Education Leadership in Times of Uncertainty: Rising to the Challenge

Special Focus : Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Designing an Effective Training Program July 06, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many challenges to our education systems. Yet, it also presents an opportunity to re-consider the delivery of education and schooling by those in educational leadership positions. School leadership teams play a vital role in creating the environments that support teachers, students and their families to continue to be connected and learning during the COVID pandemic, whether in school or at home. In times of uncertainty, they can build community, coherence and equity around schools. 

Those in educational leadership positions around schools, either at the local, regional or national level can provide support, technology and guidelines in preparation for next steps. Schools, their teachers and leaders require those in education leadership positions around them to provide clarity and vision in terms of learning and curriculum requirements, health and safety guidelines, training and resources to be able to define learning solutions that will allow their schools to flourish in times of uncertainty. If these are available and well communicated, schools can be trusted to shape their responses and get on with education in their schools, whether live, remote or a combination that will allow their students to continue learning.  

With the experience of the COVID-19 crisis, we can look back to the short-term impact on the role of educational leaders. As schools closed, the physical schools disappeared, and reduced not only direct or live learning opportunities, but also the social interaction of students with friends, peers and the teaching professionals in schools. In short periods of time, across many countries, educational leaders at different levels worked to reconfigure education continuity through remote approaches, either using existing technological resources, TV, radio, mobile phones, paper or home schooling. Education professionals adapted to new ways of teaching and interaction with students from their own homes.

With the need for social distancing, planned student assessments, especially high stakes exams and those needed to gauge transitions into next stages of education, were dropped or replaced. These decisions were made in a very short time, with limited information or evidence available and reduced capacity to interact with many different education stakeholders to shape responses. Overall, they rose to the challenge and many children across the world continued learning and/or interacting with their teachers online, or through other means. But inequalities increased, as children in more disadvantaged homes had fewer resources to follow remote learning approaches. 

In such times of complexity, with little information, school leaders and teachers engaged with creativity and professionalism to maintain their links with students. Without the physical school, the role of school leaders had to focus on preserving the school community, finding the right technology to connect teachers, their students and families, and making sure that the learning was adapted and coherent. Underpinning the learning, they had to respond to staff and student well-being.

This experience can be canvassed for system and school leaders to respond in times of uncertainty to continue education provision, whether in schools, hybrid or online learning approaches, or other solutions. While there is limited research evidence on education delivery during pandemics, there is data and broader evidence that can help shape steps to take. Education leaders can build on the lessons learned as a bridge to configure what schooling could look like in the future.

On one hand, schools and their staff overall have managed to make the transition to remote learning creatively and resourcefully, demonstrating their professionalism. Governance arrangements that give decision making to schools in the delivery of education appears warranted when capacity and resources exist. Schools and their leaders can have autonomy and trust to continue delivering education in ways that are consistent with their school objectives, if they have the supportive conditions in terms of technology, resources, capacity and health criteria. This can be enhanced by promoting networks for education professionals to share ways of teaching and interaction with students from their homes, but also providing training and capacity building for this new environment. System leaders can consider giving schools guidelines and allow them to plan their own actions at the school level. 

While remote learning approaches appear to have been more or less successful as an immediate response, it has also shown the role of schools as a community, which is, in addition to learning, a vital aspect of schooling. School leaders need to work to preserve and enhance their school community by shaping the school vision collectively and actively communicating with teachers, students and parents. 

As inequities have increased especially for the more disadvantaged, the role of schools as providers of a level playing field has been more evident than ever. Schools contribute to student health, well-being and equity. A key focus of many school support measures adopted during school closures have been on providing meals, or looking for ways to support student well-being. As schools and their leaders consider responses in times of crisis, these concerns should be at the core. 

COVID-19 has allowed school professionals to experience learning beyond the physical building, broadening the borders of school buildings to reimagining education. Those in educational leadership positions need to consider how to weave remote learning into the teaching and learning experiences of their schools. While the use of technology to support this will be key, engaging and consulting students in shaping these new approaches will be at the heart of success.

Education leaders at different levels needed to define the essential learning to deliver in remote environments. Decisions were made based on different criteria, such as teacher availability, subject ease to deliver remotely, online platforms or materials available. In times of emergencies such as COVID, education leaders will need to decide their learning priorities in the short, medium and longer term, which will vary greatly depending on the level of education. 

Student assessments have been dropped or replaced, leading to search for different ways to gauge student learning. In the future, this will require thinking at different levels of the system at national, regional/local and school, on what and how to assess student learning. School leaders can help bring coherence in the grading of their students across their school, using formative or other school-based assessments. System leaders will need to define the “what next” for assessments clearly and provide clear guidance. In the future, artificial intelligence may have an important role. 

These are just some of the issues that schools and system leaders will need to consider in times of uncertainty in the delivery of education. Overall, COVID-19 has magnified many of the challenges and issues in education that existed before, such as learning content for the 21st century, inequities, assessments, the use of technology or investing in teacher professionalism. Education leaders in schools and at the system level have the opportunity to consider how to weave in lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic to reimagine the delivery of education in ways that are suited to the 21st century. They have done it quickly in times of need, and can now take a bit more time to reimagine and reshape the future. Now is the time to rise to the educational leadership challenge.