image source: krystyna-rawicz.blogspot.com
At times of volatility, catastrophe and trauma, we often feel like ships in a stormy sea, searching for something to hold tight to, a way to steady ourselves. Here are five anchors to steady and guide school leadership in this time of pandemic-induced global emergency.
- Vision and values
In simpler times—when we could leave our homes for any reason at all, congregate in groups of any size, travel far and wide, and find any grocery on any shelf of any supermarket—school leaders thought a lot about vision. Schools have always sought to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while school staff have sought to align with their school contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.
Shared vision remains more important than ever, and school leadership in a time of crisis means holding strong to values, principles and vision, as anchors to our decision making.
- Navigating tensions
Leading during a pandemic has brought to the forefront of my thinking one of the findings of my PhD: that leadership involves a tightrope-walk between priorities. Leaders constantly navigate tensions: the collective and the individual, accountability and autonomy, the bottom line and the greater good.
Leaders simultaneously make decisions with a view of the dance floor as well as from the balcony, (or, if you like, from both the trenches and the war room). They must consider a range of impacts (individual, organisation, wellbeing, learning, service provision, performance, staffing, financial implications, management of resources, sustainability of business) while keeping all of their individual people in mind. To make effective decisions, they must know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of their contexts, but also best practice occurring elsewhere and the best available evidence of what is likely to work.
In a time of crisis, leaders must act swiftly and with foresight, but also with careful consideration of options, consequences and side effects of actions taken. They must communicate with clarity and purpose, but also with empathy and humanity.
And in a crisis, perfection is the enemy of progress. As Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO, recently explained in regards to emergency response:
“You need to act quickly … Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. … If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. … Speed trumps perfection. … Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”
Leaders must act quickly, and yet know that they may make mistakes and have to evolve and adapt as advice and conditions change.
- Safety before learning
In our independent report Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic, my co-authors and I say that now is a time for ‘Maslow before Bloom’. What we mean, of course, is that a time of global crisis, grief, trauma and instability is a time to put health, safety and wellbeing first; before curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results, wellbeing before learning.
Learning is, of course, important. Our jobs as school leaders, teachers and educators, are to ensure the very best learning outcomes for our students, within the parameters of the unusual emergency circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. But learning (and especially assessment) should not be prioritised above basic human needs.
As time goes on during this pandemic, all those in our communities will be touched by the social, emotional, physical, mental, financial and human impacts of COVID-19. We need to pull back on notions of accountability and focus our efforts on compassion and togetherness. We need to continue to know our people, check in with them even at a distance, and interrogate how we can best support them through this time. It’s also important for leaders to fit our own proverbial oxygen masks so that we can continue to help and serve those in our communities.
- Trusting and supporting teachers
Trust throughout the educational system, and of teachers, is key to ensure a collective approach on all fronts to best serve our school communities during this crisis. Rather than a top-down one-size-fits all approach to education, teachers can and should be trusted to lead.
There are challenges. Time and support are needed to help teachers develop the appropriate competencies and confidence to pivot to, and thrive in, distance learning models. Yet, the nature of a global pandemic is such that the pace of change is brisk and biting. There is little lead-in time and so decision making happens quickly, on the best advice of the day, which can change at any time. Just look at the pace of government announcements. It nonetheless remains important that teachers feel trusted and supported to make the best decisions for the students in their contexts.
In a time of crisis, we need to pare education back to its essentials. Doing less and expecting less goes against the grain of our normal ways of operating, especially in a our profession, in which teachers often measure themselves by how much they provide.
My message to teachers remains similar to my advice on Day 1 of distance learning at my school:
- Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. It’s teaching during a pandemic while juggling working from home and schooling our own children; while the parents of the children we are remotely teaching are working from home and possibly dealing with financial hardship, health challenges and family complexities we cannot imagine. Students, too, will be going through a multitude of challenges, many of which we will not know about as we lead and teach at a distance.
- Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions, pare back to essentials, rethink ways to gather evidence of student learning, find efficiencies and set professional boundaries and routines. Less is more.
- Trust your professional judgement. Teachers know themselves and their students. Do what works. Be ok with less. Be ok with easing back on expectations of yourself, students and parents.
- Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Maslow before Bloom!
Schools are more than places where learning happens. The closure of schools around the world has highlighted the ways in which schools help to address inequities, and how schools act as spaces of safety, nourishment, connectedness and support for many. Everyone—students, teachers and parents—is missing ‘school’ and all that it provides (much more, it turns out, than classroom lessons and assemblies). Video conferencing can provide some semblance of person-to-person check-ins, but there is nothing like being in a room with a class and gauging their responses with the rich data that being there together provides.
For many students, families and teachers, the loss of onsite schooling is felt deeply. We know, though, that we are staying at home to keep ourselves, those we love, and those who are vulnerable, safe. It needs to be done and so schooling must innovate.
However, enthusiasm for opportunities for education reform must not overtake the current conversation. Yes, we are rethinking education. Yes, we can later consider what kind of normal we want to return to, and what we are happy to leave behind. Yes, we can be deliberate about continuing some of the current crisis innovation into our future realities. Life, work, school, pedagogy, assessment and university entrance may never be the same again. But we must consider connectedness and community.
While crises can lead to individualistic thinking in which every person is looking out for themselves, we will best survive this by considering the ways in which we can continue to knit together as families, school communities and a global community.
Supporting one another, connecting in new ways and building a sense of solidarity and ‘we’re in this together’ is what will get us through (to use a Game of Thrones reference) The Long Night. So let’s be in this, together, with generosity of spirit, open communication and empathy.