During Lockdown 3, I have had the pleasure of coaching and supporting a number of headteachers this term, all of whom have had to learn to lead through the most extraordinary of times.
For the headteachers themselves, running their schools has been challenging to say the least. For me personally, it has been a pleasure to be able to witness leadership at its most courageous.
Courageous leaders are able to face up to these challenges. They always manage to find the right path regardless of how perilous it might appear.
So, despite all the turmoil and turbulence, here are five things all the best leaders are doing as a result of being courageous:
1. Letting teachers teach. Headteachers are unanimous in their respect and admiration for the way in which their staff (TAs included) have stepped up to the plate and got on with it.
This lockdown has been nothing like the other two, mainly because pupils have finally been kitted out with the necessary tech, such as dongles, laptops and improved broadband at home. This means teachers are freed up to do what they do best.
What has been most heartening has been the way in which schools have managed to create ingenious ways of delivering remote learning, with a strong focus on the arts, play, wellbeing and social development.
All of these need to continue to be the priority when we return to full opening and when planning catch-up programmes.
2. Monitoring less. Headteachers trust their staff. They know how challenging it is for them, whether in school or at home, especially when having to juggle being a parent or carer as well.
Teachers need space to develop new ways of working. As tempting as it is to keep checking up on things, courageous leaders don't.
Thankfully, the headteachers that I’ve worked with have recognised this, such as not sitting in on remote lessons when they know that doing so serves no real purpose whatsoever other than to increase anxiety levels.
(Even more so when heads concede that they have never taught a remote lesson themselves and wouldn't really know what to say or look for, other than the fact that it is 'happening'.)
Some may argue that it’s no different to dropping in on lessons at school, but I would disagree. In a classroom you can talk to the children, look at their books, see how well they engage, talk to the adults. On Zoom you can't.
Monitoring only makes sense if it leads to evaluation. There is nothing meaningful to evaluate here, so don't waste your time with it.
There will be plenty of opportunity to catch up with monitoring in the summer term – it can all come later.
3. Appraising better. As we approach the mid-review point of the appraisal cycle, schools are having to find alternative (and frankly better) ways of appraising their staff due to the absence of any data.
This is one of the rare positives to emerge from Covid, as it has made us realise that most of the proxies we have used in the past to judge teacher performance were unhelpful and wrong. (Such as lesson gradings and test results.)
I have written about the need to rethink appraisal elsewhere. We need to find a better way. The leaders that I have worked with have wisely used this time to do just that; to step back and re-evaluate how they go about supporting and developing their staff, without having to rely on quantitative end-of-year data.
When trying to find out how well a teacher is doing this year, three key questions seem to be emerging: ‘How have you improved as a teacher this year?’, ‘What has made the biggest difference/impact on what you have been doing?’ ‘What has gone well and not so well?’
If the headteacher can then follow this up with 'What more can we do to support you with this?' then the appraisal cycle suddenly becomes more meaningful, especially when linked to school values and mission.
4. Being more coach. We all know about the power of coaching, but in the past it has probably been the least used tool in the box. This is understandable because of the accountability pressures that schools are under, with the skewed expectation that everything has to be done at great pace.
We simply don't have the time to coach when it is much quicker (and cheaper) to tell someone. This year has been different though, as it has allowed school leaders to adopt more meaningful coaching conversations, particularly through the effective use of remote wellbeing sessions with individual members of staff.
Very few of us want to return to the old ways of doing things, such as lesson observations, pointless monitoring and cliff-edge appraisals. (Again, I’ve written about this elsewhere.)
The good thing to remember of course, is that all of these things are in our control (and circles of influence) and so it is up to us to change them.
It seems as if there is a real groundswell of support when it comes to exploring how emerging 'new ways of working', such as instructional coaching, peer review and professional growth frameworks can contribute to a more meaningful and purposeful way of doing things.
5. Sticking to strategy. Being able to navigate a way through all the recent turbulence and churn has required consummate skill, resilience and determination. For those of you that have had to drive through snow and ice (especially when switching to unchartered 4x4 mode), you’ll know how mentally exhausting it can be and is not something you want to be doing too often.
Running a school during lockdown can be a bit like this. Cognitive overload can overcome even the most experienced of drivers when concentrating on something new and trying not to get stuck.
We much prefer journeys where we are familiar with our route. Before setting off, we like to know that we have removed all of jeopardy and uncertainty. When we do, we ease back into automaticity - conscious competence feeling at last back in control.
It is understandable, if at times this year we have felt we have lost control. This is often because we have lost sight of the destination and aren't sure where we are going (or indeed where we are). Strategy has fallen completely off the radar.
But it shouldn't have to be like this; it is not a binary and/or scenario. We can have both in terms of the operational and strategic. One doesn't have to be at the expense of the other. Courageous leaders always find the right path.
These five examples are just some of the great things that I've come across this term. I'm sure you could add many more. The golden thread though that seems to run through all of them has been the notion of wellbeing.
And I don't just mean of the staff, but also that of the pupils and the local community - parents, families, governors, stakeholders and so on. There has been a real sense of coming together, of circling the wagons.
If we are to achieve this, we would all benefit from reflecting on the fact that we need more Ubuntu in our lives. 'Ubuntu' is a South African Xhosa word meaning ‘humanity’. I’ve written about it before but I make no apologies for returning to it.
Ubuntu is actually much more than a word; it’s a way of life, a philosophy. It’s about how we as human beings seek to connect with each other on a number of different levels.
It's at the heart of being a great leader and the extent to which we can bring people together to make change happen.
Nelson Mandela describes Ubuntu perfectly:
“The profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others”.
Achievement through others is at the heart of courageous leadership. It is also at the heart of Ubuntu, which, in its simplest form literally means: ‘I am, because we are’.
One thing I have learned when talking to headteachers this term is that Ubuntu is alive and well in our schools, and long may it continue.