Leading in difficult, challenging or worrying times requires a different type of leader, a different type of leadership, a different form of leadership practice. Without question, we are in such times. COVID-19 is shaking up everything we know, everything we take for granted and everything we hold most dear.
In this global lockdown, education has been rebooted as a home-based, technology-enabled, remote activity with zero physical contact. What we know about good teaching has suddenly been redefined and repositioned into screen time, apps, Google Classroom and lessons online. School leadership has also been radically remodelled through lockdown.
We know that the best school leaders develop other leaders and build positive cultures where the professional talent, capability and knowledge of all educators can be fully expressed, enhanced and extended (Leithwood et al., 2020). Leading in a virtual world is not impossible, but it will require extra effort to remain connected with others in meaningful ways that sustain relationships with colleagues and keep things moving forward.
These challenging times demand what Steve Munby (2019) has termed ‘imperfect leadership’ – messy, trial-and-error, butterflies-in-the-stomach leadership in unprecedented times where there is no predictability, no certainty and potentially no end in sight. For those working and learning in schools, all the familiar reference points just vanished overnight to be replaced by a ‘new normal’, which may be new but is anything but normal.
With most schools now deserted and virtual learning the order of the day, the leadership terrain has also shifted dramatically. Some schools have morphed into places where children and young people, of varying ages, now play, learn and work together side by side during long days. School leaders, teachers and teaching assistants are keeping everyone going in these settings with the usual high standards of care, professionalism and respect, but this is far from business as usual.
For those responsible for leading virtual schools and classrooms today, the education landscape is still emerging, and the leadership practice is still evolving. Yet school leadership remains a critical and positive force in shaping the value base of an education system that has shifted so far from its axis.
School leadership, of course, is not just confined to those in the leadership team. If leadership is influence, then teachers and teaching assistants exercise leadership every day. In times of crisis, leadership at all levels or distributed leadership, is needed to address the complexity of the challenges and to carry the burden of leading in uncertain times (Harris, 2013). At present, school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants, cleaners and caretakers are now the new front-line of leadership. Each person counts, each person is a leader and the collective work is now the most important catalyst for change and action.
Of course, there must be formal leadership guidance, direction, coordination and advice, to ensure that we get through these times of global insecurity, panic and concern. There is no neat blueprint for leadership in such times, however – no predetermined roadmap, no simple leadership checklist of things to tick off. There are only highly skilled, compassionate and dedicated education professionals trying to do the very best that they can and to be the very best that they can be.
School leadership in lockdown
While the evidence base on school leadership practices within a pandemic is non-existent, drawing upon the general leadership literature and the evidence about effective online collaboration offers some pointers, some ideas and some reflections for those currently leading in schools and classrooms. In summary, these are:
- Setting your leadership vision over the next weeks and months will be critical for those working with you or for you, i.e. establishing what matters most and identifying what is of marginal importance will be an important task.
- Localised, contextualised leadership will be needed more than ever to shape decision-making and to establish future priorities. In other words, school leaders will now be dealing with matters arising from an unfolding and unpredictable set of situations.
- Community leadership will be pivotally important, as community/parental/guardian needs will vary according to context and setting. Those leading schools will have to connect with community expertise and support to harness the capacity to deal with complex and challenging issues.
- Forging stronger links with parent/community groups to support families, young people and children is therefore a leadership-in-lockdown imperative.
- Cross-agency and collaborative leadership practices are important, as the issues/problems that arise will be multi-faceted and will require input from a range of specialists.
- Leading others online will remain a dominant feature of education in the foreseeable future, so establishing clear protocols of engagement around online communication and collaboration will ensure that the experience is positive for all participants.
- Leaders need to create boundaries around online communication with colleagues and schedule dedicated time slots for discussion. These boundaries need to be adhered to and respected, to give work colleagues the time and space to do other things and to meet other needs – family, friends, etc.
- Not everyone is technologically confident or competent so, where possible, leaders should communicate through one channel only so that there is some predictability and pattern to the ongoing dialogue. This will lower stress levels for others and ensure that there are not multiple or competing channels of communication open.
- While technology can provide some ready-made technical solutions, the pedagogical demands of this medium need careful thought and planning. Hence, leaders need to continuously focus conversations around learning and teaching, as they would usually.
- Technology also highlights sharp equity issues, particularly for vulnerable young people who experience the challenges that poverty brings, and for those young people who are at risk. Not every child has access to the new tools of learning and teaching, so this is an ongoing leadership challenge and consideration.
- All leaders need to consider that every single person (including them) will be facing their own battles, both large and small, so kindness, gratitude and empathy will be the leadership currency to get things done.
- Not everything on the leader’s list will get ticked off in the time-frame expected. This is the reality. Making reasonable demands on staff and having patience for others and self are therefore imperative.
- Emotional responses to reasonable demands should not surprise or challenge those leading others. These are highly fraught and stressful times. Monitoring emotional states, including your own, is important.
- Self-care and consideration must be the central concern for all leaders to ensure that they remain healthy and well enough to help others. Self-care and good health is at the core of leadership in lockdown.
More than 20 years ago, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan published their seminal book What’s Worth Fighting for Out There? This is a question that school leaders, at all levels, now need to ask themselves.
Feeling safe, secure and sure again, as a leader, is possible within this new set of circumstances but it will require both belief and hope – belief in those around you and belief in yourself. For leaders, hope is not the same thing as blind optimism. Hope is the fundamental faith that good will prevail, that better days will come and that light will overcome darkness.
Hargreaves A and Fullan M (1998) What’s Worth Fighting for Out There? New York: Teachers’ College Press.
Harris A (2013) Distributed Leadership Matters: Perspectives, Practicalities, and Potential. Thousand Oakes, United States: Corwin Press.
Leithwood K, Harris A and Hopkins D (2020) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited. School Leadership & Management 40(1): 5–22.
Munby S (2019) Imperfect Leadership: A Book for Leaders Who Know They Don’t Know It All. Carmarthen, UK: Crown House Publishing.