School Leadership In Times of COVID-19

“Dear Carrie…this rock reminds me of you. Beautiful, solid, sage and determined to retain its core – no matter the force.” #gratitude #inspiration Elena Photo of Hoodoos in Alberta, B.C.

I have a particular penchant for instructional leadership.   In my history as a teacher, the principals and vice-principals who fed my enthusiasm to learn and supported me in all kinds of wild and wonderful projects and inquiries, were the ones who empowered me.  I was encouraged to try, celebrate grand feats, and laugh about things that did not go exactly as planned.  I embraced leadership early in my career but resisted school administration for a long time because I loved teaching.  However, once I finished my secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, I had discovered the perhaps the joy of empowering adult learners in the education system. I can write a good grant and secure funds.  I can collaborate on an inquiry and ensure I can inform practice with current and inspirational educational research.  I can help find and support opportunities for my staff to pursue their passions.  I can build in structures of support and promote the work being done.  However in the midst of a global pandemic, everything else pales in comparison to the need for principals, vice-principals, and school staff to peel back to our core purpose – that is our ethic of care. As demonstrated by Nel Noddings (1929 – ), caring and relationship are the most fundamental aspects of education. It is just as relevant to our adult learners in the education system as it is to our students.

Supporting our school staff during a pandemic is fraught with challenges. How do we support teachers, in as Parker Palmer (1997) frames it, to maintain their “love of learners, learning, and the teaching life” in the face of so many demands, expectations, and concerns for their own families? Shared food via treat day and pot- luck lunches, gatherings, and staffroom meetings have been the language of appreciation, acknowledgment, and comraderie in school culture.    Online meetings are too often reminiscent of the Twilight Zone with the “Is anyone out there?” being met with incomprehensible silence.  Striving for bandwidth results in posted icons and silenced mics.    Tough crowd to read! Challenging environment to truly respond with an ethic of care.

I wrapped up my professional growth plan in July.  I was so disappointed with the cancellation of the trip to work on instructional leadership with colleagues in Nisga’a with Tara Zielinski from West Van, Kathleen Barter from North Van, and Elizabeth Bell from BCPVPA was cancelled. I continue to believe that instructional leadership needs to have a driving force in our education system to support our students developing a voice and the skills required in a changing world.  I continue to believe that collective efficacy is our best bet at facilitating meaningful change in our education system. For that reason I will continue in my work facilitating The Essentials for New School Leaders course continuing throughout the year and a VSB Inquiry group. But for now, the primary driving force in the education system must be focused on relational leadership.  At this time our success in mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with our students, parents, staff, and our community partners are the determinants of the strength of our school system to achieve it’s core purpose.

I believe there are some things we can do to make a difference and to make people feel cared for. I’ve got it down to five key things that are achievable.

1. Vigilant Health & Safety Practices

In June the district average of return to school was about 33%. Just over 50% of students returned to my school site.  I am the daughter of a retired neurosurgeon, so I have grown up with a “safety first” consciousness.  By the end of June, I realized that perhaps I had been a bit too rigorous in controlling numbers of students on the playground.  We have four very large play areas.  I could lighten up.  I have heard from staff that they need to feel safe. The established protocols are for them as much as students. My Operating engineers and custodial staff have been amazing in taking on the increased work load and working with me to ensure we are following the established healthy routines. I’ve heard from my parent community that they appreciated how seriously we are taking the COVID-19 preventative measures.  This September, about 90% of our students returned to school.  We have trust from our parent and student community. The parent community is being very respectful of requests to maintain 2 metres of physical distance from other people’s children so we can limit the contacts of our learning groups / cohorts during the beginning and end of the day.

2. the Spirit of Servant-Leadership

Nel Noddings frames “receptive attention” as an essential characteristic of a caring encounter. Shane Safir frames the conditions to adopt the stance of a “listening leader”. Margaret Wheatley points out that “(s)uccessful organizations, including the military, have learned that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone’s commitment and intelligence”. (The Spirit of Servant Leadership 2011, p. 172). All of them are getting at the importance of demonstrating care and finding out what people need. I have done a lot of listening. I have asked a lot of questions. I have heard that teachers need to feel safe at school. I have heard that too much information is provided, and too little information is provided. That the message needs to be consistent. That I am trusted to make the hard decisions and that is why I am the one getting paid the “big bucks”. That some people want to be fully involved in decision making. That some people are just so tired or worried. That some people are overwhelmed or frustrated. That some people need more tech, more resources, and … The big learning for me has been that I’m not going to be able to solve all of the problems, prevent messaging from changing, or make everything better. All I can do is listen, show that I care, and be responsive to achievable requests.

“We can’t restore sanity to the world, but we can remain sane and available. We can still aspire to be of service whenever need summons us. We can still focus our energy on working for good people and good causes.” Margaret Wheatley. Perseverence page 25

3. Effective Communication

The only constant in our schools right now is that things will change.  Another truth is that some people find the quantity of information daunting.  Some staff requested a Sunday Night Week at a Glance with key information. For others, they want access to the original document being cited and the references.  I have discovered some ways to provide information that I find helpful.

Email

Outlook – For incoming information to be shared, email makes it easy to forward information, particularly if a group send has been set up.  It is also the easiest way to track conversation threads. 

MyEdBC – this is the easiest way to contact families quickly and easily.  It also allows me to keep classroom teachers apprised of what is going out to parents. 

Office 365 Platform:

  • TEAMS

The Vancouver School Board has adopted this platform to communicate with staff and students.  My experience tells me the information is most accessible if the name of the TEAM channel is descriptive enough for staff to access what they are looking for.  Each channel allows you to pin up to three documents to the top of the FILES section within that channel for ease of access.  The Livingstone Staff Classroom also allows staff to access information from committee meetings and participate in decision making to the extent they desire.

The Vancouver School District has just created an “All Livingstone Student” Classroom (group of all students in the school).  My intended purpose was to provide an online Health & Safety Orientation to those students not yet attending.  However, it is turning out to be a great way to reach out to students in a way that emailed letters to students and video Tweets have not. 

There is also a TEAM for District initiatives, information, learning and meetings.

  • SWAY  

I love this format of presenting information because it allows you to share a great deal of information in a highly visual way.  In Spring, one Kindergarten teacher went on Maternity leave, another retired and the final teacher had not yet been hired.  It allowed me to provide a virtual tour to our new Kindergarten students.   It also allowed me to provide a Health & Safety Orientation that could be referenced by students and is now my standard newsletter format.

  • FORMS

Forms provides templates for you to secure information about opinions.  It has been used by the VSB to solicit parent information.  I also used it to secure intake information from our Kindergarten families and information from teachers about their thoughts and requests.  This method of getting feedback enabled me to involve staff in decision making when we shifted to an online platform in March. 

Livingstone Elementary School Website

Never has it been more important to have an up to date website.  I’ve gotten better at providing links to sources that regularly date their information like the Vancouver School Board.  The VSB has also gotten good at fanning out pertinent information directly to school websites. 

Twitter

I am still a big fan of Twitter both to share good news stories and interesting information.  It is linked directly on to our school website, so families do not need to have a Twitter account to access information.  The biggest challenge is making students aware of whether they have permission to have their picture on the school website.  Parents need to understand that they have every right to decide if they want to sign the school media release form or not.  They need encouragement to share their reasoning even with our youngest students.

PAC Facebook

I have not set up a school Facebook account.  However, the Livingstone PAC has set up a very active fb site.   Good communication with parents will help you to stay apprised of the issues and concerns of the school community, so you can attend to them directly.

4. Continue to tap into the Joy of Learning

The other day I got feedback from a parent that was unexpected but also very much appreciated.  She thanked me for not forgetting the fun.  She noticed the efforts to provide “friendly” reminders of two metres without making them scary – butterfly nets with ribbons, one pool noodles plus part of another pool noodle to make it exactly two metres, pinwheels with ribbon, and plastic parachute men from the dollar store.  She appreciated the four hours of taping by Mr. Froese to make perfect roadways in the hallways to direct students and the moose crossing signs to keep people on their route – all featured in the sway presentations.  She also noted the increased opportunities for outdoor learning and inquiry projects.

I have spoken before of how my daily quest for joy usually takes me to the playground.  I have assigned two school wide assignments via SWAY and on the ALL Livingstone Students TEAMS classroom.  Students can keep track in their student planner and they can form a springboard for future student learning. They have been great ways to stimulate the conversation and focus social-emotional learning, positive mental health and literacy development.

Gratitude Log – This assignment is to focus attention on the things that are good in the world.  It is an effort to have students slow down and pay attention to what is happening around them. 

Reading Log – I’m a big believer that if you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right author or the right book. It all begins with a conversation about what you’re reading. Reading relationships are instrumental in developing new perspectives and comprehension skills.

5. Take Care of Each Other:

Back when I was a Resource teacher at Maple Creek Middle School, one of my colleagues, Wayne Rogers, nicknamed me the Tazmanian Devil.  I have a long established history of walking quickly and getting things done.  It did not work for me on the wet hallway the other day.  I went down hard, jumped up in embarassment, and left school to nurse my twisted knee, strained ankle and possibly fractured scaphoid.  The physiotherapist ordered me home to apply heat and rest.  One of my teachers sent me a text ordering me to stop working.  Her assessment was that I work too hard, I needed to binge watch Netflix, eat buttered popcorn, and she followed up with a list of excellent binge-worthy possibilities.  Good advice.  Knee and ankle are fine.  Wrist braced.  Perhaps the biggest take away is we all need to take care of each other.

Ray Ferch, Shann, & Spears, Larry C. eds.(2011). The Spirit of Servant-Leadership. Paulist Press, New York.

Wheatley, Margaret (2010). Perseverence. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco.

I always love the conversations and written feedback that come out of these blog posts. Please respond with the things you are trying. I’m still looking for the magic bullet to make everything better 🙂

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