3 lasting lessons from leading during a crisis

How lockdown has shifted my priorities and made me rethink what really matters

Senior Leader in a South London school

As schools were being closed, I found myself going through the motions of being a leader, making decisions, reassuring people and organising things. I said goodbye to Year 11 and my own year group (Year 7) with a poignant ‘see you soon’. I found myself at home with a burgeoning schedule of virtual meetings, online lessons to plan along with managing childcare. Now would be the real test of leadership: how to find a way through this for my school community.

1. Build teams with agility and collaboration

Of many lessons learned, three are most prominent. Firstly, that being a great leader isn’t just having the best plans, as I thought I had, it’s knowing how to collaborate with others when things don’t go to plan. I’m very habitual and find a full diary reassuring. I have always planned ahead to maintain a sense of control. The lockdown tested my ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It came fast and was all-encompassing and I really didn’t have all the answers. ‘Holding on to my foundations’ was essential, what I know to be true about myself and what I value. By the end of the second week I felt I had found my rhythm. I had reached out to colleagues on the leadership team and managed to shift our discussions about what I felt was really important in the first couple of weeks of lockdown. We focused on maintaining our community and connections with each member of staff, our students, parents and carers. I didn’t have all the answers, but nor did anyone else, and so collaborating with teams at school was crucial. One thing I am going to change after lockdown, is to spend more time building and reinforcing the strength of my teams. We are stronger when we collaborate.

2. Use the crisis to horizon scan

Secondly, that this unprecedented crisis has provided an unparalleled opportunity for horizon scanning. We can really use this time to learn and grow. Teachers always, rightly, want more time for professional development, but this period away from the school building has allowed our staff to ‘attend’ many online events.  I participated in a #ConnectUp event with Viviane Robinson on ‘Reducing change and Increasing improvement’ and I’ve also attended several booster sessions run by the Fair Education Alliance including ‘Telling Your Story.’ It has made me think about what we can learn from other professions during this time. The surge in uptake of online professional development proves what many of us have suspected all along, that when given autonomy, time and space to engage, teachers are committed to learning and it is a hugely important part of what sustains us as professionals. I am going to ensure that when school returns we change the way we engage in professional development and allow a greater autonomy for all staff.

3. Build the whole community and the social and emotional side of learning

Thirdly, I have discovered that the profession is more equipped and able to fill societal gaps than anyone expected. Leaders had just two days to make crucial operational decisions. They excelled. For years, leaders endured mounting accountability measures whilst having services systematically cut. The pandemic has proven to society that we are the first port of call for many vulnerable families, at the front line in combating child hunger, and responding to communities facing bereavement. Now leaders are working with local authorities, trusts and phases to support each other through this crisis and delivering services in a completely changed landscape. Schools stand at the centre of the communities they serve and will need to be seen and respected as such. I hope that we can be liberated from punitive accountability measures and instead be supported to improve where it is needed, for the families we serve. When schools return, I will ensure we develop and improve how we maintain our support for parents, build community ties and focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning for all our students.

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