, too, a lot.

And so I understand you’re doing a bit of a workshop series on this subject, given that it’s something so many people are struggling with. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well?

WILSCHANSKI:

Sure. So, we’re doing something called the Simplify Your School Series. And it’s a series really all about the ripple effect, which is something that I talk about a lot as well. And if you think about the ripple effect, when you stand by a lake or a pond and you throw a rock into the water, it creates this ripple effect.

And in the center of the ripple effect, there’s you, the school leader. And in the outer layer of the ripple effect, right after you, are the staff. And right after the staff are the parents in that three-prong of the ripple effect.

And in order for you to impact the teachers, the parents, the children who are on the outest [sic] layer, you have to take care of yourselves. You have to understand, “What do I need to lead? What are my boundaries? What brings me joy? How do I operate at my peak? What does my calendar need to look like? What are the verbiage and scripts and skills that I need to learn so that I can lead with excellence?”

So, the Simplify Your School Series is all about understanding each of those elements. What does your calendar need to look like? How do we work with our staff to create more accountability? How do we create parent partnerships? And then how do we bring it all together?

So, it’s a four-part series in really simplifying some really complex concepts into a very simplified format of, “Here is a specific strategy to walk away with.” And what we’re going to be doing is part teaching and part done with you co-working.

So, I’m going to be teaching some components and then there are going to be times for the directors on the call and the owners to actually work through the strategies so they leave the call and can immediately implement what I taught them.

Nobody has extra time; nobody has extra money; nobody’s got extra resources. Everyone’s running on a shoestring everything. And so when you take the time to come to a workshop or listen to a podcast, I want you to walk away saying, “That was a great use of my time. I’m really committed to that.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, the practical takeaways are pretty key, for sure. And yeah, it’s interesting, I guess there’s almost a little bit of a theme here in a lot of what you’re saying, which is sort of like taking care of yourself first being really important. It’s like the classic analogy of the oxygen masks in the plan. Like, there’s a reason why they tell you to grab yours first before helping somebody beside you because you kind of have to go in that order, right?

WILSCHANSKI:

And it’s creating that calmness. There was a term coined a little bit ago – I don’t remember exactly by which organization – but right now we’re living in a “VUCA world”. And VUCA stands for a Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous, VUCA.

And if you think about everything that’s going on in all the different areas, not just in COVID, like, what we’ve really experienced here as a country, it’s so volatile, it’s so uncertain, it’s so chaotic, it’s so ambiguous.

And all of those things have an impact on our staff. And I know that so many of you [that] are listening, you’re like, “I just want to make a difference to the kids. I just want have a high-quality center. I just want to get a five-star rating, be a five-star school,” or whatever it is. All of your hopes and dreams.

But the thing they have to realize is that to get to all of your hopes and dreams and desires and the vision that you have for your school, you have to walk through the hard stuff; you have to walk through the pain; you have to walk through it. And that part is uncomfortable. And it’s so dark and dreary in some ways because we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re stumbling around in the darkness and we’re blind a little bit.

But as the leaders, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves, get a coach, invest in something. Like, listen to a podcast right now or whatever it is for you to help fumble through the darkness. Because on the other side of VUCA is calm. And that’s what your staff want – they want a calm leader. They want someone who gives them assurance; they want someone who gives them validation. They want leadership. They want someone that they can rally behind.

And that’s a big, bold responsibility. But if you’re listening to this and you’re in the role, it means you can do it. You’ve got to dig deep. So, I want to leave you with that message. Like everything that you need to lead your school right now you have inside of you. It’s covered by so much uncertainty and insecurities. So, find that withinside [sic] yourself.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And how do you know what sort of stage of the pyramid you’re at? Is it possible to be sort of in a couple of different stages at the same time where maybe you’ve done some Integration but some things are still a little Disordered? How does that work? Because I suppose, like, a big part of this is sort of framing it for yourself and for your childcare organization.

WILSCHANSKI:

So, I mean, we have a specific diagnostic that we give our members inside of our programs and on how to really identify where they are. But to answer your question about is it possible to be in a number of different phases: Sure, you can have different parts of your school, meaning your different parts of your organization might be in different phases.

But the phase that you’re going to work on is in the lowest phase. So, if you have a part of your school that’s in Survival, that’s the part of your school you have to tackle it. If you have a part of your school is in Disorder and then part of your school is in Integrated, work on the Disordered part.

The problem is, it’s more fun to work on the parts in the higher phases. It feels better; it’s ego-stroking; it makes us look good, all of that kind of stuff. But where the beauty happens… I was reading this amazing book. There was a famous boxer who shared that if he doesn’t practice in the dark of night, then he’s going to be shown in the light of morning.

Everything happens in the dark of night – all the practice, all the rituals, waking up at four o’clock in the morning, practicing, practicing, practicing. And then in two minutes of spotlight, when everyone’s looking at him, that’s when all of his practice at night that nobody saw gets shown. That’s when it happens.

So, no one wants to work on the Survival phase. No one wants to do the hard stuff because nobody sees that. No one sees that on television; no one sees that out in the open. None of the parents see that. It’s not shown. It’s the hard work that you do underneath.

But you know where it gets shown? When you have a ripple effect in your school; when staff gets along with each other; when your parents are giving referrals without you asking; when your teachers are coming to you with solutions and solving their own problems; when you can go away for two days and your school isn’t about to burn down. That’s when it shows.

But that doesn’t happen overnight, right? It takes ten years to be an overnight success. You’ve got to slog away. But that’s the hard stuff.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it’s kind of like the book Grit [The Power of Passion and Perseverance] by Angela Duckworth that I always recommend to a lot of people on our team. It’s human nature, like you said. You never want to do the hard stuff, which is why a lot of the productivity experts always say, like, “The first thing you should do in the morning is the thing you want to do the least because that’s when you have the most mental energy.”

WILSCHANSKI:

Right. And Jim Rohn says… I love Jim Rohn’s stuff, but I think one of his quotes that I live by is, “Success is very simple. Wake up every day and do the things that nobody wants to do, period.” It’s very simple. Like, it’s that simple.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, like in Angela Duckworth’s book, too, it talks a little bit about this concept that when you think of really famous, high-performing athletes, let’s say, a lot of people kind of think that they’re like a prodigy, they’re super-talented.

WILSCHANSKI:

Nope!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

But they’re not, you’re right. They’re just the ones who work really, really, really hard over a really long time.

WILSCHANSKI:

And they wake up at 4:00 in the morning and they go into the pool even when they don’t want to. The very amateurish way to live your life is by saying, “I’m only going to do things when I feel like it and when I want to and stuff that I like to do.” Good luck. Pros and successful leaders do things even when they don’t want to, even when they don’t like it and even when they’re not motivated. They do the things that they know [that] consistency compounds.

So, when I tell directors, like, “Send a handwritten card,” they’re like, “How is that going to change my school?” I’m like, “You send a handwritten card to every teacher once a month, you’re going to have a different school in 90 days.” But it sounds so simple. So, they’re like, “It can’t be that easy to have a great culture.”

I’m like, “No, it’s that easy and that hard because nobody sees that you’re writing a thank you card. But the teacher feels valued, appreciated and seen. “And it’s going to show in 90 days.” But we don’t have patience. We want it now, now, now, now, now.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, but the great thing is that at the end of the rainbow or the tunnel, the research and studies also show that people get the most gratification out of doing those hard things at the end. So, like you said, you don’t get the short-term satisfaction because you don’t really feel like doing it or you don’t want to. But when it works after the 90 days – let’s say with the cards – the feeling of happiness is much greater.

WILSCHANSKI:

And the leader has to adopt that mindset because she models that for her staff, right? A great school is a school that’s ready to do long-term projects and play the long game. I’m consistently telling that to my kids. I’m like, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay that you’re not happy right now. It’s okay that you’re in a little bit of pain. You’re going to live. It’s okay. Because at the other end of this, there are amazing things.”

Just to bring this full-circle: I started the podcast of by telling you we purchased the house here in Florida. We saved for this house for ten years. Every month we put money aside for ten whole years.

And I tell that simple story to my kids all the time because if you want something beautiful and you want your dream house or you want something magical, you’re going to work your tail off for that. And it’s not going to happen in a year or two years – it might take a decade. But it’s the consistency to sit and enjoy something that you worked so hard for.

And let me tell you, every time I walk through that front door, I have a silent prayer that I say thank you, thank you to the past-me who had the discipline to put money aside every month and wait until something beautiful came.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, cool. And so I think our listeners can certainly relate to dealing with a lot of pain and hard stuff right now. If they want to check out your workshop series or get in touch with you to learn more about your work and your consulting and in early-childhood education, where can they go to get more information?

WILSCHANSKI:

Great, thanks so much for asking. So, the best place to go right now is www.Chanie.me/SimplifyYourSchool. That’s where they can sign up for our Simplify Your School Series. And they can join our email list and learn more all about us. And I can send you that link so you can put those in the show notes, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. And for our listeners, www.Chanie.me/SimplifyYourSchool. Always, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Our first three-peat, which is really cool! Thanks again for all your work and insights. I really love how you’re taking this research sort of focused approach around creating these frameworks to help early-childhood educators out there. I think it’s excellent stuff!

WILSCHANSKI:

Thank you. I appreciate your time and I enjoyed this. Thanks, Ron!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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