Winter 2021

“Plugging Gaps and Guidelines”: Supporting principals in leading schools through Covid-19

As schools across Canada continue to grapple with supporting teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly apparent that school based-administrators have become the “other first respondents of the pandemic” (Osmond-Johnson, Campbell, and Pollock, 2020). Tasked with implementing ever changing school re-opening plans; many of which vary from one school division (or school) to another, and fielding new and emergent issues on the daily, “the scale of their effort and the extent of the leadership challenge are colossal and relentless” (Harris, 2020, p. 2). Consequently, it is imperative that explore how to best support principals as they maneuver within these new understandings. With that aim in mind, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation engaged in a partnership project with the University of Regina’s Faculty of Education to document the evolving needs of school-based administrators as they lead Saskatchewan schools through COVID-19. In this article we share the preliminary findings from two of seven planned online focus groups for the 2020-21 school year (n=11 participants total).

Old Pressures Being Felt in New Ways

While COVID-19 has certainly been a game changer for school-based leaders, it is important to acknowledge that COVID isn’t happening within a vacuum. Rather, data from both Canada and abroad has raised red flags for a while now with respect to workload intensification and its deleterious impacts on principal wellbeing (OPC, 2017; Mahfouz et al., 2019; Pollock, Wang and Mahfouz, 2020). That said, it is arguable that current conditions of COVID-19 are further pushing on these paradigms as principals are often carrying the lion’s share of the responsibility for new health and safety policies which they had little say in creating. 

In Saskatchewan, participants openly shared frustrations around what one referred to as ‘fuzzy’ policies, which ran the gamut from “lack of clear protocols and procedures” from school divisions, to inconsistent advice from 811, and “grey areas” where division policies were silent on an issue. The lack of participation in the decision-making process around school reopening was a source of frustration, and some lamented the level of accountability they carried for policies they had no role in creating. On the other hand, some felt that managing a public health crisis was outside of their leadership expertise. One participant noted: “I’m not a healthcare expert… I don’t create healthcare policy. I do my best to follow it but it’s not my role to create it. I’m finding more and more we’re being asked to do that, and I’m uncomfortable with that”.  Participants expressed frustration about mixed messages coming from the Health Authority about return to school protocols for those displaying symptoms. One participant shared “We usually have about four teachers out per day, at least, and many of them are waiting for a COVID test, waiting for their test results. They’re getting mixed answers….and so I’m trying to navigate people through”. As another noted, “I don’t want to be the school that brings the city down”. 

‘Fuzzy’ policies and the uncertainty and confusion they cause (on top of what is already a heightened level of stress across the education system) also presented as a workload issue, with participants spending countless hours per day advising staff, students, and parents on a variety of health-related issues. This is on top of the new tasks the pandemic has created for principals such as mask exemptions, monitoring COVID isolation rooms, and, in many schools, redesigning the entire teaching schedule to accommodate block scheduling and student cohort groups. 

Relatedly, while all participants have agreed that COVID-19 necessitates a servant approach to leadership, for some, being “in crisis-management all the time” demanded a managerial approach which was in conflict with their desire to be instructional leaders and nurturers for staff and students. According to Stone-Johnson and Weiner (2020), research “prior to the pandemic found principals were already grappling with difficult tensions associated with aspects of professionalism” (p. 2) amid ongoing neoliberal reforms the have shifted understandings of principal professionalism towards organizational frames “characterized by managerial control, standardization, competition and a focus on assessment” (p. 3). These tensions were certainly evident amongst our participants. 

I’m becoming very top down just because there are so many protocols and procedures and management kind of things that need to be dealt with, not even daily but minute to minute to minute and all the time. 

I don’t like leading this way. I’m frustrated that I’ve had to shift my leadership style like this [managerial], and I am finding that exhausting, that I am leading in a way that I really don’t believe in my heart of hearts. 

On a more positive note, however, one participant shared that COVID has been an opportunity to become a more responsive leader; “Where in the past I would have maybe tried to predict or speculate the needs of my staff, I’ve become a lot better listener. So just listening to what they need and then being responsive to that…..from that aspect I think I’ve grown as a leader”.  

A number of participants also expressed concern about the social-emotional impact of COVID on both their staff and students. They worried about impending “COVID fatigue”, the weariness teachers were feeling, the trauma students were displaying, and how they would handle pushback if people grew tired of the ever-changing protocols and restrictions. As one participant questioned, “How do we support the adults in helping them understand that it’s ok to not be ok for now?” And yet, when asked what supports they needed to manage and cope, most participants struggled to respond. They spoke of things like “more hand sanitizer” and “clearer policy” and “being able to have staff meetings in person”. Even when redirected back to issues of personal needs and self-care, it was clear that this wasn’t something that they had the time or space to even consider thus far. Given the extensive work that Pollock and her associates (2020) have done around principal wellbeing over the past number of years, that principals are putting the needs of others ahead of themselves is not surprising, but it is certainly a concerning finding, particularly within the context of the increased pressures they identified earlier. The feeling of “burned out before school even started” was apparent and is worrisome as schools were only one month into the new school year at the time some of these sentiments were shared. 

Next Steps

As noted earlier, COVID-19 has not just changed the work of school-based leaders, it is further compounding pre-pandemic issues around work-life balance, workload intensification, and principal burnout. Best described by one participant as “constantly plugging gaps” in guidelines, policies, and protocols, our findings so far suggest that these old issues are being felt in new ways, requiring specific attention and new supports for coping. How principal organizations across the country work to connect with their members to identify the nuances that will occur across these issues over the course of this school year is an important consideration going forward. While context specific approaches are likely a best practice, we are hopeful that our continued exploration into the experiences of Saskatchewan school-based leaders will be useful in developing new understandings around the intersection between principal professionalism, workload intensification, and COVID-19.  

By: Pamela Osmond-Johnson

References
Harris, A. (2020). COVID-19 – school leadership crisis? Journal of Professional Capital and Community. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-06-2020-0045
Mahfouz, J., Greenberg, M.T. and Rodriquez, A. (2019). Principal’s social and emotional competence: A key factor for creating school. Issue Brief, Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University. Available at: https://files.constantcontact.com/df591f85401/ fcf51355-841d-4b20-8a39-3c9203ae9d90.pdf
Ontario Principals’ Council. (2017). Principal work-life balance and well-being matter. Third annual OPC International Council White Paper. Available at https://www.principals.ca/en/professional-learning/resources/Documents/FINAL-PrincipalWellBeing-17-ExecSummary.pdf
Osmond-Johnson, P. Campbell, C., & Pollock, K. (2020). Moving forward in the COVID-19 era: Reflections for Canadian education. EdCan. Available at https://www.edcan.ca/articles/moving-forward-in-the-covid-19-era/
Pollock, K., Wang, F., & Mahfouz, J. (2020). School administrators’ well-being and mindfulness: Three tensions. Journal of Educational Administration, 58(4), 389-399
Stone-Johnson, C. & Miles Weiner, J. (2020). Principal professionalism in the time of COVID-19. Journal of Professional Capital and Community. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-05-2020-0020

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