The school shutdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 required system and school leaders to reimagine schooling and articulate how the very nature of teaching and learning would be impacted.
At the time schools were shuttered, school leaders identified four immediate challenges necessitating reconsideration of their roles and responsibilities:
- Student, parent, and teacher anxiety reached, in some cases, near-frantic levels around such issues as food stability, student safety, health, and medical needs. As one principal explained, “My major responsibility in those days was to adopt a calm and thoughtful approach to reduce everyone’s stress levels.”
- Technology, previously assistive, became the primary pedagogy. Ensuring that all teachers and students had access to equipment and services was a first-phase challenge; more complex was leading the learning of teachers to achieve a level of efficacy with remote delivery. One vice-principal suggested, “This wasn’t just teaching them the technology, it was helping teachers adjust to the dramatic change of not having students in front of them.”
- Managing school operations and facilities involved everything from gathering and distributing student belongings in a safe and orderly way, to implementing health services protocols, to orchestrating multiple schedules for building access. Revising plans to communicate with numerous groups, some of whom had limited levels of access to electronic platforms, assumed a level of heightened priority.
- The sheer speed and depth of change contributed to overwhelming uncertainty. One principal said, “I stopped counting how many versions of the school access plan I wrote. I came to accept that any decision on Monday would be changed every day before Friday.” This ambiguity contributed to school leaders’ heightened sense of frustration, futility, and fear that the magnitude of decision-making was beyond their grasp.
Given these emerging realities, we became curious about how equity was being experienced on a broader scale and were prompted to ask the question: What systemic interventions, structures, and processes were implemented to assure school leaders that that they would receive the support necessary to maintain effectiveness throughout this environment of uncertainty?
A brief history
In 2017, we began a leadership development initiative in a southeastern Alberta school division with the goal of enhancing school leaders’ awareness of and capacity to engage in effective leadership. Over three years, we implemented a model of generative leadership (Adams et al., 2019) to support principals’ and vice-principals’ instructional leadership growth. Specifically, we were interested in the impact of four processes that informed leadership development:
- supportive monthly visits by the central office leadership team with school leaders to facilitate reflective practice through the use of generative dialogue
- individual and collaborative inquiry by system and school leaders that transformed problems of practice into essential questions
- reliance on the Professional Practice Standards to guide perceptions, vocabulary, and definitions of leadership effectiveness (Alberta Education, 2018a, b, c)
- fostering conscious competence by nurturing relationships, building a culture of learning, and maintaining a focus on student learning as a non-negotiable goal.
Over months of collaboration, we observed system and school leaders develop understandings about their roles as leaders and grow in confidence to engage in and facilitate inquiry-based professional learning. Then schools closed.
Seeking threads of continuity
Previous research has explored the ways in which change influences the professional identity of leaders and teachers and how they go about their work (see, as examples, Flores & Day, 2006; Helsing, 2007). As researchers, we recognized the potential for these dramatic circumstances to undermine the work of school leaders; however, we also recognized that times of turmoil might prompt new ways of thinking, being, and acting. With this in mind, we relied on the work of Marris (1975) and his understanding of the human need for “threads of continuity.”
Marris suggested that in response to experiences of change and uncertainty, individuals seek threads of continuity to sustain their perceptions of meaning, purpose, and identity. He explained that individuals assimilate new experiences by placing them in the context of a familiar, reliable construction of reality. His model provided a framework for our thinking as we sought to understand why and how leaders were able to negotiate the rapid and comprehensive changes that emerged in response to the pandemic.
To help understand the ways in which school leaders were accessing divisional supports provided by system leaders, we asked principals and vice-principals six open-ended questions through an online survey. The questions addressed:
- the role of embedded structures, such as professional learning time and monthly school visits by central office leaders
- processes to learn alongside teachers, such as collaborative inquiry and reflection through generative dialogue
- thoughts surrounding the role of professional learning during the pandemic.
Responses were received from two central office leaders, ten principals, and ten vice-principals, representing 48 percent of the participant pool.
Renewed commitment to existing processes
One school leader highlighted the importance of continued monthly visits and monthly professional learning workshops:
“Previous routines and structures at our school greatly assisted us and prepared us for the pandemic. Our school continued to move forward, despite the challenges we faced. The collaborative, trusting relationships we have developed over the years helped move us in a positive manner.”
Specifically, school leaders identified their work with generative dialogue (Adams et al., 2019), the collaborative response model (Hewson et al., 2015), distributed leadership (Spillane, 2006), and their school division’s focus on student and staff well-being, as being helpful as they responded to the new demands of the pandemic.
The processes associated with generative dialogue provided leaders with tools for sustained and purposeful conversations with teachers about student learning. One leader noted, “[My] generative dialogue skills helped administrators in collecting feedback to inform planning.” By using collaborative processes such as analysis of student work exemplars, school leaders worked closely with staff to track students who were less engaged with learning in the home delivery model; supported grade-level teams to collaboratively plan for student learning and to share their individual expertise in areas such as technology, student engagement, and formative assessment; and provided professional learning opportunities for the transition to at-home inclusive education delivery.
Leaders identified the importance of their division’s established focus on distributed leadership. Key to the distribution of leadership was the work of classroom support teachers and family school liaison workers. These support personnel were important to meet the learning needs of children prior to the pandemic, but have been critical since its onset.
The existing three-year jurisdictional plan encouraged leaders to focus school goals on the well-being of both students and staff. During these early weeks, identifying and facilitating emotional supports was given a heightened priority. Often in school leader responses, the word “calm” was used. They recognized that their reaction to these circumstances could either exacerbate or de-escalate the anxiety associated with uncharted territory – so they took the calm approach.
“Purpose built” emergent structures
New structures were also created and were described as “purposeful,” “thoughtful,” “robust,” and “powerful.” The structures were modelled first by central office leaders; school leaders acknowledged the critical role of central office leaders in ensuring that planning processes were in place to address the evolving needs that arose throughout the spring.
The notice of school closure was quickly followed by an emergency learning plan developed by the central office leadership team. The plan’s meaning and intent were further highlighted and reinforced through regular “Principal Huddles” involving central office and school-based leaders. Classroom support teachers worked closely with educational assistants (EAs) and classroom teachers to ensure that supports continued for children on Individual Student Learning Plans (ISPs). EAs (many of whom remained employed throughout the pandemic) played a more directive role in supporting children and often became the “go-to” person for the child.
Collaboration took on an expanded role. For many teachers, collaboration became a focal point of their learning. The structure for collaboration existed in the schools, but it now became essential to meeting the challenges imposed by home learning. Time, formerly in short supply for collaborative work, suddenly became available. Teachers were meeting virtually in grade groups, interest groups, learning groups, large groups, and thematic groups (e.g. literacy or numeracy focused) on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
Professional learning focused on supporting the work of teachers in this new learning environment. Generative dialogue was used to support leader and teacher conversations “in emergent items like assessment and reporting and instruction in e-learning like never before.”
Divisional initiatives supported the purchase, dissemination, and use of technology. The first step was “the establishment of a universal level of tech ability (Google Classroom/Meet) and access to the technology by staff and families.” A division-wide purchase plan allowed individual staff members to access technology so they could work from home; families were provided Chromebooks/iPads for student use, and where necessary, Internet connection was also made available to families in need.
The primacy of communication
Led by central office leaders who were purposeful in their “common messaging,” communication between and among central office leaders, school-based leaders, teachers, staff, and families took on an amplified level of importance. Central office leaders ensured close and regular contact with their designated schools, and shared feedback from school leaders with the central office team. Communication was scheduled and focused on essential messages. The superintendent was in regular communication with all leaders and staff through video announcements and recorded messages, giving voice and personalization to the jurisdiction’s pandemic emergency plan and to the division’s commitment to student learning as the hallmark of success in the midst of uncertainty. Through his lead, school leaders also embraced a priority of more frequent communication with staff through a variety of modalities, both technological and personal.
We observed that school leaders relied on three threads of continuity to maintain their sense of meaning, purpose, and identity as they coped with these challenges:
- Recommitting to established structures that had been effective in the past: system and site professional learning days, professional learning collaborations, classroom and school visits, and a focus on student well-being as their primary learning requirement. School leaders relied on the sense of stability provided by these structures as they navigated the daily fluidity of operations.
- Establishing processes that privileged relationships, connections, and conversations: emphasizing ways that generative dialogue could be broadly taken up; or introducing new processes where collaborations and connections could be made between teachers and leaders and school leaders with system leaders. These processes reaffirmed purpose and offered clear direction, in spite of the enormous magnitude of change.
- Enhancing and extending the frequency and modes of communication, with clear focus on calm, steadfast, patient messaging. More than ever, communication on an individual scale was prioritized and was supplemented weekly by personal and video messages from system leaders.
These three threads of continuity were instrumental in ensuring that school leaders were supported in their learning and growing toward increased effectiveness in a global environment of uncertainty. As organizational strategies, they offer potential for system leaders to consider in times of rapid change.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Townsend, D. (2019). Leadership in education: The power of generative dialogue. Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Alberta Education (2018a). Leadership quality standard. Alberta Government. https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739621/standardsdoc-lqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf
Alberta Education (2018b). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Alberta Government. https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739619/standardsdoc-sqs-_fa-web-2018-02-02.pdf
Alberta Education (2018c). Teaching quality standard. Alberta Government. https://www.alberta.ca/assets/documents/ed-teaching-quality-standard-english.pdf
Flores, M., & Day, C. (2006). Contexts which shape and reshape teachers’ identities: A multi-perspective study. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22, 219–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2005.09.002
Helsing, D. (2007). Regarding uncertainty in teachers and teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 1317–1333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2006.06.007
Hewson, K., Hewson, L., & Parsons, J. (2015). Envisioning a collaborative response model: Beliefs, structures, and processes to transform how we respond to the needs of students. Jigsaw Learning Inc.
Marris, P. (1975). Loss and change. Pantheon Books.
Spillane, J. (2006). Distributed leadership: The Jossey-Bass leadership library in education. Jossey-Bass.