It’s 5pm on Friday 5th June and I’ve decided to stop and to just do some thinking. It’s all too easy at a time like this to just carry on- to take action, to plough on through until the bitter end. It’s far too easy to forget to take stock of where we’ve been, what we’ve achieved in these extraordinary times and to plan some next steps, knowing that the future seems so uncertain.
I managed to secure a temporary internal promotion to Assistant Headteacher which started just after February half term. It’s my dream job- the culmination of years of preparation, coaching, mentoring and seeking to fill gaps in my own knowledge and understanding. I was 4 weeks in, gradually adapting to a new way of working and working hard to put all of that leadership theory into practice and the announcement arrived that schools would shut their doors from 23rd March due to the COVID19 outbreak. Since then, I’ve felt very much at the centre of key decision making at senior level: I’ve learnt huge amounts in 10+ weeks and I wanted to take an opportunity to share some of that learning here.
There’s no doubt that at times of significant challenge, there are lessons to be learnt. This new way of delivering an education has stressed the need for flexibility, integrity, grit and reasonableness. When it’s modelled from the top, it naturally influences those in our care. This experience has posed some fascinating questions about the reasoning behind some of the things we do as schools; it’s forced us to question our assumptions about students, staff and parents; it’s helped us to critically question the effectiveness of current models of education. When all normal routines, systems and procedures are stripped from us in a heartbeat- we actually have an opportunity to reflect on what really matters and to plan to rebuild it, better.
Lead with love
Teaching and admin staff remain the biggest asset to a school. It’s vital to lead with heart and with a bit of love- without human understanding, professional trust and strong working relationships can be destroyed in an instant. Positive and trusting working relationships are much harder to maintain when we remain in isolation. It’s so much more challenging to gauge how a colleague is feeling, those usual non-verbal signs we can pick up on as we pass each other in the corridor aren’t there now.
Throughout this time, the philosophy of ‘person first, teacher second’ has been a useful lesson. As soon as we are able to understand some of the challenges our colleagues face at home and acknowledge the battles they may be fighting (be it childcare, poorly relatives, anxiety, bereavement or mental health concerns) the more likely we are to provide the right support and build systems and procedures that serve everybody. What is needed from all of us is empathy and understanding.
Globally, the outbreak has caused no end of anxiety- this is not the time to pick battles in our own institutions but instead be united in our support for one another. I have been shocked and quite saddened to hear that some schools believe that now is the right time to drop-in and ‘quality assure’ online lessons. Teachers are navigating very new and challenging territory. Supporting and nurturing staff is paramount. This really isn’t the time for unnecessary conflict or judgement.
Lead with reason
One glance at the papers demonstrates that leaders at all levels are very much exposed when dealing with such a global challenge- their decision-making is under constant scrutiny: they’re accountable. If their decisions force us to question issues of fairness and consistency, we lose face and the trust of those we are attempting to lead. Indecisiveness or a lack of carefully considered action is synonymous with failed leadership. With so much frantic change and uncertainty at national level, it is up to school leaders to compensate (and then some!) by demonstrating that they are calm, consistent and measured in their decision-making. Of course, this is a significant challenge when goalposts shift constantly (as noted in this article in this week’s Schools Week)- the constant uncertainty tests the mettle of even the strongest school leaders.
In this case, I’ve learnt how key it is to utilise all members of your team and play to their strengths. Take time and ask some of the bigger questions, have the necessary debates- challenge one another’s thinking, be reasonable.
Lead with optimism
We are working under very difficult circumstances, but our overall purpose and moral obligation never wavers. It’s so important to take the time to consider and then reconsider what really matters. It’s important to acknowledge the threats that the current situation presents us with as professionals and reframe them as opportunities to learn something new.
We are in the business of learning, (it’s what we signed up for!) and new learning, in all its guises is the best antidote to uncertainty.
Stay safe, everyone.