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Leadership in crisis – part 2

By Mark Bocker

I wrote a simple blog some weeks back reflecting on my experience as a leader in crises and related my experience to the current situation facing leaders as they manage the phased return of children to schools. I wanted to highlight that, when everything is going well, leadership remains tiring, often exhausting, but frankly it’s the easy part. Your staff take centre stage while you lower your profile.

Challenging leadership situations conversely can be highly stressful and require enormous calm in order to focus on priorities. This also requires confidence, courage and assurance in order to be effective. Add resilience and clear thinking to ensure the best decisions are reached. Your built network ensures you are well informed with the latest developments, guidance and options.

Once the crisis is over, fatigue sets in as a result of huge levels of stress and the energy required to meet such challenges. Anxiety and stress are largely caused by understanding the risks involved for all concerned and can take a toll on one’s health. We are only too aware of the consequences of getting it wrong; it weighs very heavily on our minds.

Gatekeepers

We see our own families superimposed on those we are trying to protect and support which adds an even more personal element. We are but gatekeepers of schools in our communities but nevertheless we feel ownership. They are ‘our’ schools and the responsibilities are far reaching. As we cast a shadow in leadership, influencing our peers, we leave a mark in the history of a school and community. It can be heavy load to bear.

Currently, it is imperative leaders look after themselves – too easy to ‘just keep going’ but leaders must model self-regulation, optimism and a healthy mind. Not always easy but paramount as we move through the transition of recovery so that those who replace us, can identify how they will replicate those behaviours and attitudes in their own way.

So, what do school leaders face now? Covid-19 is a crisis like no other. The consequences of making mistakes could well be life threatening rather than life affirming. This worldwide crisis resulted in a lockdown with leaders given two days to prepare for wholescale change in their lives, their communities’ lives and the potential of having to reframe how and what education looks like in the future. We may well have to revisit our ‘why’, our core purpose and values and how we operate. This will require much more than individual leaders.

Many headteachers will be initiating the process of reigniting the relationships that make their schools so special; the relationships between staff, pupils, their families and the wider community. They will be defining the situation in terms of leadership priorities including risk, health and wellbeing, and life experiences during lockdown.

Critical stage

While this may sound quite straightforward – ie risk assessments, chats with staff and pupils and audit of experience – this is a critical stage and one which no leader in our lifetime has ever experienced. We mustn’t forget this and we cannot be too supportive of school leaders at this moment in time. Right now, they, more than ever, need all of us, parents, governors, local authorities, politicians and representative bodies.

Complex, exhaustive risk assessments have been undertaken. Subsequently, a focus on recreating our school community through common values; analysing and responding to individual needs and experiences; and re-establishing our ethos and mission. Most importantly, it will be those powerful relationships which will facilitate recovery from this tragedy.

For some perspective, I am aware of one high-profile headteacher who will be returning to at least 19 deaths. A monumental challenge so we need to go easy on schools at an extraordinary moment in time. The recovery period should not be timelined. Exam results alongside external accountability need to drop in priority. People and their health first, education outcomes second. They are important, but they will not be achievable if we don’t guarantee recovery.

Greatest need

Indeed, the first step in the process is not following external agendas but rather to meet needs. Stakeholders, teachers, children. Our outcomes will be clearly defined in respect of curriculum, learning behaviours and routines of course. But, first and foremost, we are one. One community needing to recover. And, I would add, our most vulnerable young people ought to be our immediate focus – theirs will be by far the greatest need.

Leaders serve communities and will be looking to how they may best support. They will want to focus on purpose and values; what are people’s perceptions and perspectives; and what action should we take to best serve. They will focus on who needs to be prioritised. Who can we help? Do our values need renewing? What will the future look like and how can we present it as positively as possible?

The needs of the community match the needs of individuals. The basic needs are personal and will include, for example, the need for certainty, and interestingly variety, significance (feeling valued) and connection. Some are more related to fulfilment and character. For example the need for growth and contribution. Leaders will be looking for sustainable ways to meet those needs and to rise above personal challenges. Ultimately, helping and supporting others to meet their needs allows us to meet all of those needs collectively.

Individual needs are unique and require space to express them. But we must be ready to serve without baggage in order to foster optimism. To my mind, there is only one way this can happen successfully. Leaders must evaluate and check their resiliency first. Take note of the community, the staff, the children and focus solely on those needs and not the demands of any external source. Receive our unconditional, unequivocal support.

As education journalist Laura McEnerney said recently: “Go easy on schools… no one is having an easy pandemic.”

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