School Leaders’ Experiences of Navigating Through the Pandemic
Challenging professional roles and identities, changing leadership practices and values
Sometimes to move ahead you must look back.
The global COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis in education and thrust educators and students into a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty. Educators were tasked with shifting remote and in-person learning requirements, while also prioritizing issues of safety, equity, and wellbeing. At a time when successful school leadership was more critical than ever, there were “no precedents, no ring-binders, no blueprints to help school leaders” (Harris & Jones, 2020, p. 246). The demands and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a very significant professional and personal toll on education leaders. In our study, The Future of Schooling in the COVID-19 Era, the responses and reflections of education leaders in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) identified impacts on school leaders’ professional roles and identities, and highlighted changing school leadership practices and values. We discuss these below.
Challenging school leaders’ professional roles and identities
School leaders’ roles changed during the pandemic. The importance of fulfilling public health mandates for the health and safety of students and staff placed considerable new demands on school leaders. As an elementary vice-principal commented:
“Most of what we’ve done and most of our attention is sucked up with making sure we know the protocols and the rules and checking this and that. It’s like running a public health unit.”
The priority focus on public health and safety shifted the role of school leaders, resulting in concerns regarding their ability to focus on leading school improvement and supporting teaching, learning, and equity:
“So basically, all of these layers have added to the complexity of our job. It’s actually taken away from the time that as school leaders we have to support staff and students with those school improvement plans, and board priorities that we want to do.” —Secondary school principal
The challenges of sustaining school improvement had a significant impact on education leaders’ professional roles. The priority focus on ensuring student and staff safety also came with a heavy responsibility for education leaders’ professional lives:
“[Parents] needed to know that they could trust us as much as possible to keep their kids safe. And it really got down to the point where I felt like those parents… especially this [past] fall without the vaccine, that they expect me to keep their kid alive. And so that’s a really, really heavy piece to walk around with all the time, but that’s what we’ve been focusing on with the parents.” —Elementary school vice-principal
“Every night she goes to sleep and she just prays that nobody dies either from illness from COVID, or from illnesses related to stress. We are all living in fear and we feel deeply responsible for the people in our care, whether staff or students.” —System leader
Unfortunately, the school leaders that we spoke with felt largely unsupported and undervalued. This affected their sense of competence, confidence, and professional identity:
“I feel kind of like an old piece of bologna. So, like, we’re just sandwiched between everybody above us sending policies and do this and make sure this happens and don’t miss this and a giant email… so many emails.… And then the other piece of the bread is, like, the staff and the students and the families, right… and we are just in the middle sort of feeling like we’re floundering, but doing a really great job. But you don’t feel that way.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Highly experienced educators were faced with unfamiliar emergency situations requiring urgent and ongoing attention. These shifts in professional roles and identities were challenging:
“We’re used to feeling competent… So we take people who have been in this profession for a while, and who think they have some things figured out, and know some things about students, and are used to feeling competent in that role, and we’ve up-ended that for them. So it’s no wonder that that’s how… we’re feeling. Because on good days, I like to think that I’m feeling fairly competent in what I’m doing, and it’s not there.” —Elementary school principal
There were also negative consequences for education leaders’ wellbeing, which was being impacted by increasing work intensification and unsustainable workload. A system leader explained:
“I can’t remember the last time I haven’t worked through an entire weekend. I work 16 hours a day. I don’t know that my principals work less than that. They often call me at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night. The downloading of public health processes on principals to track who’s here, who’s not here, who’s vaccinated, who’s not vaccinated.…”
These findings are consistent with other research identifying the pressure of navigating through the pandemic for school leaders in Canada (People for Education, 2021; Osmond-Johnson & Fuhrmann, 2022), and internationally (Jopling & Harness, 2022).
Changing leadership practices and values
To respond to this time of crisis, educational leaders had to adapt their leadership practices to be more responsive, creative, and flexible:
“That was definitely a part of the strategy for last year; just being very flexible about expectations, very flexible about ways of reaching out.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Rather than instructional leadership, much of the work of school leaders shifted to practical support for the operational management of schools and staff:
“… I can’t get to school improvement as much as I’d like to. My building relationships with students and staff has been impeded because we are managing a facility and trying to keep students safe.” —Secondary school vice-principal
Modes and frequency of communications needed to be adapted and professional collaboration became more important (Thornton, 2021). As an elementary school vice-principal described:
“Just being transparent as much as possible about what we did know because we were all trying to figure it out and we were all trying to learn what was going on. So, just for staff to see us as part of that change, that we didn’t know all the answers, and so I think that, you know, it showed our own humanity and empathy throughout the process.”
Leadership values came to the fore. People needed to be supported with compassion and care through a sense of shared humanity, togetherness, and collaboration. These values informed not only leadership practices, but also leaders’ vision for what matters most in education:
“It was more of a mindset. And I think that worked, which was just being very open and being very compassionate to the challenges that everybody was facing… and being available, on whatever level you could be available, whether it was delivering things or tech solving or, you know, just listening.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Therefore, school leaders’ values became especially important and their leadership practices needed to change to respond flexibly and appropriately to the changing pandemic context.
Arising from our study of education leaders during the pandemic, we offer the following recommendations:
- Support use of technology: Moving forward, educators need greater support with access to, and use of, technology (Armstrong et al., 2021). New innovations for digital communication, for example with parents and caregivers and for meetings, should be supported to continue post-pandemic.
- Develop professional collaborations: Professional collaboration has become even more important during the pandemic. Educators need opportunities to collaborate to share ideas and practices so they may work together to develop knowledge-sharing school networks (Armstrong et al., 2021).
- Provide mental health supports: There needs to be greater focus on prioritizing the mental health of educators and students. Understandably, the priority focus has been on meeting students’ needs; however, there is now considerable evidence (Canadian Teachers’ Federation , 2022), including from our study, that the wellbeing of educators needs attention as well. This requires government commitment to increased support, resources, and practical help (Jopling & Harness, 2021).
- Enable professional agency: Governments and senior education system leaders need to allow and enable educators to respond creatively and flexibly to the needs of their schools, students, colleagues, and communities. Educators must be allowed to exercise their individual and collective agency (Ehren et al., 2020). The education leaders in our study felt unheard and unsupported. The education profession’s voices, expertise, and insights must be central to informing policies and practices to lead future educational recovery (Campbell et al., 2022).
Within a school, the work of school leaders and teachers is crucial for students’ learning and student outcomes. We must demand that this new chapter in education takes into consideration the voices and lessons learned from its leaders to prioritize what is essential for supporting students’ learning, equity, and wellbeing.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
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Osmond-Johnson, P. & Fuhrmann, L. (2022). Calm during crisis: Leading Saskatchewan schools through COVID-19. Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. https://www.stf.sk.ca/sites/default/files/stf-001139a_20220412_ec_web.pdf
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