Spring 2020

It is not just about the technology: School leadership during a pandemic

In the past, when school leaders considered tech innovation, they had time to reflect on implementation. Today, that luxury of time has evaporated. Rarely have school leaders innovated while immersed in change matching the scale and pace of the current school closures. No one could have predicted the multiple variables occurring simultaneously. Not only are schools moving to distance learning, some overnight, but this is happening amid a deadly health crisis and crushing economic losses. Canadians are struggling to regain resilience in the face of vulnerability and social instability.

Canadian school leaders are tasked with providing continuity and compassion for their students and communities despite these uncertainties. They are navigating murky waters populated by “just-in-time” policy decisions, cautionary union messages, mounting parent requests, and the pressing need to support communities skilling up to distance/online learning.  Yet school leaders are ideally suited for this. They are expert problem-solvers and instructional leaders who have their experience to bring to new challenges1. Flexibility and resilience have always been essential school leadership skills.

School leaders work alongside expert educators who have the pedagogical strengths to carry forward in a crisis. They are specialists in how students learn and in how to engage them. While shifting to online learning can be intimidating for the tech novice, Canadian educators have expertise in designing age-appropriate curriculum and assessment. School leaders can repurpose those skills. In this pandemic, a report for UNESCO encourages school leaders to think “Maslow before Bloom” 2 meaning that, while the first priority is the safety and well-being of every student, the role of school leaders now is to provide three key functions: normalcy, safety, and continuity of learning2. Schools already do this well.

Consider some of these examples of how school closures are prompting innovative educational solutions: A teacher in Calgary has put his physical education program online. He deliberately re-designed his program for students at home who need daily activity, using resources found in homes. While he is giving students autonomy and choice of activities, he also runs live daily sessions. His open approach reflects key trends in online learning: democratization and open access www.freephysed.com. Or, consider how in one school district in Northwestern Ontario, a principal and a student achievement lead structured a user-friendly, online collaborative platform to support K-12 distance learning, engaging leaders at all levels of schooling to provide resources and best practices. Their collaboration provides just-in-time key resources for teachers at a single source https://sites.google.com/kpdsb.ca/kpdistancelearning. Their model, founded on both teacher collaboration and effective pedagogy, could bring long-term change to teaching and leadership.

Continuity of learning is not just about student work. Leaders in another Ontario school district have created a guide to learning at home that is founded on the learning outcomes of the Catholic faith and supported by technology. Their learn@home resource will support their teachers with both continuity of learning and compassion https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kwgg3AjrOEEfwMFZ-xzPpNNUcPaucRLv/view. A northern district is using school buses to deliver learning materials to students who lack reliable internet access. Some rural school buses are being repurposed to provide Wi-Fi hot spots for students. There is room for both innovation and tradition as school leaders navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

Those experienced in online learning know that working at a distance has its own pedagogical characteristics and challenges. There is an established need for structure, communication, and dialogue – three key elements of transactional distance theory, which acknowledges that distance teaching is flexible and pedagogically complex3. The nature of the teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions contributes toward building social presence which supports student engagement and continuity of learning. School leaders promote and model respectful online dialogue and collaboration, and their teachers in turn model for students. The focus is not the technology, because innovative approaches to online learning follow fundamental basic pedagogical principles. While teachers are experts at establishing classroom community, school leaders model how to broadly build community to support students.   

What is old is new again

Canadian school history provides multiple examples of pre-internet distance schooling. Canada at the turn of the 20th century was mostly agrarian; school came to rural families on the prairies and those working in mining and forestry operations in the north. Teachers and parents worked on solutions to ensure that students, regardless of geography, ability, or background, could receive education. Some received assignments by mail and sent finished work to teachers in correspondence schools such as the Alberta Distance Learning Center https://www.adlc.ca. In other cases, educators used railway train schools such as Sloman’s School on Wheels http://www.centralhuron.com/schoolcar. Older students and students with physical challenges relied on correspondence courses offered through parent-teacher collaboratives such as Windsor’s Red Cross School https://jmccentre.ca/history.

The advent of the COVID-19 virus and decision to close educational facilities invite school leaders to once again bridge social and geographical gaps among learners, teachers, and communities. School leaders today have more technology tools to draw upon, but questions and concerns about learning and equity persist.

Emerging unknown-unknowns

School leaders will face known and unknown concerns. Equity issues abound, challenging school leaders’ goals to create inclusive and equal educational opportunities. Some define equity with respect to devices and internet access; however, assumptions about how students learn online can significantly disadvantage those who learn in their own way. Some students have the social capital and family composition that allows for stay-at-home care and spaces for independent learning while others are in homes where devices and space are shared. Early research on K-12 online learning4 indicates that students who are more mature and independent are better able to make the transition to online learning. When English5 promoted curriculum alignment (curriculum walkthroughs), he was primarily concerned with the “have-not” students who depend on schools as their primary source of learning. These students in particular, are impacted by changes in routine and structure. Creating enabling online environments is therefore a key leadership challenge.     

Unanticipated problems will continue to emerge. Boundaries between personal and professional lives are impacted by the lack of a structured school day, and this may impact the balance between professional and off-work time. School leaders will need to help staff set realistic expectations concerning response times and availability. Modern information and communication technologies are new practices with new privacy challenges. Teachers phoning students’ homes will seek ways to keep their personal numbers private. Video conferencing is now being adopted to communicate with colleagues and students, yet video can expose personal space and new videoconferencing tools are being criticized for their lack of attention to privacy6 ref. zoom. School leaders will become key players in developing the policies to work around these privacy and equity issues.

There are no experts for today and tomorrow’s unprecedented challenges; no proverbial playbook that principals can reference. We know from research that expert school leaders rarely problem-solve on their own1 but draw on their ability to build and maintain strong and positive collaborations. They have consistently demonstrated the capacity that will guide themselves and their schools to the other side of this crisis. Their expertise will ensure that students continue to learn and thrive.

Thanks to our contributors:

Shawnda Norlock, Principal, Red Lake District High School
Michelle Parrish, Student Achievement Teacher, Kawartha Pineridge DSB
Karen MacDonald-Boughton, Professor, Mohawk College
IbrahimQuereshi, Physical Education teacher, northpoint.school, Calgary
Kim Robertson, Principal, Jeanne Sauvé French Immersion Public School, Thames Valley DSB
The Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington Catholic District School BoardCarolyn Farrell, Supervisor, Learning Technologies
Laurie Corrigan, Superintendent of Learning, Special Education
Michael Nasello, Director of Education

Dr. Lorayne Robertson and Dr. Bill Muirhead teach Educational Leadership and Policy at Ontario Tech University and research collaboratively with education partners. They can be reached at: Lorayne.robertson@uoit.ca or bill.muirhead@uoit.ca
1 Leithwood, K., Begley, P. T., & Cousins, J. B. (2005). Developing expert leadership for future schools. New York: Routledge.
2 Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F.J. (2020). Thinking about pedagogy in an unfolding pandemic: An independent report for Education International and UNESCO. Retrieved @ https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/2020_research_covid-19_eng
3 Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. Theoretical principles of distance education, 1, 22-38.
4. Freidhoff, J. R. (2019a). Michigan’s k-12 virtual learning effectiveness report 2017-18. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved@ https://mvlri.org/research/publications/michigans-k-12-virtual-learning-effectiveness-report-2017-18 5 English, F. W. (2000). Deciding what to teach and test: Developing, aligning, and auditing the curriculum. California: Corwin Press.
6 Kari, P. The Guardian. 4.2.2020. ‘Zoom is malware’: Why experts worry about the video conferencing platform. Retrieved @ https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/02/zoom-technology-security-coronavirus-video-conferencing