During the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders have played a central role in shutting schools, ensuring student well-being, engaging students in learning, and planning for eventual school re-opening. As there was no playbook for this transition, we engaged school leaders through a series of virtual workshops to guide them. This article contributes to the nascent nature of online professional development for school leaders by offering practical lessons to other organizations.
Our work with 154 school leaders across India since April 2020 is centered around three C’s: content, community, and coaching. We kept these three pillars in mind as we designed our virtual program. The learning around each of these is presented below.
Be clear about the behaviors you want to shift. In the early stages of COVID-19, we conducted a survey of school leaders that informed our work. The three main areas that we found that they needed support in was safety and wellbeing of students, transitioning to online learning, and school finances. We synthesized these findings with the knowledge we had from our experience to come up with the scope of the content for our virtual workshops.
Balance content between what they need to do and what they need to know. Content should be relevant to their needs but also point them in new directions when required. During the initial phases of COVID-19 shutdowns, we found that school leaders knew that they needed to engage learners but did not know how to go about it. We created a simple process using Maslow’s Hierarchy to create a pathway for them to move from checking on students’ wellbeing to learning.
Keep it simple. Recognizing we are dealing with adult learners, we designed workshops to elicit knowledge from the peer network. We made the online classes conversation-friendly while being task-oriented. This meant giving adequate time for school leaders to share their experiences engaging with different aspects of their role. The trainings ended with concrete action steps that school leaders committed to themselves.
Build Trust. When we started the series of virtual workshops, not all of our school leaders knew each other so we had to create a warm environment in which they felt safe being open and vulnerable. We were deliberate about building trust by ensuring there were enough ice-breakers and “getting to know each other” activities.
Create multiple avenues to engagement. We knew from our experience in building community in offline settings that we needed different pathways to creating engagement. We used two pathways. 1) Sourcing and sharing practical tools and resources that school leaders had adopted; and, 2) Inspiring each other by recognizing successful outcomes and highlighting instances where school leaders had overcome challenges.
Let magic happen. We wanted to provide unstructured space for these workshops to evolve as we ourselves were learning how these could be most effective. We put in place enough structure to inspire confidence that we were clear about the standards and objectives we were seeking to achieve. However, we also found that giving time for the school leaders to discuss issues they were facing made the magic of feeling connected to each other happen.
Invest in relationships. Our workshops are built around three pillars—tasks, processes, and relationships. Relationships are the hardest to replicate virtually. We encouraged participants to keep their video on to promote familiarity among each other and us. We also kept “open time” after the call when school leaders could stay on to connect with the trainer or peers.
Provide additional support beyond workshops. We know that when school leaders leave workshops they need additional support to implement ideas. There are multiple ways to achieve this function such as incoming helplines, outgoing support calls, and chatbots. We followed up with school leaders through phone and video calls and found that these methods are as effective as a physical meeting. In addition, we kept “support hours” where any SL could drop us a query on WhatsApp and we would respond.
Track progress. We invested in data systems to track our workshops and coaching so that we could follow-up in a targeted manner with school leaders. These systems also provided us the basis for measuring our effectiveness and continuously improve our virtual workshops. We chose to measure three processes—user engagement, change in behavior, and outcomes. We used a combination of Net Promoter Score, qualitative feedback, data on implementation after every call, and student surveys to create a comprehensive data system.
As we look to schools re-opening, school leaders will be translating broad government directives into community-level strategies to meet the needs of their learners. We see online professional development of school leaders as a low-cost, high-scalability approach to preparing them for this challenge in India.