Moving Forward Despite Uncertainty: Leading schools during a pandemic
Originally published Canadian Association of Principals
As school personnel and administrators are demonstrating this year clear purpose, hard work and resilience are moving schools forward despite unprecedented circumstances. Educators and community stakeholders alike are concerned with the social, emotional and academic development and well-being of students and thus finding ways to continue supporting student growth is an absolute and evidenced goal. The influence of the administrator greatly impacts the degree of resilience that a staff musters collectively during these trying times. We are learning new leadership lessons and in the spirit of sharing and learning from each other, we offer the following insights gleaned from informal learning conversations with practicing leaders as well as personal research:
A. Shine a light on the importance of connection – Our sense of responsibility and the modelling of ethical leadership helps others deal with difficult times. The school is a community, face to face or virtual, in large part, due to shared values. Leaders live out their values every day. Robert J. Starratt (2004) offered a discussion which is still very relevant today on five domains of responsibility that are central to leadership and driven by ethical values:
Our responsibility as human beings to each other
Our responsibility as citizens and public servants
Our responsibility as educators
Our responsibility as administrators
Our responsibility as leaders
It is the messaging of “we are in this together, we are better together and we will get through this together” that resonates positively for many staff, students and school community members. A strategy beyond regular “staff meetings” some administrators use is scheduling a “digital drop in office hour” a few times a week where staff can meet with administrators for quick informal debriefs, group updates or problem solving. Hosting follow-up/check-in meetings with staff who appear to need more counseling or to discuss individual students and issues is important. Regular Zoom drop in meetings with school council members appear helpful as well. Enlisting the help of key school members help to de-escalate issues in the long run. Active listening to all stakeholders is vital to keep a pulse on things. All stakeholders benefit from frequent communication during a time of difficulty with straightforward messaging. Personal connection with the principal (and vice principal) builds trust and contributes to the development of a stronger sense of team. Connecting may be “masked” and face to face, on the phone or through the use of tools such as Zoom or Google Meet.
B. Acknowledge uncertainty and hardships – At the same time, we must recognize that uncertainty breeds anxiety for all stakeholders including leaders. Staff may face family, financial as well as professional anxieties. Staff may also be spending time trying to balance work responsibilities with helping their own children with learning. It is important to acknowledge this. As Harris and Jones (2020) point out:
“School leaders are caught in the unfavourable position of being the pinch-point in the system. They are reliant on guidance about COVID19 responses, processes, procedures and protocols from above. These can change, almost overnight, depending on how the virus develops” (p. 244).
The authors go on to say that this is a “perfect storm for imperfect leadership responses” (p. 244). This is a time to emphasize and recognize the present efforts our staff makes to support our schools and communities. “Normal” is represented by the past right now. New skills sets are emerging as important including facilitating crisis management when outbreaks of COVID19 descend on the school and trauma-informed leadership in response which will be helpful long after the pandemic is over. Our collective sense of safety has been affected and it is important to offer all staff opportunities to learn more about trauma-informed approaches to teaching, learning and leadership. A system’s mental health supports should be utilized and leaders can model their own vulnerability by being transparent and fully “present” with others. A leader modelling his or her concern about the welfare of staff is very much appreciated and helps to reduce anxiety. Staff benefit from leaders who put active listening before administrative demands. Vital as well, leaders need to model self-care and how they balance personal and professional time. Sharing strategies to avoid burn-out is very relevant right now. It is difficult to help others when one feels their “own cup” is half full.
Fault lines of communities and systems are also exposed during uncertain times like the inequities within communities to access to high quality technology and the realities of many families struggling with how to handle lost jobs. Leaders must investigate which families are affected and how they can support students who need better access to technology as well as emotional support. Hopefully, system leadership is also investigating what differentiated supports are needed for school communities regarding learning resources. Meeting the needs of students with special needs as well as ELL learners remains a priority despite added pressures. Checking that students have access to assistive technology if needed is important. Food shortages and housing insecurity are becoming real challenges for some families as the winter of this pandemic deepens. Should a school have an outbreak of COVID19, frequent, clear messaging and transparent planning are absolutely imperative. Follow-up communication is also vital. The antidotes to hardship and struggles will include sincere compassion, frequent community connections, sensitivity and emotional support.
C. Help others visualize a clear path forward – Clarity of messaging is crucial for all staff and for the school community. Being realistic but still messaging hope and optimism is also needed at this time. While policies continue to be respected, at times expectations may need to be mitigated. It is important that staff focus most on essential expectations in curriculum delivery. Leaders need to encourage collaborative planning when possible and there are a variety of online tools which can support virtual collaboration such as Flipgrid, Google Classroom, breakout learning groups and Jamboard brainstorming. Establishing clear learning goals is the starting point of good pedagogy and planning. Secondly, teachers sharing the criteria of success or co-creating the criteria of success with students is the next vital part of instruction. This helps to develop more valuable assessments. As we know from research on quality assessment and instruction, students can better reach a target that stands still for them (Stiggins, 1997).
Another vital question for school leaders concerns how we enlist the help of parents and how we support them during this time. Less demand may be of more value for an overburdened community. For example, if homework is given, how can it increase curiousity and motivation, allowing students to research areas of interest and sharing publically what they have learned? How can evidence of student learning be gleaned using an inquiry approach is a question to discuss with staff. We have new learning opportunities that are surfacing as well as challenges.
It is important to keep students and staff welfare at the center of decision making. Cultivate small data more than large data during this time. Every day student and staff data matters immensely. Who is missing, who is struggling, who needs to be heard and recognized? What are the equity concerns that this new reality has heightened? Establish clear priorities with staff and model flexibility and inclusivity in decision making. Realistic demands of staff will keep morale higher. It is important to find out which staff may need some more help with strategies to deal with on-line teaching and arrange for some individual coaching support. Modelling a confidence that we can serve students effectively is also important. We can anticipate more responsible leadership on the part of our staff if leaders model and clear the way.
D. Build a bridge to better future times – It is important leaders model a belief in better times and work to solidify a community of connected stakeholders. Educators are responsible professionals who have learned to adapt to change and will continue to do so. As Beatriz Pont (2020) wrote recently: “Leaders need to navigate a safe, principled, and collective passage through this period so all learners can glimpse better days”.
Staff can better filter out the noise from community politics and focus on getting their jobs done with leadership that models positivity, care, gratitude and empathy. These elements are vital leadership currencies in our present context. Articulating a vision of collaborative service to students and families as well as to each other as colleagues and professionals helps to build a bridge to collective effort.
E. Distribute leadership – build the capacity of others – Distributed leadership is now a survival skill for many school leaders. It is important to tap those on staff with specific skills to share the load and encourage a culture of collegial support, mentoring and coaching as needed. Keep the focus on learning during staff meetings whenever possible. Plan meetings with staff or a school leadership team and have others lead or facilitate parts of the meeting. Model what it means to work in concert with others (Sharratt & Planche, 2018). We need to create some brave spaces where adults feel comfortable as co-learners and co-leaders of a professional community.
Encourage staff to share what they are learning and what seems to engage students more deeply. Virtual or online learning by staff has grown out of necessity and provided unique opportunities for ‘just in time’ learning. Learning is taking place everywhere – not just in the school setting. How can we amplify and connect learners with quality learning opportunities is a question I would pose to a staff right now. New interest in blended learning is emerging for many educators right now but there is still a lot of understanding to be developed regarding its long term impact. There is no doubt that the future will look different as a result of our collective experience. It is important for school leaders to model being learners as well as to offer time and recognition of staff efforts to learn together. This is an opportunity to redefine what a strong community of practice looks like and feels like.
Finally, as leaders, I think it is important to begin each meeting or interaction with a sincere smile and whenever possible to find some humour in the day that can be shared. In turn, leaders need to end each meeting with a sincere thank you. The staff and the community watch every move that a school leader makes and remembers every interaction. Ultimately, we are in the business of growing people. It is the best of our humanity that will get a school community through this difficult time to better days ahead. As leaders, we set the tone and model the way that can bring out the best in others.
Harris, A. & Jones, M. (2020). COVID19 – School leadership in disruptive times. School leadership & Management. 40(4), 243-247.
Pont, B. (2020). Education leadership in times of uncertainty: Rising to the challenge. Qatar Foundation https://www.wise-qatar.org/education-leadership-in-times-of-uncertainty-rising-to-the-challenge/
Sharratt, L., & Planche, B. (Feb. 2018). A symphony of skills: Here’s what it takes to learn in concert with others. 30 (1) Focus: The learning professional. Learning Forward.
Starratt, R. (2004) Ethical leadership. Jossey-Bass.
Stiggens, R. (1997). Student-centered classroom assessment. Merrill: Prentice Hall
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Beate Planche is a retired principal and former superintendent for York Region District School Board in Ontario. Beate is presently a Sessional Instructor/Assistant Professor for Western University in Graduate Education.
Richard Erdmann is a recently retired principal for York Region District School Board in Ontario and is presently working as a Principal on Contract.