Turning the World of Education on its Head

Unquestionably, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the modern world. It is devastating economies, shaking up our society, and changing education in radical ways. The pandemic has placed constraints on most of our lives in previously unthinkable ways. In months, education has been re-crafted, re-imagined, and re-created as a technology home-based on-line activity.

With the dramatic altering of teaching and learning norms, the entire core functions of schools have become quite different as teachers and administration are being challenged in ways previously unimagined. The result of the pandemic, at least for now, has been a fundamental disruption to schooling as we know it.

However, while it is almost reflexive to want to return to “normal” as soon as possible, such a focus may result in a missed opportunity to improve schools and school systems in the long run. Viewing the current leadership practices as merely some temporary, quick fix robs us of the opportunity to transform school leadership to become more effective.

Before the pandemic struck, typical school leadership was essentially a bundle of administrative executions that followed role and position. The core purpose of the administrator was to run the school efficiently, assure that teachers were doing their job and that students were learning and having their needs met. And the glue that held it all together was the administrator’s ability to connect with staff and students alike.

But COVID-19 changed all that. There are no more staff meetings or casual chats in the coffee room or corridor. The formal and informal moments that were so critical to both forging relationships and exercising leadership suddenly vanished. That entire milieu has been replaced with engagement through a laptop or phone screen.

School principals have become remote leaders distanced and disconnected from those they lead and estranged from the students for whom they care. While these times are strange, stressful, and unpredictable times for those leading in any sector, for school leaders the estrangement is especially painful.

One thing is sure. Since virtual communication has become the conduit of interaction, the administrator’s terrain has been dramatically altered, perhaps permanently. So the question becomes, what does the new form of school leadership look like, and where is it heading?

The New School Leadership

Many school leaders may not realize how significantly their mode of leadership has changed. But it has. If schools return to normal functioning again, it has been proposed that school leaders will have to accept how technology has supplemented and radically changed teaching (Hargreaves, 2020). They will need to extend the new leadership skills practices that they have developed and refined in the lockdown.

More Distributed, Collaborative, and Networked

And the shift reaches far beyond technology. As is generally the case in challenging times, school leaders will need to cultivate and nurture a collaborative culture that is built upon the creative implementation of connected human networks. This focus on networks mirrors the global response to COVID-19 that has seen an explosive expansion of new networks and networking practices.

Already school leaders are tapping into the power of networking through multiple platforms, forums, and networks. These human networks are both widely distributed and innately collaborative.

Through necessity rather than choice, distributed leadership has become the only way to operate. Distributed leadership in practice essentially means a weakening of traditional leadership roles and a move towards a flatter, more decentralized, networked leadership culture (Harris, 2011, 2013).

A key feature of distributed leadership is that it is focused on leadership interactions instead of unilateral actions. These interactions account for the new reality facing everyone in leadership roles (i.e. teachers) and not just school leaders. At its core, distributed leadership practice is more about building greater capacity to get results through others than monitoring or even controlling those further down the totem pole.

The consequence of shifting attention away from an individual leader’s action to that leader’s interactions with others is that there is a new emphasis on joint activity and joint practice. At the moment, whether this is by default or design, school leaders are devoting considerable leadership energies to engaging others in the collaborative, shared, and collective work that is both vital and urgent.

Community Leadership

And this collaboration needs to extend beyond the school’s walls. School leaders need to assume a role in community leadership as well. Principals and administrators will need all the help they can get from parents, carers, and community agencies just to keep things going.

A Mindset of Giving

The key to this entire process of increased focus on collaboration is that kindness, gratitude, and empathy are now the leadership currency to get things done. Whereas assuring that the demands on others are reasonable, and having patience, were as important before, these qualities are now imperative if school leaders want to move forward and be successful.