School Leadership in Times of Crisis

The work of leaders is always complex. It involves strategy, culture, administration, operations and complex decision-making with multiple moving parts and often conflicting stakeholder views.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and school systems are additionally responding to constantly evolving circumstances. The waves of school closures and reopenings around the world have clearly demonstrated how important good leadership is to learning in all forms. As the pandemic continues, we know that a return to ‘normal’ will not be enough to improve the life chances of the generation whose education has been so disrupted during this time. New thinking driven by strong leadership is needed if we are to create more inclusive, equitable systems that can promote quality education for every child.

School leaders balance strategic and operational leadership. Shared vision and moral purpose anchor their decisions and align operations with strategy. They must consider a range of impacts individual, organization, well-being, learning, performance, staffing, financial implications, management of resources and 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 crisis such as the one in which we are currently existing, perfection is the enemy of progress. School leaders are caught in the unfavourable position of being the pinch point in the system. They are reliant on guidance about COVID-19 responses, processes, procedures, and protocols. These can change, almost overnight, depending on how the virus develops. School leaders on this journey are defined by their determination, their hope, and their unshakable belief that whatever happens, whatever the cost, whatever the scale of the challenge, they will continue to do everything in their power to safeguard the learning of all young people.

Leadership is not a title but an action, a behaviour, a practice, a doing and a way of being. For example in Al Hekma International school Bahrain (AHIS) we included new leadership styles like empowering middle school management to become coaches and mentors in driving positive change in teaching and learning. They are engaged in sensemaking as they lead equitable implementation of revised policies, consider their effects on teachers and students, and determine modes of communicating with relevant stakeholders.

Students leadership is also very important , leadership by students that is about influence and impact through action, rather than assigned teachers task  is happening now as students work to find learning solutions for their selves and classmates within the parameters of their school and classroom contexts. AHIS students are regularly surveyed about decisions and/or activities taking place. They share their feedback about many important decisions such as learning models, PSAT tests, project assessments, graduation ceremony, electives, honors and much more. Involving students will make them more engaged and therefore affect positively on their academic performance.

In Alhekma we are meaningfully continuing the education of our students in ways appropriate to current circumstances but with fundamental student needs, compassion and kindness at the forefront. This is why our theme for this year is ”Empathy”. AHIS students are encouraged to become aware of others' feelings and to see situations from alternate points of view. Our students linked their STEAM projects, essay writings, created videos all linked to empathy. As an example of their STEAM projects students created a custom vision application that can detect crowded areas and can also notify the user if people around are following the safety precautions by wearing masks and keeping the right distance using Microsoft Azure. The app will work as a support system, keeping its user feeling safe, happy and protected as much as possible. AHIS also started a new act of kindness initiative “The teddy bear virtual hunt”. The goal of this initiative is to lift people’s spirits. Empathy is a key part of being a responsible and helpful community member and global citizen at school and elsewhere. For example, students who show empathy are less likely to bully. Empathy can also be a route to academic and career success because it helps people understand and work with others.

We continue to respond to the crisis and move beyond it, harnessing new forms of collaboration, smart use of technology and data, and a focus on equity and wellbeing. Our teachers received training on how to support students’ emotional and mental wellbeing.

The situation we are in has shown us that we are one society, one humanity and that leading is for us all. This is a time for us to consider what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can. The speed of change in this pandemic is unprecedented, hence a high degree of trust will be needed, as the collective glue, to ensure that issues are addressed collectively as they arise. In such disruptive times, school leaders cannot emulate the leadership practices they witnessed or enjoyed in a period of stability, continuity, and relative calm. Leading in disruptive times means being able to navigate a different course, to create new pathways through the disruption. School leaders on this journey are defined by their determination, their hope, and their unshakable belief that whatever happens, whatever the cost, whatever the scale of the challenge, they will continue to do everything in their power to safeguard the learning of all young people.

A new chapter is being written about school leadership in disruptive times that will possibly overtake and overshadow all that was written before on the topic. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.