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2022 and Beyond: Agreeing on purpose and a pathway back to learning

Introduction

March, 2022! Turn on the news, scroll social media, listen to politicians, or attend a family dinner these days and it is easy to draw the conclusion that people have lost the desire to find common ground. Individuals are painted as either vaccinated sheep or selfish anti-vaxxers with little room for anything in between. Neighbours are labelling each other as far right or far left. Finding common ground through an agreed upon purpose is one way to mitigate the current and challenging social context and move forward. 

Highly effective schools operate when community members share common ground through an agreed upon purpose. Shared intention is the way the collective does and can work effectively towards the goal of student learning (DuFour & DuFour, 2012; Dufour & Eaker, 1998). There are lessons to be understood from the last few years as the system has responded to the dangers of covid and the idea of agreement can offer a path forward as we design and enliven schooling for 2022 and beyond.

Back to March 2020

My phone buzzed with a text from Mike, a colleague from school. “School is cancelled!!! The whole province is shutting down!” 

“Where did you hear this?” I responded. I had spent the day in the school with our head caretaker stocking individual classrooms with cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers. When Mike’s text appeared, I was reading an email sent by our division superintendent explaining how the recently announced provincial health restrictions would affect daily operations. She wrote that the division office was busy ordering additional cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers. We were all in heavy reaction mode and I had spent the weekend trying to predict likely occurrences and scenarios. 

Mike messaged back. “The Minister of Education is holding a press conference now. She said all schooling in the province is cancelled.” New email and text messages flooded my phone as colleagues and parents searched for information. It was March 15, 2020, and it was the beginning. 

At the onset of the pandemic, I was principal at a large comprehensive, growth-minded high school educating 1200 students on the prairies in Canada. Our pre-pandemic mission was to cultivate openness and approach the daily work of learning, creativity, and caring about each other’s future. This meant that decisions made were filtered into student social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual growth. Our staff agreed to this purpose, and though we shared the intention of growth how we got there was up to the individual. At that time the school community was distributed in leadership and engaged in rich and sometimes divided conversation about grading outcomes, feedback strategies, and how best to coach students to be resilient learners. The staff debated timetable allocations and what it looked like and meant to be an engaged professional and teacher. But the work to align our combined efforts and action into the agreed upon purpose, was a key strategy of the leadership team. 

Leadership Team

The school’s distributed leadership structure included the principal, three vice-principals, and a leadership council comprised of individuals from various staff departments and teams (Harris, 2014). Representation from fine arts, inclusive education, and learning and wellness support focused decision making during the monthly meetings towards student and staff growth (our agreed upon purpose). During these conversations we considered important topics generated from both in the school and from outside of school stakeholders. Leadership council filtered thinking through our agreed upon purpose, their team and individual context, and found this created the proper translation of initiative and idea through to actual enactment into practice (Robinson & Timperley, 2007). The school developed a strong and representative student leadership program aimed to enliven school culture and influence administrative decision making. This practice of alignment and agreeing upon the school’s purpose did positively inform our work during the pandemic. 

Lessons From Agreement

Responding to the challenges in schools through the pandemic generated a uniquely aligned system of education. During pre-pandemic times aligning vision, mission, and values with decision making, required purposeful skill to enact policies (Fullan, 2017). In non-crisis, a process focused on professional learning requires time for educators to consider the policy, translate it to their individual professional context, and create the conditions for enactment (Timperley, 2011). During the pandemic an alignment of purpose was generally established because those responsible for governance (government ministries, division offices) and those responsible for the lived-reality in schools agreed that well-being and limiting Covid spread was a priority. A quick review of news stories and webpages published the last two years generally show that government, parent groups, school divisions, and teacher associations were primarily focused on practices to mitigate covid spread and promote mental wellness in response to the pandemic. 

The system worked in strange concert where outside of school decision makers influenced real-life practice inside of school (Kaul et al., 2022). Masking protocols, school cohorting, and health quarantines are examples of policies which were introduced from outside of the school and were enacted in practice by school staff. On the fly government and division decisions meant schools were developing new timetables mid-year, cohorting students, hiring staff, setting up wellness stations, answering phone calls about air filtration, and handing out and managing the emotions of mask use. This agreement between school stakeholders facilitated incredible transformation of the school system and the way in which day-to-day schooling was delivered.

Agreement in Crisis

A community in crisis seeks the stability of a leader’s direction (Brion, 2021). A top-down approach, in my experience as a principal during the pandemic, was not only present, but it was also appreciated. Ministers, superintendents, and principals were lauded for clear and strong decision making. Colleagues appreciated clear communication and followed plans because they understood the reasons for the decisions. My conversation with colleagues, students, and parents made it clear that the uncertainty brought by covid was on all our minds and providing answers was comforting. In the spring of 2020 provincial governments who led with strong directives closing schools for in-person learning were hailed. Things have changed, however. The same conditions are not present any longer and therefore, a return to processes that build the learning community and distribute leadership are required. 

Agreement About Schooling: Pandemic Purpose

Figure 1 (below) represents an understanding of educational leadership and management. The central target denotes the aim of the system. Typically, the target of the school system is student learning, curriculum engagement, and learner achievement. The arrows to the left of the target represent the misalignment of various stakeholder groups including students, teachers, parents, division leadership, and government. While each of these groups desire student learning and curricular achievement, agreeing upon how, why, where, what, and when such learning might take place can be a challenge facing the system.  The arrows to the right of the target represent instances when all these purposes align in agreement and where cohesion can allow for great growth. This was the case from March 2020 until the fall of 2021 when stakeholders aligned purpose to keep students, staff, and community members safe from the virus, and the school system transformed (Kaul et al., 2022).

The Challenge in 2022: Aligned Intention

At the onset of the pandemic schooling transformed in a joint effort between stakeholders. Moving education home, back to school, and then concurrently, was simply a miracle achieved by the efforts and talents of teachers. Leadership, community, and teachers were committed to enact processes designed to keep students safe, actively learning, and emotionally well, as schools limited the spread of covid. This strong alignment has not lasted, however. 2022 has ushered in a disconnect between government, local agencies, and community both inside of schools and out. This has been most obviously expressed through disagreement between groups about health measures, vaccine restrictions, democracy, freedom, and political ideology. These disagreements, as principals have shared in personal conversations with me, have manifest themselves in schools as disagreements about masking, a return to co-cocurricular activities, online learning, and community quarrel about health-based restrictions (Baig, 2022). 

Agreed Upon Purpose

As schools evolve beyond the crisis caused by the global pandemic, educational leaders might recognize the need to find an agreed upon purpose of education. Framed within professional standards and practices is a school’s shared intention to ensure students thrive as learners and citizens. Divisions and governments can well learn to start this process in schools and embolden the voices and insights of teachers, education support workers, and principals. Professionals within the school community must be given the chance to ask themselves what they have learned and where they believe their school should go next. 

Strength of Agreement

Working together under an umbrella purpose can facilitate a distributed method of leadership where all members are pulling in the same direction. Such a system can build trust between members of the community. This is important. Trust can be built when we understand and can predict how others will respond. Agreeing to a core imperative creates trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002), especially when that imperative relates to student learning.

The school community is enlivened when collaboration is meaningful, connected to the common good of the school and the personal context of its members (Brandon et al., 2018). The first stages in redefining a professional learning community, a distributed leadership team, and a collaborative culture, are to understand the direction and shared purpose of the community. By connecting the purpose to both the systemic standards and the individual perspectives of the community members, a strong and meaningful alliance will be established. 

Agreeing on Purpose

School leaders might ask their colleagues given the current state of education and a mandate to help students grow and learn, what do you see as your primary purpose at the school? This information could be collected in a staff wide survey where results can be analyzed by the leadership team for themes. Synthesising the work into a simple sentence and sharing with staff to see if they concur, is a rich, and influential process. Following agreement, the principals and community can filter decision making and uncover direction during times of complexity by translating the challenge through the purpose. This alignment is a powerful, trust building process (Tschannen-Moran, 2013). While results are predicated upon staff reflection, the agreed upon purpose will undoubtedly be present in the notions of student growth, learning, and nurturing a growth-based culture.

Conclusion

The last two years have demonstrated that during very challenging times, when intention is aligned and the purpose is agreed upon, schools and the school system can literally achieve miracles. Educational leaders can utilize this information to align purpose within their communities ensuring that the incredible work colleagues engage with in schools is pulling in the same direction. This shared intention will feel ethical, worth-while, and create synergy to continue the important work of educating people. 


References
Baig, F. (2022, February 15). Alberta students walkout to protest decision to lift mask mandate in schools. The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-alberta-students-walk-out-to-protest-decision-to-lift-mask-mandate-in
Brandon, J., Friesen, S., Koh, K., Parsons, D., Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Hunter, D. (2018). Building, supporting, and ensuring quality professional practice: A research study of teacher growth, supervision, and evaluation in Alberta. Alberta Education.
Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.
Brion, C. (2021). Leading in times of crisis. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 23(3), 27-38.
Kaul, M., Comstock, M., & Simon, N. (2022). Leading from the middle: how principals rely on district guidance and organizational conditions in times of crisis. AERA Open, 8(1), 1-17.
DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2012). The school leader’s guide to professional learning communities at work. Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. NES.
Fullan, M. (2017). Indelible leadership: Always leave them learning. Sage Publications, Inc.
Harris, A. (2014). Distributed leadership matters: Perspectives, practicalities, and potential. Corwin Press.
Robinson, V., & Timperley, H. (2007). The leadership of the improvement of teaching and learning: Lessons from initiatives with positive outcomes for students. Australian Journal of Education, 51(3), 247-262.
Timperley, H. (2011). Knowledge and the leadership of learning. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10(2), 145-170.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2013). Becoming a trustworthy leader. In M. Grogan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (pp. 40-54). John Wiley and Sons.

By: Dr. Kevin Wood, Faculty of Education, School of Graduate Studies, University of Lethbridge – kevin.wood03@gmail.com

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