Why your school is a beacon of hope in the darkness

When her international school in Milan shut its gates, principal Jennie Devine was left wondering how she could lead her staff and students remotely. But the response from her school community and her own reflection on what really matters in education has filled her with optimism: we will all emerge from this as better teachers – and better people, she writes
15th May 2020, 12:03am
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Why your school is a beacon of hope in the darkness

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-your-school-beacon-hope-darkness

Teaching is about preparing students for what lies before them. This is not easy when we know that the world is always changing, when we know that new jobs will exist in the future that we can’t even imagine now and that technology is advancing all the time.

To get ahead of this, teachers, at every level, constantly reinvent themselves and their craft to give students the best possible education and set of skills to navigate this future world. This is difficult but teachers across the world step up to the challenge and deliver every year.

However, the coronavirus situation is so unlike anything that has happened before that, as school leaders, we are now not just trying to prepare students for a future no one can envision - we are also trying to get them, and our staff and school communities, through a crisis that no one saw coming or knows how to solve.

This is a not an academic or curricular crisis; this is an emotional and social crisis, and I did not sign up for this. But then, none of us signed up for this. No training, workshops, staff meetings or professional development focused on how to manage education in a global pandemic. Nobody is an expert and no one knows what the long-term effects will be.

As a leader, it is hard to come to terms with this. We are used to being in charge, to making decisions and having a clear idea of what we want to achieve and the results we want to see. Now, though, all certainty is gone: plans have been abandoned and there is no clear idea of when normality may return.

How does a school leader take on all this and try to be that focal point of a school, that rock of calm and clarity? How can you offer support and guidance when you are just as confused and unsure as everyone else? How, put simply, do we lead?

This has been a point of reflection for me over the past few months and, like everyone, I don’t have any definitive answers. But, having been dealing with this situation for almost three months, I have found myself more able to reflect and consider how all this has affected me and what it has taught me.

Initially, the challenge felt tangible and familiar. We struggled with the same questions as every other school - what does our remote provision look like? How can we best deliver our content? How do we support students? How do we help staff to manage this new way of working? How can we help parents who are feeling overwhelmed?

My heads of department and I discussed how to roll out our programme and we anticipated what resistance and issues we might face. We shared training videos with all colleagues, arranged virtual discussions and shared good practice among staff.

We also checked in regularly with staff to provide practical support as teachers had to get to grips with new technologies and ways of working. However, I also felt it was important to scale back the frequency of meetings to find a balance between supporting people and letting them get on.

All told, the technical, strategic and logistical parts of operating an online school were concrete tasks and were not unexpected.

What was unexpected was the complete overhaul of the social and emotional part of my role. Every single person is under a huge amount of stress, and niggles can become arguments, frustration can become invective.

Not only are there new stresses and strains on all of us, but also my usual tools for dealing with these issues are no longer at my disposal.

What technology replicates a quick conversation in the hallway? What is the online equivalent of having a student come in to my office for advice? What fills the hole of smiling at students as I walk down the hall? How do I informally catch up with staff?

How can I sense that someone is struggling or feeling overwhelmed if I can’t see the sag in her shoulders or the furrow in his brow? How can someone pop in and ask for a bit of advice about a small issue they are having with a colleague?

I never realised how much I rely on these cues to gauge how people are feeling. Right now, I have two possibilities - either I need to rely on teachers reaching out if they need someone or I need to be proactive and contact them. Both of these feel more forced than many of the micro-interactions we have at school.

Phone calls, emails and video conferences have a different weight to them and teachers can be reluctant to approach me in this more formal way, no matter how much I insist or encourage them to do so.

So, I have had to find the line between reaching out and being intrusive, between giving a person space to do their job and leaving them feeling unsupported. This has been the biggest challenge and I can’t say that I have got it right - this is not an easy balance to get. But I am trying.

There are, of course, still moments of joy. Watching teachers work collaboratively and seeing how they have adapted to online teaching fills me with deep admiration. Connecting with colleagues has been joyful, too - meetings with the senior management team and with other principals have created a deep camaraderie.

Reading supportive emails from grateful parents has also been a validation of teachers’ efforts and filled me with pride. Watching students respond to assignments with creativity and humour has also been wonderful - a Year 5 exercise on classifying returned student work sorting pasta, sweeties and Mum’s earrings.

Indeed, the biggest source of happiness is the students - connecting with them and seeing their willingness to engage, to continue to learn, whatever the world is throwing at them. They didn’t sign up for this, either.

This is a frightening, destabilising time for them. Many families will be hard-hit by coronavirus, either economically or because someone will fall ill. But these amazing, resilient students want to learn. They want to engage with their teachers, solve problems, to read and to write stories. They are grateful for the semblance of normality and continuity that the online school provides. They are as curious as ever, as playful as ever and stronger than we can imagine.

All this is giving a real sense of purpose to everything that we do and is a powerful reminder that we are doing it for these real, vibrant and unique individuals whom we are honoured to educate.

All of us who work in schools know our purpose at heart. But in day-to-day school life, as we get bogged down worrying about results, lesson plans, marking, tracking and the rest, it can be easy to forget. And for school leaders, in particular, these daily worries can become all-consuming.

We need to remind ourselves what a privilege and responsibility it is to spend time shaping these extraordinary people. And we need to make sure that that reminder comes often and clearly. This is my promise to myself. That when this is all over, I will keep my eyes on the bigger picture.

I will listen for what is not being said. I will widen my network. I will remember that teaching, first and foremost, is a social endeavour. That time in school is not to be taken for granted, but instead cherished and enjoyed.

We may not know exactly when this return to normal school life will take place - but we do know that this crisis will pass at some point. And when it does, I know we will return as better teachers, and better people for it. More compassionate, more caring and, above all, grateful to be back in our schools, with all the good they contain.

Pupil laughter will ring out from hallways and playgrounds, lessons will buzz with excitement and awe, and staffrooms will murmur the sound of a workforce content in its mission. And school leaders will oversee all of this with a clear-eyed recognition of just how lucky they are.

Perhaps then, I have come to realise that there is one answer to one of the initial questions I posed: “How do we lead?”

We lead by being there for our staff, by checking in on those who are in vulnerable situations. We lead by ensuring that students have the best online provision we can offer.

We lead by being the front line for any issues. We lead by soaking up anxiety and frustrations from our community members, even if it means we weep on the weekend. But, most of all, we lead by having hope.

I don’t know what the future holds, but when I think about the amazing people I work with and the incredible students at my school, I cannot help but be optimistic.

We are being asked to do something incredibly challenging, and to be the guiding light in a testing time. So let our beacon be hope. We will get through this. You, as leaders, will get through this. We can get our staff through this. And we can get our pupils through this.

Jennie Devine is principal of St Louis School, an international school in Milan, Italy

This article originally appeared in the 15 May 2020 issue under the headline “Your school is a beacon of hope in the darkness”

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