Schools Leading and learning through crisis

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 3 years ago.
  • 6 Apr 2021
Lisa Branch, principal at Victoria Road Primary School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

School leaders felt the challenges of 2020 more acutely than most, but there are lessons to be learned from those hardships.

It goes without saying that we’re all hoping 2020 will prove to have been a year like no other. While the rest of the world still struggles to contain COVID-19, Australia – alongside a few other lucky nations – is in a position to return to something approaching normality. Schools might be closed in Europe and parts of the US, but (a week’s disruption aside) Victorian students returned to classrooms as the new school year started. That said, the shadow of the previous year looms over 2021, with school leadership still coming to terms with hardships faced and lessons learned during this extraordinary time.

David Adamson, principal at Essendon Keilor College, says the big question for Term 1 will be working out how individual students fared during lockdown. “Some blossomed during remote learning, others completely fell off a cliff (educationally speaking),” David says. “By the time they all came back in Term 4, we didn’t get much done, as we were mostly getting students back into the swing of things.”

He thinks the state government’s tutor program, announced towards the end of last year, will make a difference, even if – as the school year began – nobody seemed entirely sure how it might work.

“We’ve certainly got people to fill those positions,” says David, “but it’s a matter of us targeting the right groups of kids. It’s not just the kids at the bottom who need attention; we’ve got high achievers who haven’t progressed either. We’re happy to have the money and the staff. The challenge will be how we use it as effectively as we possibly can.”

Managing student welfare was one of the greatest challenges for school leaders during our year of COVID. Lisa Branch, principal at Victoria Road Primary School, says assisting families in need and an increased demand for communication with students and parents saw a spike in workload issues.

‘I missed that ability to have those chats over a cup of coffee or out on yard duty, where a lot of work is done.’

“Our role as a leader in the community was magnified,” Lisa says. “We’ve always been the centre of the community but, in this case, we were called on to help people with all kinds of things. We were doing food deliveries to families, we were doing counselling calls for students, we were doing home calls to parents, we were arranging computers and supplies. Everything we could be expected to do, we did. And that was exhausting.”

The emotional load of having to deal with child protection matters for students who might be especially vulnerable during lockdown took a particular toll. “It’s hard to hear that sort of stuff when you can’t see the child and you can feel quite disconnected. You worry about people when you can’t see them and give them a smile. That was probably the hardest bit.”

Lisa says she is in awe of the work her staff did, particularly considering they too were living through the stress of a pandemic, having to work from home while caring for their own families. Many struggled with the collapsed divide between professional and domestic life.

David Adamson, principal at Essendon Keilor College. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“It never stopped! I remember being on a chat with staff one night and we realised it was 10 o’clock, so I sent everyone to bed. Our staff already work very hard and I think they just worked a lot harder.”

For those in leadership, managing the needs of staff from a safe distance also presented challenges. David says he missed the incidental contact of working in the same building and the quiet moments of people management that are more easily done face-to-face. “There were new staff who I didn’t get to know. I missed that ability to have those chats over a cup of coffee or out on yard duty, where a lot of that work is done. Staff didn’t get that cross-fertilisation you would usually get, which in turn made the principal’s job harder. You have to operate more formally; you don’t get a chance for things to just happen organically.”

There was a sense, however, that the sudden difficulties in communicating actually led to an increased focus on what good communication looks like. Having to make an effort to converse more consciously and clearly, and think about what truly needed to be said, sometimes led to more effective communication. David also appreciated the time freed up by not having to travel between campuses for weekly meetings – even if that time was quickly eaten up by other meetings!

‘I think, if anything, this has really solidified our view that the most important thing we’re focused on is wellbeing and a social education.’

Lisa says her staff approached the challenges of the year as being an extended opportunity for professional learning, much of which dovetailed with earlier work the school had been doing.

“We were really fortunate in that a lot of the capacity-building we’ve been doing over the past three years has been about growth mindset, thinking skills, and approaching things with a positive lens. All of that became visibly beneficial to us.”

In the end, it wasn’t ICT knowledge or digital skills that helped her staff get through lockdown – although they seized the chance to expand on those areas – but rather a broader philosophy of resilience and growth. “Essentially, teachers are a pretty resilient bunch. If you work with human beings, you have to be. We really tried to get the most out of it.”

The end-of-year survey demonstrated that treating 2020’s manifold hardships as learning opportunities helped staff feel settled in unsettling times. However, both David and Lisa seem quick to spot the silver lining to every COVID cloud. Communicating with families may have been labour-intensive and emotionally draining, but the end result was a much tighter-knit school community.

“We’ve got much better relationships with our families than we had before, even if it was a huge workload to keep up that contact over 17 weeks,” David says.

Lisa adds that remote learning also taught her a thing or two about her students. “It was a big lesson in how independent our children can be. There’s a certain level of control we have when they’re in a class in front of us that perhaps we need to reexamine. I had to teach an online class for one term and my mind was blown by the students’ independence, their willingness and ability to teach each other – and me. I think we sometimes forget they are independent young minds and we need to give them the space to demonstrate to us all the things we’ve been trying to teach them!”

David agrees that lessons learned during remote learning will have a lasting impact on school practice. “One of the things I want to pursue with the staff in 2021 is: what do they think is really important to teach? When we had the kids in remote learning, we were probably teaching half the normal number of minutes, so staff had to really focus on what they thought was essential. I think that’s a discussion worth continuing. You hear all this stuff about the crowded curriculum. Maybe remote learning has shown us there are things we don’t need to be teaching in the same way.”

‘No matter how competent you are, it’s never the same as being face-to-face with somebody.’

At Lisa’s school, staff are also keen to extract broader lessons from last year’s unique challenges. “I think, if anything, this has really solidified our view that our most important focus is wellbeing and a social education. With those things under our belt, we can approach anything, be it academic or a pandemic.”

While technology was essential in making remote learning possible, both Lisa and David are wary of relying on it too much in the future. Lisa says her students ended up feeling quite ambivalent about online learning. “They were excited at first, because it was something new, but as it went on, it became quite wearying on them.” 

David says his school’s use of IT will continue to evolve. Assignments and homework will be posted online so absent students and parents can keep track of what’s going on in the classroom – a practice that started during remote learning. He is also keen to maintain remote meetings if it avoids unnecessary travel. But, as Lisa’s students discovered, working via a screen has its limits.

“There are some things you just can’t do remotely,” David says. “And Zoom meetings are more exhausting. No matter how competent you are, it’s never the same as being face-to-face with somebody.”

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