Q&A: Leading the change in education

I was recently interviewed for the American Educational Research Association’s Education Change SIG publication Lead the Change. The Q&A asked challenging and important questions about the field of educational change now and into the future, around the AERA 2021 theme of ‘accepting educational responsibility’. It’s wonderful to contribute to this publication alongside previous contributors such as Ann Lieberman, Yong Zhao, Pasi Sahlberg, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Dennis Shirley, Diane Ravitch, Carol Campbell, Helen Timperley and Mel Ainscow. You can read my responses here in the Lead the Change publication, here in International Education News, and below.

Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Deborah Netolicky (DN): The rhetoric of education policy the world over is about the common good and quality, equitable outcomes for all. In Australia, we had the Melbourne Declaration (Barr et al., 2008) and now the Mparntwe Declaration (Education Council, 2019). Both declare an education goal of excellence and equity for all young people, and the building of a democratic, equitable, just, culturally diverse society that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia likes to imagine itself as a multicultural melting pot of inclusive diversity, yet, as in many countries, our rhetoric and our imagined national identity fall well short of our reality. As Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller (Hameed et al., forthcoming) note, the concept of excellence in education for Indigenous students has been greatly under-theorised and requires a strengths-based rather than a deficit perspective. Racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, ableism, and the reverberations of our colonial past, persist. Inequities remain. Educational change is too often a political ball bounced back and forth, with governments making decisions based on short term political cycles and winning election votes, rather than on holding the line on sustained improvement for all.

Part of ‘accepting educational responsibility’ is working from a foundation of citizenship grounded in a shared moral purpose. Citizen-scholars and citizen-practitioners engage deeply with education committed to excellence, equity, and opportunity for all. We must not ignore the reverberations of past oppressions and the echoes of past violence in our current world. If we are to address the intensifying challenges that face society, education, and individuals, education scholars and practitioners need to make the implicit explicit, deeply interrogating systems, structures, policies, pedagogies, practices, and our own beliefs, behaviours, and language. Scholars, practitioners, and pracademic scholar-practitioners need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege. As many authors argue in the forthcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Equity, Democracy, and Inclusion (Netolicky, forthcoming), positive educational change requires challenging and providing alternatives to Western (that is, White, masculine, materialist, hetero) norms and paradigms.

“We need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege.”

Decolonisation—deconstructing dominant ideologies and dismantling educational structures—is not enough. What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place. This means including, embracing, and investing in Indigenous, culturally diverse, and culturally marginalised ways of knowing, being, teaching, and leading in education. We need these ways of knowing and doing to understand and apply inclusive policies and practices that serve all those in our communities, especially the most vulnerable.

LtC: Much of your work is informed by your positionality as a “pracademic” and the special understandings and experiences that come as a result. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience sitting in this specific space?

DN: Much of my scholarly work has involved looking at education, educational change, professional learning, and educational leadership through the lens of identity (e.g., Netolicky, 2017, 2019, 2020a). I have defined identity as the “situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and to others” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.19). Examining education through the lens of identity allows us to remain focused on education as a human endeavour, wrestling with multiplicities, complexities, and tensions. In our forthcoming chapter, Claire Golledge and I (Netolicky & Golledge, forthcoming) advocate for what we call a wayfinding approach to school leadership that balances intuition with strategy, improvisation with systematisation, empathy with policy, the individual with the whole. This approach, and awareness of the multiple tensions navigated constantly by those working in schools, could be considered and engaged with by those in the field of educational change.

In the book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools (Netolicky, 2020d), I utilise my positionality as boundary spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. The structure of the book mirrors the ways I bring a practice lens to scholarship, and a research lens to my daily work enacting theory into practice. In our upcoming Journal of Professional Capital and Community Special Issue—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I (Hollweck et al., forthcoming) explore the identities, spaces, and tensions of what can be called pracademia. The multipart identities and multiplicitous spaces of pracademia involve simultaneous active engagement in education scholarship and practice.

Democratic educational change benefits from those operating in different educational spaces and also those operating between and across various educational arenas and communities. The pracademic whose day job is in the world of practice is free from the metrics and pressures of academia, free to engage in scholarship in some ways on their own terms, but also often in or beyond the margins of the academe. The pracademic whose day job is in a university is active in the practice of school-based education through working amongst and alongside practitioners, immersed in the work of school contexts, and engaging in scholarship ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘of’ those in schools. Often the in-between spaces involve unpaid bridging, sharing, and collaborating work.

Identity work—of pracademics, practitioners, or academics—can be part of scholarship that is a political act, edging from the margins of the academe towards the centre, in which we challenge ourselves to do “writing that matters – to us, to our communities, to our nations, to social justice, to the greater good” (Netolicky, 2017, p.101). Education theory and practice are always intertwined, but embracing the concept of pracademia in educational change is about intentionally embracing nexus and community. It is about co-creating a collective space shared by teachers, school leaders, scholars, policymakers, political advisors, and community members. It is about working within and across education spaces, and working together.

LtC: In some of your recent work regarding the future of education in a Post-COVID world, you speak to both the possibilities for a return to some practices and change for others. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike to create, as you say, reform for good?    

DN: Injustices and deficiencies in our education and social systems are being revealed during the pandemic. Often multiple and intersecting disparities such as racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and cultural inequities became evident in, for example: the significantly increased risk to women’s employment and livelihoods compared to men’s; and the increased risk of mortality from COVID-19 of Indigenous Australians, ethnic minority groups in the UK, and Black Americans, as compared to their White counterparts. The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education (Netolicky, 2020b). The person—child, student, teacher, leader—has come into sharper focus. Care and collaboration rose to the top of the priority list in education (Doucet et al., 2020), as did increasingly flexible ‘whole-person’ approaches to judging student success and providing student pathways for future success. What has receded is a focus on standardised testing as education systems are forced to reflect on how the apparent success of education is measured, and negative impacts of cultures of competition, surveillance, and hyperaccountabilities. While tertiary entrance examinations went ahead in Australia in 2020, alternate admissions pathways were also introduced by Universities. These include calculation of a predicted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) based on students’ Year 11 results, and a Special Tertiary Admissions Test available to all students including those studying vocational pathways at school. In the UK, examinations (GCSE, A-Level, Scottish Highers, and Scottish Advanced Highers) were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, replaced with aggregated teacher-assessed grades that currently form the basis of UCAS applications. US universities have varying admissions policies, but most are currently ‘test-optional’ for a year or more (some permanently), meaning applicants do not have to sit the SAT or ACT standardised college admissions test. Rather, US applicants are submitting portfolios of achievements, employment, and community involvement to demonstrate their readiness for university. Universities leading flexible admissions criteria and processes (including portfolio entry, virtual tours, and online interviews) may help to change the focus of schools towards preparing students for beyond school, rather than on succeeding in examinations at the end of school. These increasing flexibilities may also go some way to democratising the university admissions process for marginalised groups.

During periods of remote learning, educators asked themselves: (1) What is it that we’ve missed during remote education that we want to bring back to schooling and education?; and (2) What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to? (Netolicky, 2020c). Underpinning these questions are what we—those of us working, teaching, and leading each day in schools and universities—have come to realise are paramount: health and wellbeing, the importance of learning for all students regardless of circumstance, meaningful work, community, connectedness, adaptability, and resilience. We learned that governments, education systems, and schools need strong, clear leadership that can respond to crises with immediacy while considering the long-term view and the needs of the specific community. We learned that technologies can support teaching, learning, collaborating, and developing student autonomy, but cannot replace the connection, engagement, and learning that is possible when we are face to face. We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.

“We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care.”

Teachers have missed seeing students in person, and the complex and important non-verbal communication of the classroom, in which the teacher can ‘read the room’, see how each young person is approaching the day and the lesson, re-engage a disengaged student, or re-teach a concept to those who aren’t getting it. Students have missed school as a place where they see their friends and their teachers. What we would benefit from continuing to develop are:

  • Curricula in which students are active agents;
  • Use of a range of technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, and communication, and to empower students in their learning;
  • The declining focus on high-stakes testing and cultures of competition between schools and education systems, replacing this with a focus on multiple pathways to success and flexible alternatives that address the needs of students and their families; and
  • Providing trust, support, and resourcing to the teaching profession so that educators can get on with the complex work of serving their communities.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

DN: Transformational professional learning— “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.18)—has the capacity to support schools and school systems to successfully propel fruitful educational change. I argue (Netolicky, 2020d) for professional learning for those working in schools that:

  • Is targeted and ongoing;
  • Is driven by educational (not corporate or political) agendas;
  • Considers identity and humanity, providing high support and high challenge; 
  • Offers voice, choice, and agency to the adult learner; 
  • Pays close attention to context, culture, and relationships, avoiding one-size-fits-most models; 
  • Enables collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, and allows respectful disagreement; 
  • Broadens our definition of professional learning beyond courses or conferences; and  
  • Invests time, money, and resources in the learning of teachers and school leaders. 

Those in the field of educational change can support practitioners through teacher training, partnerships, sharing their scholarship broadly, and supporting practitioners undertaking post-graduate study. In my literature class, we are currently studying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussing the ways in which this 1985 novel continues to resonate with modern readers, dealing as it does with inequities; misuse of power to protect the needs of a few; unjust class structures; oppression due to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and reduction of individual freedoms with increased government control in the name of a ‘greater good’ (something we have experienced during the pandemic). One of the characters talks about the intention of the novel’s distressing dystopian reality as intended to be “better” but notes that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” We need education that is good for all, not just good for some. It is imperative that we continue to consider the very purpose of education, and how we invest in what we value. I often talk in my workplace about changing culture and building trust ‘one conversation at a time’. We all have a responsibility to change education for the better for all students, one conversation, policy, study, action, paper, citation, webinar, social media post, at a time. Scholars can ensure that they are speaking not only to one another, but to communities, governments, and education professionals. We can communicate our scholarly work through accessible channels (such as open access, and popular, online, or social media) so that it is available to those working in schools.

Those working with, and alongside, schools and school systems can do so with an understanding of the realities of the lived experiences of school-based educators, including: intensification of workload; increasing job complexity; and escalating emotional stresses resulting from family and social issues impacting students such as violence, financial difficulties, discrimination, and mental health. We can resist the short termism of fast policy change that follows election cycles, in which politicians present education policy quick fixes or simplistic solutions to win votes, rather than playing the long game of education. We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements. We can challenge deficit media narratives around teaching and schools when they are accused of ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and instead work to instil trust in, offer alternate narratives of, and engage in scholarship that shares the voices and complexities of, the teaching and school leadership profession.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

DN: One exciting thing I see happening in the field of educational change is the global, networked approach fortified and amplified by the pandemic. Collaboration—local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all—is key to a positive future. Now, more than ever, we are talking, researching, and working together, across societies, countries, systems, sectors, and fields, to co-design solutions to injustice, inequity, and discriminatory structures and practices.

An ongoing development in educational change and other fields is an increasing diversity of voices, perspectives, and representations. As Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I noted in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky et al., 2019), and as is evident in my experience as editor of two books aiming to share diverse perspectives, this is not easy to achieve. It is often those with important perspectives to offer—from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, and (dis)abilities—who are least able to contribute, for a range of complex reasons. It remains important for all scholars, educational leaders, and organisers of conferences and events, to consider who is cited, who is invited, and who is excluded, and to pursue the ongoing work of diversity and inclusion. We need to ask ourselves what behaviours and language we accept without challenge. We need to speak against microaggressions in our own professional and personal contexts. We need to consider how measurements of educational ‘excellence’ might perpetuate discrimination, favouring some and disadvantaging others. What do our measures measure, and what do our methods of research reinforce?

We need to seek out and seek to understand Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, ways of knowing, theories, and theorists. Including diverse cultural positions and approaches to research moves from problematising and othering cultural minorities, to expanding perspectives and the current knowledge base (Shay, 2019). What is exciting is the increasing valuing, reclaiming, and development of Indigenous research methodologies. Australian examples include Melitta Hogarth’s Indigenous Critical Discourse Analysis (Hogarth, 2017, 2018) and Marnee Shay’s Collaborative Yarning Methodology (Shay, 2019). Drawing simultaneously on Indigenous and Western methodologies—learning, working, and researching at ‘the interface’ (Ryder et al., 2020)—can challenge societal norms (Hogarth, 2017) and lead to innovation, the formation of new knowledge, and the development of culturally safe methodologies (Ryder et al., 2020). It is this work at the boundary, the interface, or the nexus that offers possibilities, as it means not binary thinking but both/and thinking in which new spaces, communities, and knowledges are formed, that can move educational change forward, while honouring and acknowledging its past.

References

Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., Bartlett, D., Pike, B., & Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F. J. (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic: An Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID19 School Closures. Education International & UNESCO.

Education Council. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Carlton South, Victoria: Education Services Australia.

Hameed, S., Shay, M., & Miller, J. (forthcoming). “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Hogarth, M. (2017). Speaking back to the deficit discourses: A theoretical and methodological approach. The Australian Educational Researcher44(1), 21-34.

Hogarth, M. D. (2018). Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy. (Doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology).

Hollweck, T., Campbell, P., & Netolicky, D.  M. (forthcoming). Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.

Netolicky, D. M. (2017). Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and scholarly identityKOME 5(1), pp. 91-103.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020a). Being, becoming and questioning the school leader: An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle. In R. Niesche & A. Heffernan (Eds.) Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research, pp. 111-125. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020b). Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education. In Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During COVID-19 (e-book). World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020c). School leadership during a pandemic: Navigating tensionsJournal of Professional Capital and Community5(3/4), 391-395.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020d). Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., & Golledge, C. (forthcoming). Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Ryder, C., Mackean, T., Coombs, J., Williams, H., Hunter, K., Holland, A. J. A., & Ivers, R. Q. (2020). Indigenous research methodology – weaving a research interface. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(3), 255-267. 

Shay, M. (2019). Extending the yarning yarn: collaborative yarning methodology for ethical Indigenist education research. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-9.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

NEW BOOK KLAXON: Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

“The work of an educator has never been challenged the way it is today. Leadership in education during current political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and global health crisis may sound like a mission impossible. But wait, this future-focused volume comes to the rescue for educational leaders from classrooms to ministerial cabinets. It is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand what it is to be a leader in the post-pandemic world.”

Pasi Sahlberg – Professor of Education Policy, The University of New South Wales and author of Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland

I am beyond thrilled to announce the soon-to-be-released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy, an exciting edited collection of contributions by outstanding authors in the field of educational leadership.

As its title suggests, this book presents future alternatives in the educational leadership space. Its contributions consider the history of the field of educational leadership, what the reality of educational leadership is right now, and importantly, what is needed in educational leadership next.

This book offers provocations for what’s now and what’s next in educational leadership, simultaneously bringing the field both back to its basics—of equity, democracy, humanity, and education for all—and forward to productive, innovative, and necessary possibilities. Written during the pandemic reality of 2020, this collection shares the global voices and expertise of prominent and emerging leaders, scholars, and practitioners in education from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. Authors engage with the complexities and uncertainties of leading in education. They examine research, reflections, and real stories from which school leaders, education system leaders, policymakers, and researchers in the field of educational leadership, can learn, and in which they will find honesty, authority, and inspiration to guide the future of the field. The new perspectives and hopeful alternatives presented in this outstanding book are essential to researchers, school leaders, policymakers, and are key to advancing education into positive and democratic futures.

I have edited this outstanding volume and am incredible grateful to the book’s contributors for their thought-provoking, important chapters, written during the tumult of 2020, often during rolling lockdowns, university and school closures and reopenings, remote teaching, educational upheaval, fast policy, anxiety, uncertainty, and crises.

Thank you to Beatriz Pont for writing the Foreword and to Professors Yong Zhao, Jane Wilkinson, Pasi Sahlberg and Ellie Drago-Severson for their endorsements of the book. Yong Zhao describes it as “a fantastic collection of brilliant voicesa much-needed hopeful volume“. Jane Wilkinson calls it a “timely and important book” providing “a rich and diverse set of insights into the past, present, and potential future of educational leadership“. Ellie Drago-Severson says it is “a treasure trove of insights and wisdom to help shift paradigms in educational leadership“. Pasi Sahlberg asserts that the book is a “future-focused volume” that “comes to the rescue for educational leaders from classrooms to ministerial cabinets” and “a must-read for anyone hoping to understand what it is to be a leader in the post-pandemic world.

I can’t wait until the book is published. In the meantime, check the link to the book (currently available for pre-order and on sale) and the Table of Contents below for more details.

Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Table of Contents

  • Foreword. Beatriz Pont
  • Introduction: What’s now and what’s next in educational leadership. Deborah M. Netolicky

Section I: Knowledge and Theory of Educational Leadership

1. Back to the future: Recuperating educational administration? Pat Thomson

2. Leading forward by salvaging for the future. Christine Grice

3. Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. Deborah M. Netolicky and Claire Golledge

4. Leading in context: Lessons from Nuance. Michael Fullan

5. Distributed leadership and networking: Exploring the evidence base. Cecilia Azorín, Alma Harris, and Michelle Jones

Section 2: Diversity and Inclusion in Educational Leadership

6. Multilevel distributed leadership: From why to how. Asmaa Alfadala, Richard Paquin Morel, and James P. Spillane

7. “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller

8. Leadership, identity, and intersectionality. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley

9. Women as leaders in education: What works and what must we improve? Vivienne Porritt

10. A tale of two leaders: Reflecting on senior co-leadership in higher education. Karen Edge

Section 3: Systems and Structures for Educational Leadership

11. Leading large-scale educational change in the 21st Century: Educational leadership pre-, during, and post-pandemic. Carol Campbell

12. Educational administration’s Paradises Lost: A flâneur/se stroll through the futures past. Eugenie A. Samier

13. Schools as ecosystems of leadership: Leading by all and for all. Liliana Mularczyk

14. Leading to liberate learning: Educational change meets social movements. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo

15. What could education leadership look like outside the system? Annie Kidder, Eloise Tan, and Christine Corso

  • Conclusion: Educational leadership for all. Deborah M. Netolicky
Authors of Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

Distance Learning Round 3: Applying what we’ve learned

Screenshot from today’s video lesson.

In Western Australia we have been lucky that our periods of COVID-19-related lockdown or distance learning have been counted in weeks, not months. In fact, until the weekend, we had gone almost ten months with no community transmission of coronavirus.

Monday was to be the first day of the academic year for most students in Western Australia, but as 2020 taught us, COVID-19 disruption can strike at any time and change circumstances. One hotel quarantine case of the B117 variant of the novel coronavirus, and Perth was put into a five-day lockdown at 6pm on Sunday night, hours before the first day of school was due to begin. The Premier’s announcement came at lunchtime Sunday, giving school leaders just enough time to meet to plan the response, organise communications, and open schools so that staff could drop in before lockdown commenced to collect anything they might need for remote teaching.

Luckily, this was unlike the announcement in April last year that pressured schools and teachers with significant extra work to begin a hybrid learning environment with students learning from home and from school, simultaneously. Rather, what was announced was a one-week extension of the school holidays. Schools did not need to open for essential workers, nor did they have to provide resources for learning from home. Many independent schools had, however, already started their school years, so student lockers were filled with books and boarders had arrived at boarding houses. Other schools, having not started the school year, had IT devices and books not yet distributed to students.

Government schools are honouring the Monday to Friday extension of the holiday break. Some independent schools launched into remote learning from Tuesday or Wednesday for all students K-12. At my school, we took a balanced approach. The academic year for our K-10 students was postponed for the week, with teachers spending their time at home preparing lessons for Week 2, possibly to be delivered using distance learning if the lockdown is extended due to testing or case numbers. After two days of teacher preparation (of remote lesson plans, instructional videos, Teams functionalities and resources), teaching of courses in Years 11 and 12 began today (Wednesday) via distance learning.

This lockdown and period of remote learning feels different to the scramble in March last year. Even then, we were considered and prepared in our approach. In 2020, in the most isolated city in the world, we had seen the virus coming across the globe like a tidal wave we knew would reach our shores. But it was still a case of building the plane while flying it, and finding ways to listen to our community to figure out what was working well and what could be improved. This time our plan had been refined by deep reflection on lessons learned from our last two rounds of distance learning, and we continued to base our decisions on the following key principles.

  • The wellbeing of all in our community, including students, families and staff. We did not want to rush into providing a home learning scenario for all students as families and teachers were busy preparing their households for the lockdown. Parents and teachers were organising to work from home, while having their children at home.
  • Clear and streamlined communication. Everyone was consuming and coming to terms with fast-changing news, a new suite of rules and restrictions. A bombardment of communication from the school, or from teachers about remote learning, was not what our community needed on top of the firehose of information they were processing. We ensured clear communication through a couple of key channels. Our All Staff Microsoft Team allowed for detailed, dynamic communication for and among staff.
  • Clarity of plan. In 2020, while learning in Western Australian schools returned to face to face, the leadership team continued to iterate and improve the distance learning model for what we thought might be a ‘next time’. That plan—what we called Distance Learning 3.0, as well as previous emergency response planning—made Sunday’s planning much easier. We knew what was likely to work, and we could swiftly tweak the plan for the current scenario and for what is most appropriate for our community, based on a range of previous feedback.
  • Collaboration. It has been heartening to see the collaboration between staff in our virtual spaces this week. Staff are creating how-to videos for one another, sharing resources, and reaching out. There is an incredible and uplifting sense of solidarity and staff community, even when a bushfire emergency was added to this week’s lockdown scenario.

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot in education about how to bring humanity together with precision of instruction and collaborative technologies so that remote learning is effective, reassuring and provides connectedness. Today, on our first day of distance learning with Year 11 and 12 students, there has been tremendous uptake and engagement by students. I have been buoyed by feedback from teachers, parents and students, and energised by interactions with my own class and their openness to beginning our course at a distance.

Going slowly, carefully, and with clarity in our response to the latest lockdown has allayed overwhelm and anxiety. It has given time, space and resources for teachers to design remote education for their students that is excellent, equitable and realistic for the context in which we find ourselves. Our approach balances best practice in remote teaching and learning with safeguarding the wellbeing of students, families and staff. We have been able to respond realistically, responsibly and with agility to changes in circumstance, and will continue to do so. With any luck, our five-day lockdown will end after five days.

Staff development and wellbeing

Source: @suju pixabay.com

Wellbeing is an area in schools that is becoming increasingly important, including the wellbeing of staff. Being well, and being an organisation that supports staff to be well, is complex. This is especially true in schools where work comes in intense, relentless waves, and caring for others can deplete staff resources for looking after themselves.

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Meaningful work, a sense of community, shared values, and a feeling of ‘fit’, are also important. Investing in staff professional learning, valuing staff by supporting them in pursuing their own goals, and working to develop staff sense of belonging to community, are ways to foster staff wellbeing. We feel buoyed when we feel that through our work we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that we are making a positive difference beyond ourselves. We want to know that what we do matters. And we want to be able to contribute professionally without eroding our own wellbeing or burning out.

Collaborative, vibrant cultures of trust allow staff to flourish. I have often quoted an excerpt from Susan Rosenholtz’s 1991 book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She describes educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (p. 208). I love to imagine a school’s staff as a mass of fuel rods, huddled together and buzzing with an energy that feeds the group, creating fission that results in a chain reaction of positive changes rippling through the organisation.

Somehow, in 2020, in my teaching and learning portfolio at my school, we managed to review and redesign our student school reports, craft a Teaching and Learning Philosophy, and develop Learner Attributes that describe the qualities of lifelong learners that we aim to cultivate in our students. All while working with Executive and Council to finalise the school Strategic Plan. In addition, we managed to develop a refreshed staff development model, which I am thrilled to launch with staff this week as they return for the new academic year.

Importantly, the staff development model has emerged out of collaboration and consultation with staff in all areas of the school, in all sorts of roles (from teaching to administration), from multiple faculties and multiple year levels. The meetings I had last year with groups of staff passionate about the professional growth of themselves and others were always energising and left me filled with excitement for the possibilities. Emerging as it did from people within the school, I am pleased that the resulting model aligns with the best of what research says provides meaningful opportunities for professional learning, and with my own belief that staff development should be focused on growth and support, and on trusting and empowering staff to develop themselves in ways that are meaningful to them.

The staff development model builds on what has existed previously. Key features include:

  • Alignment with school strategy while honouring individual needs.
  • Opportunities for all staff, not only teaching staff. We are and educational organisation committed to the development of all our people, so staff development needs to reflect this.
  • A focus on staff individuality and agency. The COVA principles apply: choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity.
  • A range of development and review processes that include self-reflection against professional standards, goal setting, easy-to-generate feedback from appropriate stakeholders, and intentional, supportive conversation.
  • A suite of options from which staff can choose, with differentiation for career stage, professional interests, and vocational aspirations. These options were developed by a range of staff who know their colleagues and the school culture. I’m eager to see how they are received and taken up.

I look forward to building on the foundation of this model, and working iteratively with staff to improve it over time based on staff needs and feedback. Tomorrow, staff return and we will feel the buzz of the beginning of another year, grateful to be together (although at a physical distance appropriate for our COVID-19 times) and ready for what lies ahead.

20 things I learned in 2020.

I have written less in 2020 on this blog than in any other year since starting it in 2014. Like many, I have been busy, shell shocked, wrung dry, and spread thin by the events (personal, local and global) of this year. Before this one there have been 20 blog posts in 2020. I almost didn’t want to ruin that symmetry by writing post #21, but here it is: a brief run down of those things that this year brought into sharp relief for me.

Of course, I learned plenty things this year, such as how to dress for video calls, that living in the world’s most isolated city is a blessing during a pandemic, and that full toilet paper shelves in supermarkets can be symbolic of a community’s sense of psychological safety. But these didn’t make my list of 20 things I ‘learned’. Perhaps I should have titled this blog post ‘20 things I already knew but learned for real in 2020’. The experiences of this year have helped me understand their significance beyond their aphoristic ‘truthiness’. And here they are:

  1. We need to listen to research and science, not opinion, misinformation, and social media noise. But research and science can’t tell us everything. Sometimes we don’t know, or we don’t know yet. We need to make the best decisions we can with the best information we have.
  2. The Western world moves at a cracking pace that isn’t healthy, sustainable, or good for the planet. We need to rethink the ways in which we live and work, but it’s difficult to change our norms, assumptions, and ingrained ways of behaving and being in the world.
  3. We don’t need to be in the office or workplace to be working. We can lead more flexible and integrated work-home lives.
  4. Our world is full of inequities that become starker and more sickening during a crisis.
  5. Health and wellbeing are paramount, and are the responsibility of everyone. To ensure the health of populations around the world, governance and leadership matter, but so do the actions of each individual.
  6. We are relational, interdependent, social organisms whose biology draws us to one another – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. When we are forced to distance from one another, it hurts.
  7. Among the most important things in life are our family and friends. We must live our lives as though being with those we love is one of our essential needs.
  8. Wellbeing is more than being physically well. Anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and trauma can have wide ranging and unexpected impacts.
  9. Meaningful work is crucial to wellbeing.
  10. Technologies can help us to connect with one another, but do not replace face to face connection.
  11. Webinars and virtual conferences allow greater breadth of participation but do not allow the time and head space of a physical conference held away from home.
  12. There are many in our societies who are undervalued but whose work is essential and often invisible. Cleaners, grocery suppliers, delivery drivers, facilities managers, nurses, doctors, care workers, pharmacists, and teachers deserve ongoing professional trust and respect.
  13. Teachers can’t be replaced by technology, but technologies can enhance teaching and allow students to display independence, resilience, and autonomy in their learning.
  14. Remote teaching and learning (like any major undertaking) requires careful design and responsive implementation if it is to be successful.
  15. Schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.
  16. When leading during a crisis it is tempting to focus on the immediate, the problematic, and the measurable, but leaders must simultaneously consider the possible, the human, and the humane.
  17. Collaboration is key to a positive future: local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, and productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all.
  18. It’s hard to support others when we are ourselves struggling. It’s hard for a community to support each other when many are struggling.
  19. Being kind to others means listening with empathy and taking positive action, sometimes without being asked.
  20. Being kind to ourselves means giving ourselves permission to say no, being present with our feelings and reactions, and prioritising what’s important to us.

As we near the end of 2020, I hope that, in amongst the challenges and difficulties this year, each of you experienced moments of hope, gratitude, and reflection.

Leadership in 2020

Source: Shutterstock

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, while leadership is about service, in order to lead we need to look after self. Familiar analogies–of fitting our own oxygen masks before we can help others, and filling our own cup before we can pour from it into the cups of others–apply. Leading involves difficult, complex, human, relational work. Leaders need to build in their own mechanisms for wellbeing, such as pauses, support, breaks, and doing those things that nourish and replenish us.

I have been quiet on the blog this year. There are a few reasons. 2020 (probably enough said). A new job. An exciting behind-the-scenes project. Prioritising the important stuff (including family and self-care, as well as work, writing, and advocacy) over feelings of obligation or guilt. Working on saying ‘no’ sometimes.

This year has served up a squall line of disruption and distress. Since March, leaders in all industries have been responding at pace to relentless changes and uncertainty. We have had to reconnect with one another and reimagine our fields. We have had to reconsider the foundations of leadership. We have asked: How have we historically done things? How could we do things now? How might we do things differently? How do we want our world to be? How do we each want to be? What really matters and how do we enable and protect what is most precious and pressing?

Recently, as part of the WomenEd Australia network group, I participated (from afar) in the WomenEd global virtual unconference (a participant-driven meeting). WomenEd—a global grass roots association and 35,000-strong international community, based out of the UK and co-founded by Vivienne Porritt, Jules Daulby, and Keziah Featherstone—is a movement that aims to connect and support women in education, and to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the education sphere. It encourages diverse educators to be ‘10% braver’, to shift out of their comfort zone little by little.

The team of WomenEd Australia prepared a video presentation that explored what influences our leadership, available on YouTube.

In my video reflection for the unconference, I discussed that my own practices of leading are anchored in working towards a shared vision and moral purpose. I begin from a base of trusting in the capacity of those throughout the organisation, and in the importance of supporting and investing in teachers. Good leaders build good leaders.

In the video, I also explain that my leading practices are underpinned by frameworks for action. These include:

  • Consciously navigating tensions. Switching between the ‘dancefloor’ and the ‘balcony. Being strategic while also working to understand the lived experience of those in the school and community. Communicating with clarity and also empathy. ‘Leading fast and slow’ – at once able to respond quickly but also to work strategically at the long game; implementing gradual change with the aspirational end in mind.
  • Applying clear frameworks for decision making with consistency and transparency. One thing we are desperately missing during 2020 is predictability; knowing what to expect and what is likely to come next. I really hope that 2021 can bring more certainty and less anxiety.
  • Meaningful collaboration and consultation. Working at ‘we’, ‘alongside’ and ‘together’. Seeking out dissenting voices and seeking to understand multiple perspectives. Some of the most exciting and uplifting parts of my leadership role are working with a range of diverse stakeholders on productive, positive change.
  • Marrying clear policy and process with responsiveness and adaptability, qualities brought into sharp focus by the constantly changing circumstances of 2020.

Recently, the Year 12s at my school had their final Valedictory celebrations. In their yearbook, I pointed them towards Mariannne Williamson’s words, in which she encourages us to be our brave, unique selves.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine.”

Shining has often felt out of the realms of possibility this year. Surviving is more likely to describe how many are feeling, even those who others may say have shone and been part of significant or invaluable work. Part of leading may involve demonstrating strength or holding the line, but leading also encompasses empathy, vulnerability, and sitting with discomfort. We can be powerful beyond measure, especially when we give ourselves permission to take time and care for ourselves, when we support and energise one another, and when we work towards a common goal, one tiny nudge at a time.

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

Today I shared with teaching staff our school Distance Learning Plan 3.0. While Western Australia continues—for now—in a bubble of semi-normality, we are aware, as other places in the country and the world show, that COVID-19 is an illness that can explode in a community at any time, despite the best precautions.

At my school, we enacted distance learning during Term 1 for a period of about three weeks, and then were ‘locked down’ during the two week school holiday break before students began returning to school for Term 2. We generated feedback from our community at that time, which suggested the following for our next round of distance learning.

  • We need to ensure we are differentiating our approach. Distance learning needs to look different for different ages and stages, and for different subjects. As a kindergarten to Year 12 school, students (and their parents!) require varied approaches to distance learning, relevant to developmental age and capacity for autonomy in learning. Older children are more likely to cope with increased opportunities for flexibility and independence; younger children need scaffolds, structures, technologies and resources appropriate to them. Subjects that are more content heavy and theoretical require different approaches to those that are more practical. We need to fit the pedagogical and technological tools to the learning purpose.
  • We need to support student organisation, structure and routine. For example, by setting out for students a clear structure to the day, and a clear plan for the day and week in advance so they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • We need to provide live video lessons and pastoral video check-ins, for learning and connectedness.
  • We need to provide a range of teaching and learning content, blending modes and approaches.
  • Predictable and streamlined communication works best. The Goldilocks approach is what we are aiming for here: not too little and not too much.
  • Workload needs to be manageable for students and teachers. My understanding from colleagues in Victoria and overseas is that long term lock down–including working, teaching and learning from home–is exhausting for all. Especially in the early years, set work for children needs to be manageable for parents.
  • Wellbeing is essential. Ill-being, trauma, anxiety and inequities have increased in our world during this global pandemic (which was preceded in Australia by a terrifying bushfire season). We need to build in time and encouragement for nutrition, hydration and physical activity, and regular breaks from screens and from the relentlessness of a life in constant lock down.

The main elements of our Distance Learning 3.0 model are the following.

  • Teacher instruction: in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, delivered synchronously (live) and asynchronously (for students to access in their own time).
  • Student collaboration: through virtual and online platforms.
  • Student independent work: in which students manage their own time and work autonomously.
  • Student reflection: in which they are encouraged to use metacognitive strategies, reflect on own learning and set clear targets for improvement.

All of these elements are underpinned by trust in the professional capacity and professional judgement of teachers as experts in curriculum (what they are teaching), pedagogy (how to teach so students learn), and their students.

key elements of our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 – wellbeing is central

Wellbeing is at the centre of our distance learning model. We have deliberately built in a focus on the wellbeing of our students, parents, and teachers by integrating the following.

  • Shortening lesson times and increasing break times during periods of distance learning.
  • Including one Student-Directed Learning Day per week for Years K-10. This day is a ‘non-contact’ day of learning in which students organise their time to complete set work, and teachers prepare, mark and respond to student queries. The day will be cycled through the days of the week, depending on when distance learning begins (e.g. Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on).
  • Paring back content to the essentials and rethinking the way students can engage with content.
  • Reconsidering the ways in which students can show their learning, and redesigning or rescheduling assessments where appropriate.
  • Continuing to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 is the plan we hope to never have to use, but as I explained in my last post, it’s the plan we would be irresponsible to be without.

COVID-19 and distance learning: Preparing, not just reacting

I’ve lived through Melbourne winters. They’re cold, wet, and dark, but the great thing about them is all the warm, cosy places to socialise, connect, enjoy the arts, attend festival events, watch and play sports, eat delicious food, and drink a beverage of choice with friends, family, and strangers. Life in lockdown, in the middle of a Melbourne winter, must be incredibly hard for everyone. While the mist still rises off the Yarra in the early morning, and stormy colours swirl in Port Phillip Bay, most of what makes Melbourne winters great is currently cancelled. Adults are working from home. Students are learning from home. Everyone is staying home. Face masks have become part of daily life. I can only imagine what it feels to live a Melburnian’s current reality.

Over in Perth, Western Australia, life is different. We had about four weeks of lockdown, but are now in what our state government calls ‘Phase 4’ of restrictions easing. That means that the only restrictions are the two square metre rule indoors, 50% capacity at major venues, and a ‘hard border’ between the rest of the world and our WA bubble. Businesses are open as long as they have a COVID-19 plan for contact tracing, extra cleaning, and appropriate physical distancing for adults. Many are working back in their corporate offices. Community sport is being played. People are travelling around the state (at four times the size of Texas and twelve times bigger than the UK, that’s plenty of landscape to cover). Schools have full attendance of students and staff, with classes being taught face to face and assemblies and other school events being held in ways that are compliant with government regulations. Students—including those who are 17 and 18 years old like the Year 12s I teach—are considered exempt from the physical distancing rules.

Things feel strangely normal (apart from hand sanitiser at every turn, contactless greetings, half empty stadiums, holding meetings and events in rooms big enough to  allow for physical distancing,  and watching what is happening elsewhere in the world unfold). We know we are incredibly fortunate. We also know that COVID-19 is around for the mid to long term, and the government keeps telling us ‘we can’t be complacent’. The time lag between the virus being transmitted, symptoms, and test results, means that we won’t know the virus is circulating in the community until it may be too late to easily isolate it. After 102 days of no community transmission, New Zealand now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission. A quarantine breach, followed by socialising in our current ‘Phase 4’ conditions, would be enough to send Western Australia back into lockdown and into a reality of anxiety, loneliness, ill-being, and the traumatic human, economic, and social costs of this virus.

As a school leader charged with leading teaching and learning, I know that we need to have a distance learning plan ready in case we need to move to it at short notice. Not being prepared for another bout of distance learning is irresponsible, like living in a tsunami-prone area and not having a tsunami evacuation map. We might not need it. But we might.

Rather than wheeling out our previous plan/s, we have been thinking about how we can do distance learning better, if and when there is a next time. So we have been working on our ‘Distance Learning 3.0’.

We had our original plan, pivoted to when students, apart from children of essential workers, were encouraged to learn from home at a day’s notice. We had Distance Learning 2.0, finalised in the first week of the Term 1 school holidays, only to be put in the file drawer when the government announced that schools would be welcoming back all, most, or some children sooner than originally planned. It was unclear; all students were encouraged but no-one was required to attend school, and parents were told by government officials that no child would be disadvantaged either way. That set of messages necessitated all schools to rewrite their plans at pace, and resulted in our 2.0 Hybrid Learning version, the plan that no school leader wants to unveil and implement because it means—no matter how carefully we try to set manageable parameters—that teachers are likely to have to straddle two modes of teaching for those students at home and those in the classroom.

Now, while we continue with business-as-usual-as-2020-will-allow, we are refining our distance learning model–and the ways in which it serves the learning, care, and wellbeing of our community–as best we can. We are honing our context-specific model for its implementation, which may come sooner, later, or never. Our 3.0 model is based on what we now know about the way distance learning is experienced by our community and by others in the world, as well as from emerging research. More about that in my next post.

I would love to hear from my Victorian colleagues about the realities of how distance teaching and home learning are going, and what your learnings are this time around. We in the west are thinking of you.

Education disrupted by COVID-19 and the role of education leaders

Yesterday I had the pleasure of contributing to the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) – Salzburg Global ‘Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined’ virtual convening.  With about 250 people on the Zoom call, and more than 2000 registered attendees from around the world, this was a rich, robust and international event.

The first day’s sessions can be found on this YouTube video. The panel in which I was involved—’The role of education leaders in times of crisis’, with Greg Moncada, Xueqin Jiang and moderator Simon Breakspear—begins at 1 hour 36 minutes and runs for about 45 minutes, but the whole two days is worth a listen.

It’s much more interesting to listen to the conversation via the YouTube link, but the points I discussed during the panel are captured briefly below.

The disruption of COVID-19 and physical school closures are prompting us to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of schooling?
  • What is the role of teachers?
  • How could or should we measure learning and educational success?

These questions prompt us to consider how we might do things differently during this time, and how we might reimagine schooling beyond our current pandemic reality.

My advice to school leaders at this time is to:

  • Consider Maslow before Bloom. That is, put safety, health and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy and especially assessment. Be compassionate and kind. Start with humanity. Understand that those in your community are likely to have complex circumstances of which you may be unaware. For more see the independent report Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic.
  • Put community, connectedness, intimacy and relationships at the forefront of decisions and practices.
  • Respond to your own context. Look to other nations and other schools. Look to research and advice, but ultimately trust yourselves–school leaders and teachers in your school–to know your own context. Generate data and feedback from your school community so that you understand the lived experiences of those in your care and can respond. Be agile and iterative. One size fits one. We need to think fast and slow at the same time, with simultaneous decisiveness, intentionality, and willingness to adapt to our community’s needs and to changing circumstances.

In considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education (e.g. connectedness, relationships)?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to (e.g. standardised testing and accountability measures)?

Finally, the current scenario has provided a fiery crucible for teacher agency and innovation. The teachers on the ground in our school systems around the world are the education system, and they are currently reshaping and flipping the system from the ground up, at pace, on the fly, and with professional expertise, integrity and heart.

5 anchors for leading in a time of crisis

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!
  1. Community

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.