Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2021 | TELjournal.ca
In this paper, leadership from the Yukon Department of Education share how they responded to the pandemic with a socio-emotional stance on leadership development, incorporating human behaviour with change management and organizational effectiveness.
The Yukon Context
The Yukon Territory has an approximate population of 42 000 and a public education system that provides K-12 educational programming to approximately 5700 students in 29 schools and 5 alternative program sites. The majority of the population (33 000) resides in the capital city of Whitehorse resulting in 80% of our K-12 students attending neighbourhood schools in an urban setting, while the remaining 20% of students attend community schools in 14 rural Yukon communities where population numbers range from about 120 to 2300 residents.
Yukon’s educational governance structure is also somewhat unique, affording our jurisdiction with particular opportunities and learning that can be useful to larger jurisdictions. Our public schools are directly operated by the Department of Education with the exception of the two Francophone schools operated by the only school board, commission scholaire francophone du Yukon. This means that officials within the department at the highest levels, Deputy Minister and Assistant Deputy Minister, benefit from learning opportunities and perspectives informed by both district and ministerial responsibilities. In addition, all senior officials in the department also work on education related priorities directly with 14 Yukon First Nation governments, 11 of which are self-governing.
Lastly, in our work with education partners we are engaged in significant system renewal. This work that began before the pandemic, is further informed by the June 2019 release of a report by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada entitled, Kindergarten Through Grade 12 Education in Yukon. Themes from this audit include Yukon First Nations education and collaboration with Yukon First Nations, supporting student learning needs through inclusive and special education, supporting staff learning needs through professional development, training and resources focusing on competency-based K-12 curriculum, student outcomes and system quality assurance. As we reflect on the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, we are learning that a global pandemic presents an opportunity to amplify systemic renewal as a fundamental priority for our recovery and regeneration of public education in Yukon.
As the threat of COVID-19 spread across the globe our small territory was no exception and the realities of our limited capacity to respond to a public health crises of this magnitude became front of mind. Instantly our school system was given no alternative but to adapt and respond quickly in a rapidly changing and unpredictable crises situation. We immediately engaged in developing an education pandemic response framework, in real-time, that could serve as both a decision-making guide as well as a system communication tool. Essentially, we were building the plane as we were flying it.
During this initial process it became evident we would need to build leadership capacity across our system to respond through the pandemic and to sustain our efforts. We needed to create space and understanding to be human, for our emotions to play a role in our work together without judgement. Our previous leadership efforts to become a learning organisation were still highly valued to continue to develop basic leadership competencies; however, the underlying notion here is that we demonstrate these competencies relative to our confidence in our abilities in any particular situation. If we accept then, that during a crisis response like a global pandemic, none of us is “our best selves”, then we need to support leadership capacity to include the tools we need to be our best selves both as individuals and as leaders.
At this same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that getting through to the other side of this pandemic would test our emotional endurance as an education system and as a community. The realization of the power held within the energy of these interconnections was first inspired by Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for the Province of British Columbia, and later informed by the research of many others in managing our human (emotional) response as a critical part of organisational culture and change management.
As a result, our pandemic response with a pandemic leadership approach centers on a socio-emotional stance incorporating human behaviour with change management and organisational effectiveness. It builds on our Learning Organisation Framework and uses neuroscience as leadership cues to consider emotional need and leadership style relative to the psychological needs of our school communities.
Our Learning Organisation Framework is based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Seven Principles of Learning for Innovative Learning Environments and research on adaptive expertise. Our Learning Organisation Framework starts with the enduring understanding that each staff member of the department has learners and at the same time is a learner themselves. Using the know, understand, and do model of the K-12 curriculum we identified key learning to amplify our effectiveness as an organisation. Our framework reflects the alignment of foundational knowledge (literacy, numeracy and Yukon First Nation ways of knowing, doing and being) and core competencies from the K-12 curriculum for student development with similar developmental goals for school-based and central administration staff.
Yukon Government (2019). Learning Organisation Framework
Our approach is based on the three stages identified by Jessica Whitcutt Fagan (2020) in her visual graphic Embrace the Curve that integrates the progression of a classic change curve with a pandemic curve illustrating communication and behavioural needs.
Embrace the curve. https://medium.com/@JessicaWhitcuttFagan/embrace-the-curve-bb0bd48b3f75
Stage 1- Endings
Emotional Need: Empathy and clarity
Leadership style: Communicative and confident
This stage is familiar to most large-scale change initiatives and crises response situations. Whitcutt Fagan (2020) states that it is characterized by a sudden and traumatic shift that is adrenalin fueled and requires the system to adapt quickly. Emotionally members of the organization respond with fear, denial and anxiousness. Leadership priorities are to distribute information and ensure communication.
In our pandemic leadership approach, we are developing leadership capacity in the area of emotional intelligence by connecting to the research of Susan David in the area of emotional agility. David (2020) describes emotional agility as a skill to deal with the world as it is; and not how we wish it to be. A skill that leads us to resiliency and the opportunity to thrive. She notes that “Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility” and that as a society we are not navigating this fragility well when we are rigid in our response or when we promote false positivity by advocating that “everything will be okay.” In fact, as a society we are not healthy in our overall well-being when we place value judgments on our emotions; sad, frustrated and angry are less valued than happy, kind and optimistic.
David (2020) says in reality our emotions are not directives they are simply data, that tells us a story. Emotional agility is when we are able to step back and reflect before act. What is my emotion telling me? Which action will bring me towards my values and which will take me away? When leaders act with emotional agility, they can create influence. In our pandemic leadership approach, we identified system values of patience, kindness and solidarity; leadership actions, at all levels, towards these values help to build and sustain a collective response that calls upon each of us to come together in mutual support of all learners.
Stage 2- Transitions
Emotional Need: Security, support and motivation
Leadership style: Reassuring, inventive and open
Whitcutt Fagan (2020) describes this stage as an endurance test, a period of adjustment that is long and unsettled. It is more likely to be draining, depressing, slow, and frustrating. The leadership response needed is to mobilize resources and energy. The leadership opportunity is “to be mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of your organization’s culture” so as to leverage the pandemic to co-create a new more relevant culture. It is about developing a growth mindset to co-creating a sense of genuine optimism. Our inquiry was how do we move from frustration and fatigue to create opportunities for optimism?
This stage is a transition from a behavioral response of anxiety to adjustment. In our pandemic leadership approach, we turned to the work of Edwin Friedman (2017) to develop leadership capacity in the areas of personal awareness and responsibility and reactive versus self-differentiated leadership. In his work A Failure of Nerve Friedman examines how emotional processes, in particular anxiousness, undermine good leadership within complex systems. He asserts that leaders and organizations who respond to anxiousness with more anxiousness become backsliding and are unable realize the change they are hoping to make. In contrast, effective change comes from adopting a growth mindset that allows for more effective change behaviours to develop.
Leaders with a growth mind set are more likely to be self-differentiated leaders. They are not reactive they are able to identify their own thoughts and feelings and keep them separate from those of others. Friedman (2017) states “A well-differentiated leader is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about… and can therefore maintain a modifying, non-anxious and when needed challenging presence” (p. 62-63). By building capacity for self-differentiated leadership, we are co-creating a growth minded culture.
Stage 3- New Beginnings
Emotional Need: Motivation, reflection and knowledge
Leadership style: Open, decisive and strategic
Stage 3, Whitcutt Fagan (2020) describes as rethinking what is possible. The response moves from adjustment to re-evaluate. Regeneration starts with reflection including gathering of evidence and lessons learned. In this stage time is needed to work through this process. An effective transition to the new normal requires a clear and compelling vision for the future. Note there is an inertia during this stage to settle back into familiar patterns. This is typical of human behaviour in particular when we are experiencing stress, fatigue and anxiousness. How do we carry forward what we have learned through our reflection, to engage in regeneration?
Our Inquiry Mindset
In our pandemic leadership approach, we continue to leverage the Spirals of Inquiry (Kaser and Halbert, 2017). Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has stated, “COVID-19 has shone a real spotlight on… systemic gaps resulting in inequities” (D’Amore, 2020, October 28). Education systems are not exceptions to this observation. In Yukon, there is increasing evidence that Yukon students who were already marginalized and struggling in our education system prior to the pandemic are now over-represented in those experiencing greater impacts as a result of the disruptions and adaptations made to public education in response to the pandemic.
In most instances these are the very same students that have been under served due to systemic failures that the auditor general referred to in their 2019 report. The report emphasized that, at all levels, we need a deeper understanding and analysis of what is happening for our learners to inform the actions we take and the supports we provide to help all students succeed particularly Yukon First Nation, rural, and learners with special educational learning needs. In Yukon, we will not let a good crisis go to waste.
For example, the Department of Education is forging ahead, despite the pandemic, to utilize the Spiral of Inquiry process to collaborate with our diverse partners in a systemic review of inclusive and special education, which include students, Yukon educators, families, School Councils, Yukon First Nations, the Yukon Teachers’ Association, and Yukon University. We are taking the time needed to reflect deeply and to co-create a “new normal” that will clarify where we hope to be and to ensure we do not return to what once was. We are on track to complete our information gathering phase on March 31, 2021 and then we will begin the collaborative process of focusing, developing a hunch, and engaging in new learning to inform the actions we will take together as well as how we will know if we are making a big enough difference.
As another example, with assumptions in check and despite the pandemic, the Department of Education has continued to use the Spiral of Inquiry to help ensure that the conditions essential to the development of adaptive expertise are in place within all of our disciplined inquiries, including those that guide the school growth process as well as those that support educators’ professional learning. More specifically, after checking the assumption that educators may not be able to come together in professional learning networks over the course of this pandemic school year, we are directly working with the same number of educators as before the pandemic struck. Further, in an effort to help ensure that we do not settle back into familiar learning network patterns, as characterized by Stage 3, described above, we took a bit more time with the planning of the learning networks this year, strived to stay curious, and solicited the help of the government’s organisation development branch to layer on decision making theory to potentially deepen the potential of these networks.
Building our leadership capacity continues to be grounded in the Spirals of Inquiry and our Learning Organisation Framework, embedded with the OECD’s seven principles of learning in innovative learning environments; however, our work is now informed by our mutual experience in sustaining learning through a global pandemic. We are shaping our future with a deeper understanding of our own humanity and the importance of our individual and collective emotional intelligence, self-differentiation, and adaptive expertise. The COVID 19 pandemic has heighted our awareness as to what is happening for our students and their communities. It has caused us to re-evaluate the way in which we work together to mutually support students, staff and families to ensure the learning needs of all students are being addressed. As system leaders and education partners our success lies in our ability to be resilient: to adapt, to learn, and to remain hopeful.
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