Lessons about Leading and Learning from a Four-Part Podcast Series on Education and the Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic necessitated significant changes to the delivery of public education. In the spring of 2020, schools were closed, and students continued their lessons from home via study packages, online classrooms, and lots of parent intervention. By June, questions about how school would look in the fall loomed ominously in the minds of everyone who had a connection to the school system. Teachers and administrators spent the summer overhauling classrooms, playgrounds, and organizational procedures to ensure social distancing, clean spaces, and appropriate strategies to keep students safe at school.
As September settled into schools, big questions emerged about how diverse groups were experiencing education during the pandemic. In response, we decided to invite school leaders, students, home-school parents, and teachers to tell their stories in a four-part series on our podcast1. Podcasts are increasing in popularity (28% of Canadians listen regularly) (Stats Canada, 2018) and are a valuable way to share knowledge and information, strengthen professional development, and facilitate community engagement. In this article, we share lessons we learned from our guests about the realities, the challenges, and the triumphs of leading, teaching, and learning during the pandemic.
In the first episode in August, we invited a high school principal, Susan Gilleshammer, and Alysha Farrell, a researcher at Brandon University, to discuss leadership during the pandemic. Dr. Farrell had completed a study where she interviewed 15 school principals to examine their pandemic leadership experiences, and Gilleshammer was one of her participants. They described how the already ‘heavy’ work of administrators became even more intense. Administrative decisions had immediate consequences for health and safety, and, at the same time, administrators were supporting teachers and parents who were experiencing considerable stress of their own. They described the emotional burden of carrying out the decisions made by provincial governments and school divisions based on health priorities rather than learning priorities. They also expressed the need to support teachers in letting go of strongly held beliefs or traditions and focusing instead on what was possible within the pandemic context. Dr. Farrell spoke of the toll this was having on administrators and the concerns she had for their mental health given this challenging situation. Gilleshammer described a moment during the spring when she was preparing for a staff meeting. She considered leaving her camera off during the meeting but even as she contemplated her need for self-care, she realized that as an administrator she had the responsibility to push herself forward. Her people needed to see her face. They needed to witness her vulnerability and understand how much she cared. Administration is demanding work.
During the second week of school, we met with a panel of nine students from four schools who ranged from Kindergarten to senior years. Their discussion focused primarily on the new rules that ensured social distancing, mask-wearing, good hygiene, and proper cleaning. They outlined different strategies that teachers had in place to help them stay safe. One teacher told them they should consider masks to be like car keys, “You can’t go anywhere without them!” The student panel expressed their disappointment with limited social interactions. They talked about how it was hard to meet and include new kids because “you can’t play with them,” and because “you don’t know when they are smiling.” And when asked what they missed, one student said, “I wish I could hug my friends.”
In Manitoba, only if the child or a member of the immediate household was immunocompromised could the family request remote learning delivered by the school system. Otherwise, parents had the choice of sending them to school or home schooling without external support. In the third episode of the podcast series, we talked with two mothers who chose to keep their kids home this year.
These homeschool parents shared their delight in watching their children learn and the challenges they encountered in finding activities that suited each child’s learning needs. They sought creative ways to use online connections for reading buddies, French language conversation partners, writing feedback, and collaborative learning. Given the changing guidelines imposed on public schools, they believed they had made the right decision to keep their children home in an environment that was consistent, safe and predictable. With their children at home and somewhat insulated from the fears of the pandemic, they were the only group that was excited to talk about curriculum, lesson plans, and student outcomes!
The teachers zeroed in on their concerns about student well-being, about learning during the pandemic, about equity issues (Sahlberg, 2020), and about teacher mental health. Overall, the three teachers recognized the emotional toll that the pandemic and the process of education was having on both teachers and students. They explained that we needed to understand that students in all grades were feeling the strain of the current context. They described the stress they felt due to shifting boundaries set out by public health, changing their practice to ensure student safety, and trying to overcome learning gaps from the spring that left their students behind last year’s cohort. They wanted communities to know that schools were safe because teachers enforced the public health guidelines, but they realized that their students often gathered away from school without masks and distancing. So, at times these frontline workers felt like it was an uphill battle to keep kids, and in turn, their whole community safe from the virus.
When we compiled the statements from all four podcasts, several clear suggestions emerged. All groups identified mental health as an issue and collectively they noted their concern for the mental wellness of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. In addition to noting the need to address mental health, guests on one or more of the podcasts shared the following understandings:
- When class sizes were reduced to ensure social distancing, teachers noticed increases in engagement and decreases in behavioural incidents.
- After struggling through remote learning in the spring, teachers noted the importance of familiarizing students with the online learning platforms prior to future remote learning requirements. They also indicated a need to ensure equitable access to technology.
- With the implementation of remote learning, both parents and teachers experienced the need for strong relationships between home and school. In the fall, homeschool parents received offers from their local schools to maintain these connections.
- While homeschooling, parents learned that their vital role in the learning process led to more in-depth dinner table discussions. Initiatives to collaborate with parents could lead to deeper engagement for more families.
- With extracurricular activities cancelled, both kids and teachers identified the need to find alternatives.
- When the complexity of the principal’s role intensified due to the pandemic, administrators recognized a need to work collaboratively and to stay connected to each other.
- While working diligently to keep schools safe, teachers asked that everyone be kind to each other. They are doing their best, and this is a difficult time.
Although the pandemic took its toll on all groups, it was uplifting to talk with our guests to hear their stories of resilience, and to learn how they were working together to ensure safety, health, and high quality learning. Their experiences of leading, teaching, and learning during the pandemic provide valuable guidance for moving forward.The Research Connection Podcast:
Lam, M. & Kirk, J. (Producers). (2019-present). The research connection podcast [Audio podcast]. https://www.brandonu.ca/bu-cares/projects/podcasts/
Sahlberg, P. (2020), “Will the pandemic change schools?”, Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 359-365. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-05-2020-0026
Statistics Canada. (2018). Online activities by gender, age group and highest certificate, diploma or degree completed. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=2210008401