Abstract: Educators in various roles and settings from kindergarten to post-secondary in Alberta and Ontario shared thoughts to identify effective leadership strategies that address the challenges of working in a school environment during the pandemic. This project transpired as we investigated the Leadership Quality Standard (Alberta Education, 2018) and those leadership skills perceived by educators to be critical in stressful times. Results confirmed that leadership communication and flexibility are paramount in times of uncertainty. As well, leaders must attend to mental health supports for those they lead. Finally, leaders must ensure consistency of actions, with detailed preparation and planning, and time for reflection and reconsideration.
Effective Leadership Strategies: Here’s What We Do
As educators journey through careers, shifts in focus and responsibility often occur, from teachers leading students, to administrators leading teachers. Pondering possibilities for future responsibilities caused us to reflect on influential voices from those that have shared similar paths, and to gather leadership advice from colleagues. With dramatic changes in context, social situation, and professional futures during the COVID-19 pandemic, how leadership is “done” may be shifting, and may continue to morph in the future.
In 2018, the Government of Alberta implemented the Leadership Quality Standard (LQS) requirement for principals (Alberta Education, 2018).
Whether leadership skills are innate or learned, they certainly can be refined, and LQS helps do so. Our project transpired in the fall of 2020 as we investigated the LQS and what educators regard as critical leadership strengths during the stressful throes of a pandemic.
The Inquiry Question
We asked colleagues to provide multiple practical leadership qualities and actions they deem necessary to achieve effectiveness during challenging times. Paying heed to the procedure for mindful inquiry provided by Schnellert and Butler (2014, p. 42), we pursued thoughts around the question: What leadership strategies do you perceive to be critical in addressing the educational challenges of working in the school environment during the pandemic?
Fifteen colleagues working in a variety of roles and educational settings in Alberta and Ontario (Table 1) answered the inquiry question by email and telephone conversations.
Results: “Here’s What We Do”
Commonalities in responses were evident, as were unique viewpoints. All acknowledged that leadership is absolutely vital during the pandemic and some noted the interplay between education’s social benefits and contribution to the economy, which results in education being held in greater esteem. Responses from colleagues comprised six themes that describe these essential leadership strategies. They, along with research citations, are outlined in Table 2.
The most frequent response noted by eleven participants was the importance of leadership communication. Colleague A stated that leaders must “work with your staff, not above your staff”, to include everyone, and “make the staff feel like a team”. Participant L believed that leaders must “communicate the plan appropriately and effectively, avoiding delay, exclusivity and lack of clarity”. Similarly, colleague M stated that leaders must “initiate communication to keep everyone informed, thus reducing unnecessary fear and anxiety associated with the unknown. You must re-evaluate priorities so that budget dollars can best address current needs, which differ from ordinary times”. C said virtual communication assisted safety “as any strategy that minimizes contact mitigates spread of the virus”. R noted the importance of “clear and consistent communication with parents around expectations”. Z stated that, as principal, they “just have to ‘differentiate’ for a few” of their staff members, ensuring clear communication.
Eight colleagues contended that flexibility was essential to leading in these new circumstances. Participant G identified that “willingness to adapt where appropriate” was important. They responded with the example of when a leader agreed to a student’s suggestion that exemptions to final exams be offered for students who were satisfied with their term marks; a win-win for both students’ and instructor’s stress levels. H elaborated that it was “critical to be flexible; any staff member could be in situations to do anything within school that at other times would fall under a certain job description. It is more important now than ever, to be a team player”. N noted flexibility meant that while “new protocols do not interfere with traditional teaching, it’s important for teachers to adapt and constantly think about distancing, and sterilizing surfaces”. L used the phrase “maximum flexibility”,
to ensure staff are more at ease knowing there is a reasoned plan amidst changing circumstances. W encouraged staff to be flexible in sharing “resources and virtual lesson plans to ensure the best teaching for all our students”. R concurred that responding “to situations that change daily” was helped by team flexibility, especially when transitioning back and forth from in-class to online. This allowed coordination “with the other experiences the student is having with respect to their other classes and provides students with consistency of learning which is the most challenging part”.
Address Mental Health
Five colleagues perceived that now more than ever, leaders must be cognizant of issues of mental health. Participant D shared that “we are all exhausted. Bad exhausted”, noting “we are not well, individually or as a society”. They advised leaders to “give people a break, or a hand. Let some things go. Praise your staff, check in, say thank-you, find gratitude”. J suggested that leaders need an understanding of the “perspective and context” of where staff are at as individuals in order to get people on board with the team for success. Z noted that health of everyone was a top concern, as people become weary of the sustained challenges of the pandemic.
Prepare and Plan
Two colleagues noted that preparation and planning were paramount for leadership. Colleague A pointed out “organization and preparedness is essential. A leader needs to be prepared well in advance”. People do not appreciate leaders’ last minute “dropping the ball” and not following through, especially “when people are journeying through a stressful time”. M stated leadership must have “plans in place ahead of time, and plan for a number of different possible scenarios. Do not wait until the last minute, and do not develop plans in isolation. Seek feedback from stakeholders and those with experience and expertise”.
Act with Consistency
Two colleagues declared that a leader’s consistency about expectations, messaging, and action was important. Participant H noted “we are continuing with all of the events we would normally have, however they are modified to accommodate health and safety”. P observed that people “in the leadership role would be responsible for making sure consistency is maintained. This helps decrease animosity between staff and ensures everyone’s safety”.
Reflect and Reconsider
Colleague E pointed out that good leadership allows time for reflection. They posited that “if my decision-making process was done with integrity, and people didn’t agree with me, they would still follow the lead if they knew why I made that decision. This model increases confidence and a culture of community”. One last somber response was from an experienced colleague S, who shared that “I am hoping you never have to face the front lines again. This is nuts… never wished for June so soon”. What a poignant and heart-breaking sentiment.
Summary of Key Learnings
Drysdale and Gurr (2017) stated “in times of change and uncertainty, leaders constantly need to review their leadership” (p. 131). The results from this inquiry confirmed that leaders recognize and implement strategies for effective communication, and flexible decision-making. Additionally, leaders must build processes to attend to professional mental health. Finally, leaders must ensure consistency of actions, with detailed preparation and planning, and time for reflection and reconsideration. Our inquiry confirmed the importance of leaders recognizing that educators are willing to share ideas. Colleagues’ responses provided insight into the realities of situations encountered in the midst of the pandemic. Above all, effective leadership encouraging communication and flexibility is paramount in these uncertain times as we continue to share “here’s what we do”.References
Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Townsend, D. (2019). Leadership in education: The power of generative dialogue. Canadian Scholars Press. Alberta Education. (2018). Leadership Quality Standard. Government of Alberta. https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739621/standardsdoc-lqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf
Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Faubert, B., Zeichner, K., & Hobbs-Johnson, A. (with Brown, S., DaCosta, P., Hales, A., Kuehn, L., Sohn, J., & Steffensen, K.). (2016). The state of educators’ professional learning in Canada. .Learning Forward. https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/state-of-educators-professional-learning-in-canada.pdf
Chernowski, S. (2018). Positive Teacher Leadership: Building Mindsets and Capacities to Grow Wellbeing. International Journal of Teacher Leadership. 9(1), 63-78. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1182707.pdf
Drysdale, L. & Gurr, D. (2017). Leadership in uncertain times. International Studies in Educational Administration Journal of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management, 45(2), 131-159. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321319702_Leadership_in_Uncertain_Times
Schnellert, L., & Butler, D. (2014). Collaborative Inquiry: Empowering teachers in their professional development. Education Canada. www.cea-ace.ca/educationcanada
Townsend, D., & Adams, P. (2014). From Action Research to Collaborative Inquiry. A Framework for researchers and practitioners. Education Canada. http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/action-research-collaborative-inquiry
E. Ann Lukey, DVM, MSc, PBiol, Black Gold School Division, Alberta
Dr. Lukey is a high school science teacher specializing in biology, currently on interchange developing provincial educational policy.
Pamela Adams, PhD, Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge
Dr. Adams is a professor of Educational Leadership who researches themes of school and organizational leadership, teaching effectiveness, school improvement, inquiry-based professional growth, and essential conditions for professional learning. Her recent book with authors Drs. Carmen Mombourquette and David Townsend is entitled Leadership in Education: The Power of Generative Dialogue (2019).