Navigating Covid experiences, learnings and opportunities

Issue: Volume 101, Number 15

Posted: 23 November 2022
Reference #: 1HAYCe

Former principals Erika Ross and Steve Lindsey visited 60 schools across Aotearoa, talking to school leaders about their experiences of leading their communities through a pandemic.

After talking to a couple of students in the playground, as Newlands Intermediate principal Angela Lowe walked away, to her dismay she overheard one student say to the other, “Who’s that again?”

“I wasn’t a face in my own school any more,” Angela recalls. Periods of lockdown and no assemblies when school reopened meant she wasn’t well known to some of her students. This prompted the start of ‘Invite Me In’ sessions where classrooms invited Angela in to share what they were doing.

This was one of many poignant and honest reflections shared by the principals interviewed for the series. In Angela’s case, the challenges were remaining visible, ensuring her staff’s wellbeing, and keeping connected with whānau. Other principals shared challenges around getting devices to their families, keeping students engaged in learning, and effective communication. Others spoke of the importance of collegial support and reflective practice as leaders. And like Angela, many sought opportunities to try something new.

Steve and Erika noted that many common themes emerged around principals’ experiences and learnings.

Leaders of their communities

One of these themes was that principals found themselves thrust into the critical role as leader of their community.

Erika says this was reflected in her discussion with the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) Executive.

“More than any other organisation or agency, it was schools that families and communities turned to for clarity and information they could trust and understand. The community’s reliance on schools placed a huge responsibility on school leaders and the peak bodies that supported them.”

A number of principals talked about the challenges of engaging with very diverse communities where language was a potential barrier to understanding.

Wellbeing is a top priority

The importance of wellbeing came through as a strong theme in many of Erika’s and Steve’s interviews.

“I was blown away by how creative people are about looking after their people now that they’ve come back. There’s a sense of loss – they feel anxious or aggrieved that they’ve missed out,” says Steve. He recalls one principal talking about how his school introduced an activity because it got a young person back to school – and essentially back into learning and life.

Erika says the NZPF identified the relentless effects of the pandemic and the importance of nurturing the wellbeing of students, staff and leaders. “They acknowledged they had learned a lot from their Auckland and Australian colleagues and that sharing the experiences of their Christchurch colleagues after the earthquakes was also helpful and should be shared with all principals.”

Different approaches to digital learning

“There were mixed feeling towards online learning,” reflects Erika. “For schools that had a lot of training and development in this area it was a natural flow. For others it was less so and there were issues of engagement of kids.”

Steve agrees. “Clearly those schools that had already embarked on the digital learning space before lockdowns moved into this space a lot more seamlessly than others. Most secondary principals agreed it was useful for some students, but not everyone.”

Erika adds to this: “Hybrid learning works for kids who are self-directed learners anyway, who have appropriate conditions at home in which they can work, who have access to that digital framework, uninterrupted and not sharing it with others. It doesn’t work for the others necessarily. And nor does it work for all teachers. There are some teachers who aren’t very good in this environment who are fabulous in the classroom.”

Erika says the NZPF identified inequitable access to digital connectivity and to devices as a barrier for many schools, particularly in rural areas, but also in some low socioeconomic areas as well.

Rise of student agency

Steve says many secondary principals are keen to build on the flexibility that many of their students have benefited from with their learning. “I had a principal say to me that they had some senior secondary students say, ‘Online learning has worked really well for me, I’ve got this research to do, can I complete at home and then check in?’ and they sat there and thought, ‘Why not?’

“Whether that translates to a long-term practice will be interesting,” he reflects. “I think there are other factors that play in our system which need to be supportive of those sorts of flexible practices. And they could include things like collectives and legislation that sits around whether a student has to be onsite or not.”

Communication is everything

Nearly every principal mentioned the importance of clear communication during the pandemic, and there were many good examples shared of what this looked like in different school communities.

Erika says the NZPF Executive valued the practical support and guidance that principals received from their regional Ministry directors. They also valued the opportunity to discuss upcoming announcements with the Minister of Education and the Secretary for Education.

“This enabled the peak body leaders to use their own communication channels to keep their members accurately informed about, for example, the arrival and allocation of ventilators or changes to Covid levels. This approach was useful and reduced the inconsistency and inaccuracy of messages coming from multiple sources, including the media,” she says.

Opportunities for innovation

“A lot of schools talked about overhauling their systems that weren’t fit for purpose, especially during lockdown or hybrid situations,” says Steve.

Many secondary schools looked at structuring timetables differently to meet students’ needs and preferred ways of learning. Others have changed their reporting and parent interview processes. Many have reconsidered their approach to meetings.

Some principals found opportunities to do things differently for ākonga with learning support needs. For example, Waitaha School in Christchurch experimented with online assemblies and even discos, which were a hit with their students.

Learning from Christchurch schools

Erika says they drew some interesting observations from the schools they visited in Christchurch, given their experience of leading through disruption, trauma and change.

“There had been a lot of learning across those principals through the Christchurch earthquakes, both in terms of how they led their communities through it and how they ran their schools – and it all just disappeared; it had never been captured or shared across the country. They felt that had that been the case, they could have shared some of the learning with other principals,” she says.

Steve is hopeful that this work goes some way to capture some of the experiences and learning based on the leading through the pandemic years.

Growing as leaders

Erika says many of the principals she met with realised that distributed leadership was incredibly important. Many embraced a strong reflective practice during this time as well. “How is what I am doing impacting on my staff, on my community? What do I need to change or do differently?”

“Others realised that if they don’t have a healthy leader you don’t have a healthy school, so that they had to think about what they were modelling in terms of looking after their own wellbeing.”

Steve says many realised that involving their staff and students in decision making was important to getting buy-in across their school communities.

Many principals spoke of the support and collaboration they experienced from their peers and local principal networks, valuing the chance to collectively make sense of the messaging, and in many cases ensure a consistent approach across their community.

Key learnings and next steps

A key learning for Steve and Erika was the importance of having a strong foundation to operate from in challenging times.

“You have to have the social capital built in your relationships before something like this happens. You will not be as successful in leading your community if you haven’t got that social capital, so you’ve got to put time and energy into building that all the time,” says Erika.

They also agree that we need to reconnect with the purpose of what we’re trying to do in education, most importantly at a system level.

“Purpose needs to come to the surface a little bit more,” says Steve. “They are all good things that we’re trying to do, but they need to be aligned and have a clear purpose so that a school that has had a bit of a wobble and going through the turbulence of pandemic can reset and realign and have a plan going forward,” he says.

Both Erika and Steve found that principals are exhausted and they believe we need to be thinking about how to make school leadership more sustainable for the long term.

“We talk about long Covid, but I think we need to talk about long Covid for organisations,” says Steve. A lot of principals talked about needing to get out of being in constant survival mode, he says.

“We should be taking the positive and most beneficial things that have happened out of the pandemic in terms of the relationship between the principals and the Ministry and keep doing those. And build on those strengths. Because they worked and brought people closer together.”

Read and listen to all the interviews on Te Mahau website

Interviews on Te Mahau website(external link)

Listen to the podcast on PodBean(external link)

Sometimes it's better to hear the story from the source. Go on a journey into Steve Lindsey and Erika Ross' experience of visiting 60 schools across Aotearoa to lead their communities through Covid-19.

They share common themes, key learnings, and opportunities for growth and innovation.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:38 am, 23 November 2022

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