Leading With our Hearts Through the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Laura Kump


On the Western shore of Staten Island in New York City, there is a neighborhood of about 3,000 people called Travis. It is bounded on one side by Fresh Kills, one of the largest garbage landfills in the world, closed in 2001 and reclaimed as an ecological restoration site and public wildlife refuge. The New York Times recently referred to the former landfill as a “pre-Covid healing place.” On the other side is the “chemical coast” section of New Jersey, separated from New York by the Arthur Kill, a tidal creek flowing from Newark Bay. Though it is known for its industrialized atmosphere, this area is also undergoing a sort of restoration, as some local groups and residents seek a higher quality of life.

Almost midway between these two symbols of industrial repair is Public School 26. This is the oldest elementary school on Staten Island, in one of the most geographically isolated communities in New York, served by very few roads or transit lines. The P.S. 26 motto is “small school, big hearts.” It has a student body of about 200, in kindergarten through grade five, from mostly working-class families. Laura Kump, who is a master practitioner with the Center for Systems Awareness, spent nine years before the Covid-19 pandemic as principal of the school, building a vibrant community grounded in social and emotional learning there. When the shutdown began in March 2020, she used the concepts and practices of Compassionate Systems leadership to help the school maintain its learning equilibrium–its hard-won heart–during a very traumatic time.

This is a very personal story, of a school whose students, parents, teachers, and administrators suffered a number of losses during the pandemic. It is also a professional story, by an educator who recognized the power of personal connection in improving the social, emotional, and academic well-being of the children of this community.

— Peter Senge and Art Kleiner


When the Covid-19 pandemic took place, it forced us to rethink our approach to Compassionate Systems and social and emotional learning at our school. We know that social connection and meeting emotional needs are essential foundational cornerstones for any school that is resilient, cohesive and caring. After early 2020, in a school that was locked down  and where many people were grieving the loss of their loved ones, it was difficult to manage in the same way we had before. We used our own experience with Compassionate Systems to overcome polarization through strengthening the social connection and overall well-being in our school’s community.
Learning from an Earlier School Crisis

COVID was the second school-wide crisis I had ever had to manage at P.S. 26. The first crisis had taken place ten years before, just after I became the principal. I had been an educator for 14 years at that time, most of it as a teacher in a very low-income community. I had seen first-hand how children could be written off or failed by the school system. I was motivated to grow as an educator and do everything in my power to advocate for equity in schools. Although I had loved classroom teaching, I realized that to foster lasting change on a large enough scale, the actual system needed to be reformed. It was then that I accepted a school leadership position at P.S. 26.

The crisis was there when I arrived. I was replacing a school leader who had not been viewed as sensitive to the school’s culture. The atmosphere was toxic. Fear, tension and resentment were prevalent. Teachers felt they had been micromanaged and their union was picketing outside the building seeking to have the leader removed, as she was deemed too rigid and not valuing the current staff. As a result of the damaged culture, many students were acting out in classrooms. They said, and thought in effect, “I can do anything I want, and if you try to discipline me, you’ll get fired.” Nobody felt like they were being heard.

I had to rebuild the culture to create a healthier environment for the school community to flourish. I knew that the social energy had to be addressed first. To begin, we worked with a program based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It was therapeutic to go through this process together as a collective group and to examine the role we each played in cultivating our school’s culture. As the adults began to feel better about the system, we started working with the students.

At that time, mental health and family crises were also manifesting, like the tip of the Systems Iceberg. Though the school hadn’t caused these situations, we worked hard to address them. For example, some students didn’t sleep because they were sitting in a closet all night with screaming household members outside the door. Other students told us of police coming to their house at night. We had some serious cases where kids were acting out, tearing apart rooms at school. The staff and I learned how to calm them, how to bring them back from the breaking point, and how to help them re-enter the classroom successfully. For some students, the school became their safe place. We used a cognitive behavioral therapy program developed at Cornell for kids in crisis – Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools (TCIS), which was great for de-escalation.

But I was also looking for a way to avoid similar crises from occurring again in the first place. We knew we needed to be more proactive and help students learn ways to self-regulate their emotions. We looked for approaches that could help us create a more empathetic school environment. We brought in a speaker from a community organization to talk about trauma. This was eye-opening for us all. She used the metaphor of students carrying an invisible suitcase, which they always have with them, even if you can’t see it. The baggage includes labels given to them, like attention deficit disorder or learning disabilities. I thought of all the students that were on medication in my school and began to wonder if they really needed it. I read The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and learned about the research around overuse of medication for ADHD on students affected by trauma. In fact, the research demonstrates that many children affected by trauma are taking medication they might not need. These students would perhaps be better served in healthy school environments where adults and kids could thrive.

We conducted trauma relief workshops, which raised our sensitivity, knowledge and awareness of how to help children relax and prepare themselves for learning. We found our way to collaborative student-centered learning and mindfulness. As we helped students with personal goal setting, I also integrated academic learning with the social-emotional work, because I felt there had to be a balance. These cannot be seen as separate and competing goals or be taught in silos.  Social-emotional and academic learning are strongly connected and need to be cohesively weaved together. Within the next few years, I attended a university fellowship in student-centered learning (SCL), did yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts, read countless books, and consulted many experts. I introduced yoga training for the staff, and several staff members received their 200-hour yoga teacher certification.


The Pandemic and Lockdown

In 2018, I began taking courses at the Center for Systems Awareness. The concept of Compassionate Systems integrated all my seeking, thinking, and questioning into one cohesive package. Everything fit together into a compassionate model that the school’s educational team and I could really use. I designed a community-building pilot project for P.S. 26 and was all set to launch it in March 2020. Then, COVID struck, and the lockdown happened. We had merely three days in which to go from in-person learning to fully remote.

Here was the second crisis. Our school community was hit hard. Many families experienced loss, resource shortages, schedule conflicts, and off-the-charts stress. Children in the school lost members of their families, including grandparents and close family friends. One parent lost her older daughter who had attended our school in her youth. We have only 50 staff members, and many of us lost members of our own families. I too was one of the grieving, as my mother died of COVID in April 2020. This painful loss was made more difficult as I was unable to be with her when she passed, and we could not hold a funeral. This cycle of grief was being experienced across my school community and added to the challenge of engaging in our daily tasks.

Being physically apart from loved ones and my school community took a toll on me. I had to develop and strengthen my capacity to interact with others who were not necessarily in healthy emotional spaces, because we were all flooded with the turbulent emotions caused by these extreme situations. There were many nights when I couldn’t sleep as I was worried. At the same time, as a leader, I had to help others process their own personal suffering. I viewed my role at school as that of a caretaker and motivator, holding us together to keep moving forward. To the teachers and staff, I said, “We’ll be fine. We can do this. I know we got this. I’m here for you no matter what.” I offered yoga and mindfulness classes for free on Zoom so that the staff, families and students had some emotional support. These classes were well attended with particularly strong interest in the mindfulness offerings. Most wanted to know how to move through their personal struggles and yet be there daily to support remote learning.

I told the staff and parents that their job was to focus on the children’s well-being: to make sure they were safe, that they had food, and that they were healthy. If a child couldn’t do the work, we asked: “Why not? Is someone at their house sick? Do they have food? Are they safe? Do they have a computer?” The Department of Education was providing computers, but not fast enough due to the extremely large number of students in need. We went out and delivered any and all remaining devices we had on hand at the school. Staff volunteered, even on weekends, to meet families outside the locked school to give them a device, as well as help navigate ongoing technology issues.

We suspected that academic progress would likely slip, but our thought was that if we could reopen school in September, we could catch up in the next two or three months provided students remained in a healthy emotional space. We focused on putting Maslow before Bloom – emotional well-being above academics. The idea that we should meet basic needs for safety and connection before focusing on challenging academic tasks is one that guided our work.


Rebuilding the School Community

By summer, we knew that school might not reopen in the Fall, so we set a new goal: To recreate the structure of a traditional school day in our remote learning offerings. The thinking was that students, families, and staff would benefit from a more structured approach to managing their time in remote spaces. Making a more predictable structure offered students and families access to live teaching throughout the day. This supported families with their struggle of working and managing students. It also supported staff in feeling more connected to their students and students felt more connected to school.  

We could not lose a year of learning and we did not know when we would be able to reopen for in person learning. That meant we had to rethink our approach and change the way we did things. All the tools I had learned through Compassionate Leadership – the Systems Thinking Iceberg, the Check-ins and other practices – gave me structure for the work. Using these techniques would allow us to change in productive and compassionate ways, which were so needed. Our school’s teaching and administrative staff would once again come together as a community. I already knew we were prepared to do this, because of the way we had supported each other during those first hard weeks. For example, when my mother died, the entire school community supported me.

At the same time, the pandemic had thrown a monkey wrench into our vision for the school. We had long focused our efforts on meeting the social and emotional needs of children and adults through relational-building and collaborative learning. Now that those conditions were seemingly impossible, I was worried that the essence of our school would be lost. We would have to take what was good about our community and reimagine it, restructure it, and rebuild it.

At first, the awkwardness of Zoom was an obstacle. When I found out that some students loved it, I worried about that, too. I was concerned about the long-term effect on introverted children who might spend their lives in their bedrooms on the computer. Another obstacle was the impediment of social distancing. When we opened as a hybrid school in the Fall, we could not even pat each other on the shoulder to comfort one another. In fact, masks hid our facial expressions and muffled our voices. We also had to maintain Zoom calls for families that chose to continue remotely, while running in person classes with less than half our staff present. Never have I felt so challenged.

I managed to stay fully present at the helm of P.S. 26 throughout the many changes, shifts, and pivots our school experienced. The weekly global calls with the MIT Compassionate Systems group were a life preserver for me. Connecting globally with other leaders in education, discussing their own challenges, let me know I was not alone on this journey.

Because of this additional network of support, I was able to throw lifelines to other educators at my school. We learned new ways of sharing support that maintained and even strengthened the connections we already had built. For example, we established Check-ins on Zoom for our daily morning meetings with students, providing them time to reflect on how they were doing. One by one, they would describe how they felt emotionally and self-assess their readiness for the day.

To give students in classes some vocabulary, we used the RULER Mood Meter, a visual tool created by Marc Brackett. It features a multi-colored quadrant where four main groups of emotions are broken into more specific categories. The Check-ins also allowed teachers to visually see the emotional pulse of their classroom. Classes also had sessions in guided mindful breathing every morning, so students and teachers could center themselves for the day. In some Check-ins, we broke into smaller groups, giving teachers and students time to express their thoughts and feelings more completely. Gradually, we discovered that video technology could help people form meaningful bonds.

There were other benefits to this work that began to reveal themselves. For example, a fifth-grade teacher reported that, “Our fifth grade had a high engagement with the grade-level Yale vocabulary words when talking about personal feelings during morning Check-ins. I was pleasantly surprised when students started applying those words to characters we were reading about in complex novels, such as Katherine Applegate’s book, Home of the Brave. The book is about a ten-year-old Sudanese boy who becomes a refugee and emigrates to the US. They recognized that even though they may not relate to a character’s experience completely they could relate to the character’s emotions, and they could empathize. They also began using more thoughtful words to describe themselves at school. For example, we might talk about strategies for feeling ‘valued’ in a group or making sure others felt valued as well. They also used visualization. For instance, if they felt frustrated in learning math, they might call up a mental image of a time they were successful, and what others might have said to help them.”


Looking Forward at P.S. 26

Many of the teachers have commented on how these tools have helped students tune into the feelings of others – even younger students in the earliest grades, despite the limitations of remote learning. “Today, for example,” one first-grade teacher wrote to me, “I was feeling stressed about something, and my students picked up on my emotion through a computer screen! They said, ‘We need to do a check-in right now!’ Following the Check-in, my students reassured me that they loved me and appreciated me for how much I have helped them learn this year. They are learning to read and feel the emotions of others in Zoom. This is a highlight of my teaching career, to say the least.”

During our hybrid period, I set up the schedule so it was as equitable as possible. Many schools had rotating schedules, with two days for a group one week, and three days the next. This didn’t make sense to me, as it heaped more stress on families and children. Before I had practiced compassionate thinking, I might have gone along with it, saying, “What else can I do?,” especially in such uncertain times. But now, I did things differently so I designated Wednesday as a planning day, in which all the teachers would connect remotely together and engage in Check in, planning, grading, and professional learning. For the students on those days, we set up a different type of online class that in some subjects spanned more than one grade. In the past, I might not have been brave enough to try this, because it was outside the model offered by the department of education, but it was what the community needed. 

During this chaotic COVID era, it turned out we needed a lot of new elements. We needed to develop our capacity to realize when a student was struggling, and act as emotional scientists, inquiring about the situation – not emotional judges, making our own assumptions about the reasons behind the struggle. We needed to develop an inquiry stance and set up time, space, and protocols to engage with our students and their families.

We now have plans to reimagine, restructure, and rebuild P.S. 26, so that it is even better when we return. We will hold on to the essence of cultivating strong human connection, even on Zoom. By September 2021, all classrooms were using “Check-in” with students, integrated with existing social-emotional tools like the Yale mood meter. We are integrating Check-ins into all school-based meetings, including PTA and School Leadership Team meetings. Hopefully, people throughout our community will learn to use Compassionate System tools to engage with each other. My dream is that through the feeling of agapé – universal compassion – we can help each other recover from all of the emotional wounds we have suffered and keep compassion and empathy strong for one another in the future.


Laura Kump
Principal | Public School 26, New York City | Department of Education
Staten Island Hub | USA

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