Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2021 | TELjournal.ca
In their article, Lynn and Christel share the silver linings their District leadership team discovered was created with the pandemic: a catalyst for widespread innovation and deepened relationships.
In order adjust to the onset of COVID-19 and the ongoing nature of the virus, leaders have needed to draw on their core capabilities.
Senge et al (2015) write there are “three core capabilities that system leaders develop in order to foster collective leadership. … The first is the ability to see the larger system. … The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. … The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future” (p. 29). About a year ago the world faced the same significant and daunting task: the need to pivot from learning on-site at school to learning remotely at home. Restructuring learning throughout a school district in less than a month involved courage, creativity, communication, and the ability to see the system as a whole.
Learning Organization Culture
Prior to the temporary closure of schools in early 2020, the district had been providing Innovation Inquiry Grants and a School Story process to support an inquiry mindset among educators. Ultimately, the goal was to foster enhanced learning opportunities for all students. This grant and story structure has evolved over several years and has required persistent balancing of internal and external professional supports. The structures and strategies of inquiry and innovation exemplify the findings of Mehta and Fine (2015) regarding symmetry and emergence.
At the beginning of the school year, amidst a culture of enthusiasm in collaborative inquiry, the district approved a high number of Innovation Inquiry grants for schools. Inquiry grant teams valued attending networking sessions which enabled teachers across schools to
- share ideas,
- engage in new learning, and
- be inspired.
In between the large networking sessions, the District’s teacher consultants supported individual school’s inquiry teams.
Similar to the Innovation Inquiry Grants, the School Story process began positively in the fall of 2019. The importance of symmetry and emergence was increasingly evident as school leaders worked with teachers to develop their School Stories. Schools worked to deepen their understanding of the Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013). School Story groups were encouraged to network and participate in mid-year sessions facilitated by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser. It was clear, that while our educators and schools are on a continuum of innovation and fostering inquiry mindsets, the 2019-20 school year was emerging with positive energy and engagement aimed to make a difference for all learners. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
Adapting Learning during COVID-19
In March 2020, all schools closed to in-person learning. As leaders in the Richmond School District, we needed to draw on the three core capabilities: see the larger system, foster reflection and generative conversations, and shift from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future to guide us through the pandemic (Senge et al, 2015). Initially, the district leadership team developed an emergency response framework for planning, communicating, and supporting the district. The focus was on maintaining caring connections while planning for complete restructuring of learning. Then we saw the rise of “learning packets” and technology companies making their online platforms free for the world. Suddenly overwhelmed with a multitude of options and practices, we needed to determine what would be best for us. In this sea of options, it became clear we needed to focus on what grounds us in Richmond, our motto: “Our Focus is On the Learner.”
In order to truly focus on the learner, we needed to know how our learners and leaders were doing. They had been at home for a two-week spring break in a most tumultuous time. We could no longer assume that the children who left for Spring Break two weeks prior were the same children we would meet online in the upcoming days, given that many families were experiencing tension because of economic and food insecurity along with anxiety about COVID-19.
Hence, our first focus was to communicate.
Strong relationships have been a guiding light in the Richmond School District for many years. Now was the time to centre these relationships.
We started meeting virtually with our stakeholders in order to build our plan and hear how people were doing and what they needed. As people emerged from their cocoon of spring break, the overwhelming task in front of them began to hit home, and their fears and reactions needed support. This meant lots of time communicating with our leaders (school principals, vice principals, and teacher union leaders) to help them make sense of the plans, understand how we were going to make this work, and seek their input. We learned a lot about the effects of stress. For example, information that usually could be delivered one time required repetition for it to be “heard” effectively. Everything was so unusual; new learning, combined with the high stress was challenging. Continually coming back to the bigger picture, the relationships at the core of our work, helped keep the system grounded in our key purpose.
As learning evolved from providing sites for children of Essential Service Workers, designing remote learning, supporting vulnerable learners, to opening schools in June to welcome learners back on a voluntary basis, our district and school leaders met often to discuss questions, address urgent issues, and reflect on what we were learning during this period of forced change.
These fundamental system changes because of the pandemic altered educators’ capacity to focus on Innovation Inquiry Grants and School Stories. Innovation and inquiry were re-focused on adapting learning environments throughout the district. Never before had our teachers needed to plan, teach, and assess learning remotely. As district leaders, we came together to plan and co-create new ways to support learning. This meant changes to how school leaders communicated and planned with staff. So much energy was needed to rethink communication, health and safety, instruction, and learning that the school stories and innovation grants paused. Innovation and inquiry focused on defining essential learning, determining how to teach students remotely, and maintaining a sense of community and connection.
School leaders, while managing their own stress, were supporting staff’s new learning and anxiety with the pandemic overall. The District held weekly meetings incorporating Q&A times with all senior level staff in attendance so that every question could be answered and addressed. Our school leaders needed to know they had a support structure. The presence of senior staff at the frequent videoconference meetings supported the capacity building that was required for school-based leaders to be able to lead during a pandemic, new territory for everyone. The senior team made it their business to become knowledgeable in specific areas: health and safety, facility management, budget, childcare centres, elementary remote learning, secondary remote learning, assessment, technology, etc. This allowed for clarity, consistency, and a supportive leadership framework.
Developing the continuity of learning plans for remote learning was challenging. From April to June, the District provided professional learning, planning time, and digital tools to support the transition from in-person to remote learning. The Learning Services team set to work creating a hub of learning resources that would work in this new online world of teaching and learning. They collaborated, created, co-created, and communicated with teachers in our schools on ways to plan, teach, and assess remotely. Their ability to support educators to see the big picture, take a breath and reflect, and re-invent what learning looks like was enormously helpful.
Next, we asked, “What about September?”
The COVID-19 Pandemic Continues
Late in August, the government confirmed that students would be returning onsite through a cohort structure of 60 people in elementary and 120 people in secondary. For secondary schools, this meant a complete organizational change as typical timetables would not work. All students and courses had to be organized into cohorts. This was challenging in grades 8 and 9, and actually not fully possible in grades 10 – 12 because of the options and electives that are part of the Graduation Program. Completely new timetables were developed prior to the opening of school. All of our secondary schools adopted a quarter system timetable which decreased the number of students teachers taught at one time, but also increased the pace of instruction.
As secondary schools were creating new timetables, elementary school leaders and district leaders came together through a working group to create and implement a cohort organization. In order to comply with health and safety guidelines, elementary schools created cohorts comprised of two classes with two classroom teachers and one non-enrolling teacher. Cohorting meant three teachers working together – among them they provide each other’s preparation time and support the learning needs and English language learning needs of the two classes. This required some teachers to teach outside their area of specialty, as well as support transitional learners at home. This structure was collaborative, flexible, and decreased cross cohort contacts. As well, many elementary schools altered their break structures from all children having recess and lunch at the same time to being cohort based groupings with two thirty minute play breaks at different times. Additionally, children are eating lunch with their teacher during learning time. Our elementary schools are noticing interesting developments regarding students’ increased ability to focus and fewer behaviour issues overall.
Another challenge faced by our elementary schools was the significant number of families who chose to keep their children at home. System vision, reflection, and co-creation allowed us to create a structure called Transitional Learning, a combination of district-based webinars and school-based learning check-ins. Beyond implementing and maintaining health and safety procedures, supporting Transitional Learning has been one of the greatest challenges experienced in our schools during the pandemic.
Moving Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic
We now know that change in education does not need to be measured in years. As the challenges and logistics were worked through, a new collective efficacy emerged. There was huge satisfaction in school leaders knowing that even though it was difficult, they worked through challenges with their staffs and kept their relationships and connections intact. Students, even those learning at home, remained connected to their schools and to teachers in their schools. As a system we believe that being collaborative and curious is an important support structure for educators’ mindset and wellbeing.
Now we are on to a new phase; there is eagerness to pursue inquiries stemming from pandemic learnings.The beginning of the 2020-21 school brought significant organizational changes to our schools and saw the return of Innovation Inquiry Grants and School Stories through videoconferencing. Amazingly, we approved grants in 46 out of 48 schools, with approximately 600 educators involved. Innovation Inquiry Grants also came together with the Re-Imagining Secondary structure in a new grant opportunity called Re-Imagining Secondary Inquiry Grants. Re-Imagining Secondary Inquiry Grants, Innovation Inquiry Grants, and School Story inquiry processes are underway in our schools. We are currently engaging in a data collection process that involves writing surveys for educators, parents and students to solicit their thoughts about learning during the pandemic. There have been challenges, and there is more data to collect, but it is exciting to learn that a global pandemic may have created positive and lasting change.
Creating and adapting public school systems is typically a long and arduous process. However, with thoughtful planning, regular communication, and ongoing support, our school and district leaders were able to implement significant changes in procedures and organizational structures, while continuing to support a culture of wellbeing and belonging in our school and district communities. Through the collective efficacy of our leaders, it has been possible to live under the COVID-19 cloud and mine its silver linings.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2015) Framework for Enhancing Student Learning.
Kaser, L & Halbert, J. (2013) Spirals of Inquiry for Equity and Quality. BCPVPA.
Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2015) The Why, What, Where and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. (draft provided with permission from authors – do not distribute).
Senge, P., Hamilton, H., & Kania, J. (2015) The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review.