Extraordinary times have meant extraordinary leadership

Across the country, heads and senior leaders have stepped up in amazing ways – no amount of training could have prepared them for the coronavirus crisis

Emma Kell

Man rips off shirt, to reveal superhero costume

I often think of Jill Berry’s memorable description of the school leader as "shit umbrella". But not even the most creative leadership course or interview process could have prepared leaders for the tsunami of effluence that has hit them in the past month. (An interview scenario that would have sounded ludicrous just weeks ago: there’s a global pandemic. The only guidance is that schools have to close but schools have to remain open for some. Holidays too. Weekends? Quite possibly. What do you do?)

The reality for school leaders, as described by one teacher, has been this kind of thing:

They have planned from 6am and earlier on some days, into the early hours on others…reacting from hour to hour, sometimes by the minute, to changes from government and wider society. SLT worked 12- to 15-hour days, in the building then back at home on video conferences and phone calls. They have put together cover arrangements, drafted protocols for setting lessons online; the list of things they were doing was off the scale, and nothing in the Critical Incident Box in the main office would have helped…

All the rules have changed. Inevitably, there’s been some silliness in some schools, such as staff with vulnerable relatives feeling pressured with the threat of their absence "going on their record" (as if such "records" are a priority at the moment). Other staff being asked to log in at set times, several times a day. Others being asked to fill in timesheets to justify their salary. But the vast majority of school leaders have been phenomenal.

There’s no blueprint for getting it right here. Some have taken self-sacrifice to extremes and lost sight of their own need for self-care. Others have fallen back on comfortingly familiar concepts such as accountability and compliance for which now is very much not the time.

It’s often easy to forget school leaders themselves are human too, and many have been infected by the virus. These headteachers, too, have shown extremes of loyalty and dedication, sometimes at considerable personal cost. One I know of was isolated from her own five-year-old child at home for a fortnight, and describes waiting for her fever to abate so that she could respond to the daily press conferences and make daily contact with school to reassure staff, students and families, sometimes waking at 3am to write to them.

It was really tough, being away from school, being unwell and knowing this was the hardest thing the schools would face. I wanted to get it right and in between fevers could not rest; my brain was wired. 

The end of term came. Except it wasn’t the end of term at all, because schools have to stay open. But a brief pause for a few. A chance to sit and stare into space and try to begin to process what the hell is happening.

"I just can’t stop crying. I don’t even know why," said one headteacher on Friday evening.

Where many of us have had a good two weeks now to rant and rail and find our feet in this strange new routine, shifting seamlessly from Joe Wicks to the daily death toll, most school leaders haven’t had a second to step back and think – and the prospect of a break is further away than ever. So let’s just take a moment to acknowledge them and thank them and do our own version of banging saucepans and blaring bagpipes into the streets.

I asked school staff to recognise the brilliance of their leaders. The response has been utterly overwhelming. School leaders are actually a rather self-effacing lot in general, so I’ve decided to anonymise: firstly, to avoid embarrassment, and secondly, because many of these examples will apply to hundreds across the country. What’s striking about these examples is that an equal amount of compassion has been poured into colleagues as into young people.

My headteacher has urged us all to join the NHS Volunteer Responders if we are in a position to do so and put that before schoolwork.

Our headteacher has ensured that we put our own health, and that of our families, at the forefront of our decision making.

My headteacher fought, and continues to fight, the battle for food for more vulnerable children, even setting up a food bank. While continuing to care for each pupil and their families, placing the highest priority on their safety and wellbeing, they continue to lead by example, making difficult decisions in difficult circumstances but always with thoughtfulness, kindness and professionalism.

Our leadership are the only ones staffing school for key-worker children over the next weeks. The head has thanked the rest of us for our outstanding contribution and instructed us to have a well-deserved rest.

Every headteacher in receipt of praise has been sheepish, quick to brush it off, and quicker to insist that, of course, they couldn’t have done it alone. Praise abounds for finance teams continuing to forge on, invaluable school cleaning staff and caretakers and, of course, all of the staff who have shared the burden of ensuring that the children are cared for as well as possible in the current circumstances.

If this period is going to do anything, maybe it will help us to clarify that values and behaviour really matter and to give us all an insight into the true challenges of leadership at extraordinary times. Thank you to all of our wonderful leaders – the loyalty you have earned during this period will last a lifetime.

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets @thosethatcanYou can see the original Twitter thread here

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