Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: November 2020 | TELjournal.ca
This is a narrative account of a first year Principal leading during a global pandemic. The lessons learned during this time include be steady, be clear and be generous – inspired by Dr. Bonnie Henry.
The 2019/20 school year: What a time!
At the beginning of this year I started out in my new role as Principal of an elementary school. I have always been clear about my ‘why’ in terms of my work as an educator and leader. This why has infused my work and I have been able to lean on its sturdiness over time. My why is the fuel that motivates me to dig deeper, to reflect, to question, and to learn – from both the successes and the failures.
I have approached change with confidence and curiosity, facilitating change with colleagues and stakeholders. By being with the staff and the students, I have stayed awake to the impact of my why through seeing their work and their learning. In moments of straying from the vision, I have been able to course correct through small conversations, well timed sharing of resources or suggestions and at times with the power of listening. I did not realize the extent I have relied on presence, on togetherness, as a vehicle for the sharing of my why – from the inside of me, through the relational field with the staff, to the learning and way of being for the school. I didn’t realize my blind spots when it came to leading change, until the stark realities of the pandemic revealed them.
During this time of COVID, my why has been less accessible to others. There hasn’t been the feedback that comes from being together in the building, there hasn’t been the opportunity for those timely, in the moment, conversations that can make all the difference, there hasn’t been the visible evidence of application of ideas and learning; and I have felt futility.
I have sat in my office at my empty school for weeks, having Zoom meetings – where the nuances of face to face conversation are nonexistent, organizing childcare, sending emails, and wondering where the learning went. There were no more small conversations or timely suggestions, no more in person moments to nudge the learning forward. I was suddenly aware of my lack of knowledge around effective remote learning, and thus, of my inability to scaffold the learning of my staff in the manner to which I am accustomed. I feel like I have gone from being an educational leader to a building manager. And with that went the wind from my sails. I lost my why and my confidence in leading my staff and community through this very big change.
Simultaneously, COVID times have also been filled with great new leadership and learning opportunities. I have been so inspired by the leadership of Dr. Bonnie Henry and her motto of Be Calm, Be Kind, Be Safe. She inspired me to get back to my why. Her leadership offered a new lens through which to see educational leadership and supporting change for staff, students and parents. I began to see connections to leading my school community through this unexpected and sudden change, and began to see the opportunities therein. As I navigated the new territory of leading through COVID times I have learned much and developed my own motto – Be Steady, Be Clear, Be Generous.
In this time of incredible change, where the ground beneath our feet shifts and changes with amazing frequency, what my school seemed to really need was some steadiness. A calm and steady moving forward, one step at a time, reassuring as we go. This wasn’t the pedagogical forward momentum I had hoped for in my first year, but it was clearly needed. I have learned that listening and being present with others as they experience uncertainty, confusion, and fear is sometimes the best I can offer.
So many of my staff wanted more information when there wasn’t any, or had frustrations with how to use unfamiliar technology. There were times when I had concrete answers for them and others when my most important role was to listen, to take notes, to sit with them, over zoom, in their discomfort. They actually needed me to be present with them, to let them know they weren’t alone on this new remote learning journey.
It has made me start to think about any change that schools and school staffs experience. Whether it be a curriculum change, a new initiative or a significant staff change, a steady, patient presence will likely help them to feel safe no matter the challenge they face.
I also realized during the pandemic that I was constantly repeating myself, answering the same question over and over, giving the same information repeatedly. This became frustrating for me until it dawned on me that this was part of the steadiness. Hearing the same thing over and over, having questions answered consistently with the same information, was actually calming for people, including members of the parent community. Even when the answer was ‘we don’t know right now’, it seemed to help that at least the questions could be safely asked, even if we all already knew the answer. It had to become ok to not know, to be anxious, to need reassurance because this was exactly how people were feeling. Trying to persuade them to see it differently or to change their experience was futile and disrespectful. Providing them with time to talk and share and be with the actual experience they were having was validating and, I found, invited steps forward with thinking, reflection, and engagement.
As a new principal, there are many things that are new to me. Processes, procedures, forms, spreadsheets, protocols – so much that I didn’t need to know or do as a vice-principal. And then along comes a pandemic with vast new protocols and procedures; so much new information that fell into our laps overnight (or at least it felt that way). The pandemic has been a time of needing information about health and safety and learning quickly and thoroughly. My staff and community expected me to know precise details about everything from how to use the new apps on the iPads to the ratio of water to cleaning solution for appropriate sanitizing. Pages and pages of information were constantly coming from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, the School Board Office and the various associations – BCTF, CUPE, BCPVPA. So much information, some contradictory, some not welcome.
This is actually exactly like any other new information or initiative that schools face. It is new and unfamiliar and represents change and often is light on important details for an individual school context. When this happens, it is frustrating for all stakeholders. I quickly determined that what I needed was to be clear. I needed to be clear about what I knew and what I didn’t know. I needed to constantly and clearly communicate through all the channels – phone, email, Zoom, social media the same clear messages using language that was straightforward and meaningful to my audience. That way, as people shared what they heard from me, the message was hopefully simple and easy to remember, easy to repeat, easy to verify.
I also learned not to guess. It seems like every time I thought I had a pretty good guess at information, or I muddled my communication even a little bit, the subsequent confusion took hours and sometimes days to correct. Thankfully after not too many times of this mess, I learned to say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m not sure, let me find out’. I initially thought that this would undermine me as the principal, but it didn’t. I think people appreciated my honesty and actually were more inclined to trust me when I gave information because they knew I would tell them if I didn’t know.
This has perhaps been my greatest learning when it comes to leading through change. Even though I felt helpless and at times useless at school during COVID while my staff were working their hearts out at home, there was actually something important I needed to be doing: being generous. As I spent hours and hours on Zoom and on email, I realized that I needed to be generous with my time. These were not simply tasks needing completion and information needing transmition, this was the sharing of a human experience new to everyone, and sharing takes time. Listening to each person and hearing how they were experiencing this change, both the positive and the negative let them feel cared for and heard. It was so important that I acknowledged them and their perspective, whether they were jumping in and embracing the new way of remote teaching or whether they were in total resistance that this was even happening. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that they felt heard by me.
These little conversations allowed me to grow my generosity of relationship and really start to connect with them as people, regardless of being face to face or not. I learned where help was wanted and where it wasn’t. I learned about their families and their worries and I celebrated their success with them, both large and small. I learned to follow up about these things that were important to them and invited them to share with others, to build their networks in new ways, with new people. I also learned to be generous with positivity and warmth, to smile when I was on Zoom with them and to use humour so we could share some laughter. It was important that they felt that we were on this journey together, even if our roles looked different.
Some days, people called me defeated, frustrated, even crying. Teachers who were exhausted, parents who were frustrated, Educational Assistants who were angry or confused – all of them wanting to vent their emotions, but also wanting to feel better. At first, I was a little bewildered at this – what could I possibly do to make this pandemic situation any better? In my loss for words I started with what I knew, which was what they were already doing that was making a positive difference for themselves and others. I pointed out to parents how hard they were working to do their own jobs and help their children. I reminded EAs of the amazing relationships they have with their students and of the grateful families they were supporting through their work. I reviewed with teachers the often surprisingly creative and unexpectedly interesting work their students were doing when given the trust of their teachers and freedom to choose their own way of communicating their learning. To my surprise, it was helpful for them to hear the aspects of what they were doing that were working well. Over time, I realized that building on the positive and productive was actually growing more of that way of being for those people, and the need for the upset conversations lessened. I invited them to share their successes with others who were experiencing some similar struggle and often it was well received. We were learning how to be generous with each other.
This COVID time represents the greatest leap into the unknown I have ever experienced; from a position of certainty of my craft to a place of having no idea what is next but faith that there is a way through it. It is imperative I take from this COVID experience what is wise and let the other bits go. What is available now is to become a more truthful me, one who is humbled by the learning available through this experience, by the gift of this COVID time, by the joy available in doing this work, my work – even when I don’t know what it is yet, even when I can’t see where it is taking me.
This step forward must be done both for my own personal expression but also as a leader, and for those I lead. How I learn, adapt, and respond informs my relationship with them, teaches them and lays the groundwork of how we will move forward together. My willingness to evolve and create anew will build something new and different here at my school – a little step now, a bigger step later. If nothing else, having this lets me wake up in the morning, excited by the day ahead of me, to feel the purpose of my existence in the world, to have the resonance in my bones that I am precisely where I should be. Be steady, be clear, be generous.
For this learning, I am grateful. What a time.
3 responses to “Leadership Lessons Learned from COVID”
This is a beautiful article, thoughtful, sensitive and practical. Thanks, Brooke.
Inspiring, Brooke. You have articulated so clearly what we, as staff, need, and your calm reflective response to your own and others’ feelings of bewilderment, frustration, uncertainty, etc. demonstrates how desperately we need you and others like you in this crucial role. Thank you.
What a joy to read your honest portrayal of such a challenging time for educators and leaders at all levels. Looking for meaning as we face seemingly insurmountable uncertainty gives me hope and solace that our leaders are searching for ways to help.
Thank you for your discernment of a message that can be steady to create faith, clear to assuage fears and generous to speak to our hearts. You rock Brooke.