Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Spring 2021
In this article, Nancy and Brad share how they have helped school leaders lead through the pandemic. Despite the temptation during the crises to withdraw and pause, the authors discuss how continual professional learning is needed now more than ever in order to help leaders connect with their purpose and lean into their capacity.
By Nancy Gordon and Brad Bauman
Leithwood identifies “a comprehensive approach to leadership development” as a necessary component of an effective school district (2013, p. 18). Based on this recommendation, in 2017, the Delta School District created a five-strand approach to leadership development called Leading the Learning.
This model uses the Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013) to identify the learning needs of District leaders. In 2019 a sixth strand was added.
The Leading the Learning program was initially created based on the needs of school leaders (mainly principals and vice-principals) as identified through the scanning phase of the Spiral of Inquiry.
Impact is assessed and revised annually with survey data. Originally, the leadership development program focused on
- the managerial aspects of leadership
- the professional learning required to achieve Vision 2020,
- to ensure schools were Professional Learning Organisations (Kools and Stoll, 2016),
- and to ensure District goals were achieved.
COVID-19 forced a re-examination of the needs of Delta’s leaders when it became apparent that the emerging needs of leaders aligned closely with the intellectual, personal, and social and emotional competencies central to the BC K-12 Curriculum: communication, thinking, and personal and social skills (BC Ministry of Education, 2021). The qualities identified as essential for students are also vital to the success of school leaders. Collaborating to think creatively and critically about designing and implementing new timetables, while using their personal and social skills to support the needs of their staff drew on all their leadership skills and all of the BC Core Competencies.
The winter of 2021 has perhaps been the most challenging of all as “COVID fatigue” (World Health Organization, 2020) has set in. Leaders have been stretched to build and maintain positive relationships during a time of unprecedented stress. They are continually reflecting on their values and beliefs as they discover new insights while moving through the pandemic. Most importantly, the need for compassionate system leadership (Senge et al, 2019) has led to a focus on the personal well-being of our leaders.
Scanning again to go deeper
All of this compels the District’s senior leadership team to re-evaluate the learning needs of school and district leaders within the District’s established Leading for Learning framework while at the same time acknowledging that the very state of striving is often what lifts leaders up. “Striving is where we tackle difficult things (high in challenge and requiring a high level of skill) and have to display courage (overcoming low enjoyment and low interest) in the pursuit of a meaningful goal, aspiration or vision” (Fraser, 2020). The senior leadership team believes that despite all of the challenges that school and district leaders are facing, the way forward is to keep moving forward.
Despite the temptation during the pandemic to withdraw and pause, continual professional learning is needed now more than ever.
As a result, in January 2021 participants in Leading the Learning were asked for feedback on the six strands. Below is a summary:
What have been the two biggest challenges to your leadership during COVID?
Common themes in response to this question are as follows:
- managing the stress and anxiety of parents and staff in uncertain times
- not being able to have face- to- face meetings and how that negatively impact staff connectedness and school culture
- rescheduling schools in an extremely short period of time
- the volume of new learning required to manage a school (establishing safety procedures; scheduling learning cohorts; developing formats for parent-teacher and student-led conferences; conducting virtual assemblies and concerts; overseeing daily health checks; sending out COVID notifications from the health department)
- finding the time to engage in, and lead, professional learning
- the sense of isolation and loss due to not being able to meet and connect with other school leaders (both professionally and socially)
“Relearning the ability to be an educational leader in a context like nothing you’ve ever experienced as a teacher yourself nor in a context you’ve ever been a leader in before [has been challenging]” –School Leader
What have been your two biggest leadership successes during COVID?
The responses to this question were diverse. Of interest was many individuals commented that their two biggest successes were how their two biggest challenges had played out.
- the strong collaboration that occurred with staff and other school leaders around implementing new routines and procedures
- the ability to create environments where students and staff felt safe
- successfully creating and maintaining a positive school culture in spite of the challenges
- built trust and kept the community connected to the school, particularly through increased communication such as weekly newsletters
- some new school initiatives had been successfully implemented
- an increase in risk-taking and the adoption of positive practices (especially with regards to more focus on outdoor learning, shifting practices and beliefs related to learning support and inclusion, and the up-take in technology as a tool for learning)
“…the amazing success we have had with inclusion. I thought COVID would create more challenges than successes – but the opposite is true” – School Leader
What do you see as the “silver linings” related to leadership during COVID?
- the benefits of Zoom and how it eliminates the need to commute to meetings and therefore allowed leaders more time in their schools
- the pandemic provided a need for staff to come together and unite around a collective purpose related to innovative ways to teach. There was a sense of “we’re all in this together”.
- time to slow down and go slow and thoughtfully; time to be quiet and still and deeply immerse in the moment; and due to the fact that there are no after school or night time commitments, time to focus on personal well-being in the evenings
- pandemic allowed educators to view education through a new lens and that it provided an opportunity for changes in practice (especially in practices related to equity and inclusion, assessment, and scheduling) and in discovering new practices that may continue. For example, virtual parent-teacher interviews resulted in more parent participation; spreading kids out on the playground has resulted in a significant decrease in recess and lunch hour playground conflicts; and the quarter system in secondary schools has received positive feedback from many students and staff.
- how well staff had worked together and supported each other through the pandemic and how COVID reaffirmed the importance of connections, relationships, and professional collaboration. Responses referred to a greater awareness of care, empathy and compassion.
“[The pandemic] made us do things that we said that we could never do. It made us be creative.” – School Leader
What have been the challenges related to leadership during COVID?
- a decrease in staff motivation, momentum, or emotional energy to try new things and a tendency to want to revert to the “status quo”
- the loss of connectedness with others due to the lack of face-to-face opportunities, with some respondents feeling solitary or isolated
- COVID fatigue
- Zoom fatigue
“At the start of the pandemic, it was the “unknown” that created a lot of anxiety and stress amongst our staff. Once we were able to get past that point (mostly through trauma informed practice), things seem to be more positive. Recently, we are noticing Staff’s complacency with COVID measures. Some of our staff members are becoming too comfortable with the current pandemic and their relaxed approach to implementation of our COVID measures puts them/others at risk.” – School Leader
What questions might you have related to leadership development in Delta?
Several key questions were raised through the survey. The essence of those questions related to:
- encouraging more female staff to become administrators (particularly at the secondary level)
- developing a systemic leadership development program for all school District staff, including teachers who wish to become vice principals and CUPE members who may wish to become managers
- developing a formal mentorship program for vice principals new to the role
- providing assistance to school leaders in developing professional growth plans that align with the District’s vision and goals
- providing training on ways to plan engaging, cooperative professional learning via Zoom
“Is there a way to help us reflect on who we are as leaders? … I felt so overwhelmed that maybe, I lost myself a little and who I was in the first year as a leader, like maybe I couldn’t remember why I was hired – what were those qualities and how can I harness them to be strong? Develop that moral purpose to help have those hard conversations.” – School Leader
Is there any other feedback you would like to share related to leadership development in Delta?
The majority of responses to this question expressed appreciation for the professional learning opportunities that the District was providing and for the support of the senior leadership team. Other noteworthy comments included:
- the fact that mentorship has been a challenge to consistently maintain, especially during COVID
- the need for the Delta Principals and Vice Principals’ Association (DPVPA) to be more connected around leadership topics and involved in professional learning
“Keep up this great work. The administrators here are so fortunate that we are given these opportunities to grow professionally.” – School Leader
Next Steps for Delta’s Leading for Learning Program
The evidence acquired through the leadership survey moves the senior leadership team back into the scanning and focusing phases of the Spiral. The evidence gathered through the survey, conversations in formal school visits, informal feedback, and in meetings between senior staff and the executive of DPVPA, the Leading the Learning program needs to address the following:
- how to help others manage their stress while not absorbing others’ anxiety. This session, already in the planning stage, will be held on Zoom and led by a cognitive behaviour therapist that specializes in helping others cope with stress and anxiety.
- continue with the Learning Alliance which is currently engaged in a book study using “Leading Change Together” (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStefano, 2018). Based on survey results, there is a keen interest and willingness for leaders to engage in professional learning even in the midst of a global pandemic.
- plan Toolbox Sessions for school leaders new to their roles
- establish a means of conducting networked school visits during COVID
- work with the professional development committee of DPVPA to develop and support a mentorship program for leaders who wish to participate – ideally led by DPVPA members
- leverage the knowledge of school leaders who were formally trained to be professional coaches to ensure that a new group of leaders are trained to be coaches
The survey on leadership development in Delta revealed two other areas the District needs to address.
First, there were suggestions that a leadership series for teachers who may be interested in learning more about or pursuing school leadership be developed. After careful consideration, the senior leadership team has elected to address this need through a different approach. The Delta School District has been centered on the work of Dr. Louise Stoll and the Schools as Learning Organization Framework (SLO). One key dimension of that framework is Modelling and Growing Learning Leadership. This dimension, coupled with the notion of Helen Timperley’s “Who is your class?” has caused us to realize that it is the role of the school principal to develop future leaders. Thus, the District needs to establish professional development sessions for our school leaders on how to develop future school and district leaders.
Before this professional learning can be accomplished, the District needs to be clear about what knowledge, skills and aptitudes they are seeking in their future leaders. District Procedures 430 and 431, Principal and Vice-Principal Position Descriptions, are outdated and need revision as they do not reflect either the District Vision or the work of Schools as Learning Organisations. The revision of these procedures needs to be completed before school leaders can work effectively to model and build future leaders. Clarity is essential.
Finally, District Procedure 432, Supervision and Evaluation of School Administrators is also in need of revision. Due to the outdated procedure, there is a lack of alignment between what the District values in effective leadership and the current process of evaluation. This needs to be addressed if the District is to maximize the development and effectiveness of its leadership team.
As the Delta School District continues its journey of continuous improvement across all areas of the system, the Spiral of Inquiry will continue to be a critical tool for ensuring that the key learning needs of students, schools and the system are addressed and that District goals are achieved.
Inquiry is iterative. The Delta School District has been involved in a ten-year inquiry process designed to achieve Vision 2020. It is now time to create Vision 2030. Although some might wonder “why now?”, in the midst of a pandemic, others believe there is no better time. Capturing the new learning that has occurred through the pandemic will shape Vision 2030 which will ultimately determine the professional learning needs of our school and District leaders for the next ten years.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/
Fraser, A. (2020). Strive: Embracing the Gift of Struggle. New Jersey, Wiley Publishing
Halbert, J. and Kaser, L. (2013). Spirals of Inquiry for Quality and Equity. Vancouver: The BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association. (bcpvpa.bc.ca/books)
Leithwood, K. (2013). Strong Districts and Their Leadership. A Paper Commissioned by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education and The Institute for Education Leadership.
OECD. (2013). Innovative Learning Environments. Educational Research and Innovation. OECD Publishing.
Senge, P. Boell, M. Cook, L. Martin, J. Lynn, K. Haygaru, T. Gruen, S., & Urrea, C. (2019). Introduction to Compassionate Systems Framework in Schools. Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Center for Systems Awareness
Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the power of professional learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.
Timperley, H., Kaser, L., and Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria, Australia: Centre for Strategic Education
World Health Organization. (2020). Pandemic Fatigue: Reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19. WHO Regional Office for Europe, Denmark