educational leadership

How the spirit of lockdown leaders prevailed in the crisis

This report is from the Educational Leadership SIG Symposium – Educational Leadership in crisis across Australia and New Zealand at #AARE2021, presented by Fiona Longmuir (Monash University) , Michelle Striepe & Christine Cunningham (Edith Cowan University), Sylvia Robertson (University of Otago) and David Gurr (University of Melbourne)

The experience of the pandemic is a significant and shared disruption and the ways that education has been led through crisis and uncertainty were explored in this symposium. 

Research has previously considered how educational leaders have guided their communities through crises of many descriptions and Michelle Striepe and Christine Cunningham first presented a scoping review that examined this prior body of work. They found that the evidence was limited and, as one would expect, covered a broad range of contexts and crises – earthquakes, bushfires, hurricanes as well as local crises such as unexpected deaths. The literature suggested that leading during a crisis is different and is tailored to the context and nature of the crisis (Hemmer & Elliff, 2020; Liou, 2015). 

Across this literature there was evidence that educational leadership during times of crisis involves: 

  • Leading responsively, instinctively and virtuously
  • Working through phases of reaction, management and recovery
  • Understanding the immediacy, urgency and complexity of the crisis and the resulting needs of the community.

From their review, emerged questions that were relevant to thinking about educational leadership through the COVID crisis. These are – 1) how we bound the concept of crisis, and the relationships between crises – for example, are we currently experiencing a health crisis within broader crises of environment and equity?  2) Do we see experiences of crisis as linear or are there constant cycles through phases of crisis that are influenced by the intensity of disruption? 3) How do culture, context and language shape experience of crisis?

The emergence, and persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis since early 2020 has been different across the three locations of the studies shared in the symposium- Melbourne and Perth in Australia and Dunedin in New Zealand. 

From Perth, we heard about a large Independent school that experienced 17 days of lockdown early in 2020 and the work of a school leader who brought a risk management disposition to his work (Striepe & Cunningham). 

In New Zealand, Harry, the principal at the centre of the case, shared his rapid responses and attention to the hauora (health and wellbeing) of the community as the threat that the pandemic might arrive loomed for many months (Roberston). 

The Melbourne study reported on interviews with eight school leaders conducted in mid-2020, which was in-between two long lockdowns. Here, common messages emerged about the need for care for the entire school community and the importance of timely and clear communication (Longmuir).

From across our three contexts, and in reflecting on the review of crisis literature, we saw some commonalities and some areas that raised more questions. 

Inequity

The experiences of the pandemic were inequitable even within each school. Individual circumstances and situations came to the fore and leaders needed to understand and respond in supportive ways. Across our three locations, we noted that issues of social and economic advantage and disadvantage were important, and we know from emerging research across a broader range of contexts, that COVID-19 has laid bare the intensity and variety of inequalities, and the ways that education is involved in these.

Relational leadership

In most of our cases we noticed that the relational aspects of educational leadership came to the fore. It seemed that during a crisis, core purposes of human sociality were foregrounded – people cared about each other and educational leaders noticed a “coming together” of their communities in the face of the shared experience of adversity. 

Phases of crisis response 

The idea of phases of response was evident in the literature review and the factor of time is a really important one in any further thinking about how educational leaders have responded, managed and survived such an extended crisis. Reacting, responding and recovering stages were evident – but how has the rollercoaster of the pandemic experience blurred what might normally be thought of as a linear crisis journey through these stages

Crisis leadership practices

Many leadership practices that are thought to be important at any time were still identifiable in the work of the leaders we studied – what changed were the ways that these practices were combined in order to respond as needed for the unprecedented circumstances. 

In reflecting on some of the key messages across our research, Sylvia Robertson left us some important questions:

  • Are we seeing a shift from instructional leadership to a more relational approach with a social justice focus?
  • Has the pandemic highlighted equity issues to the extent that they cannot be ignored any longer?
  • Moving forward, will there be less concern with measurement of outcomes and greater focus on social inequities, care and innovation?

We agreed that the answers remain to be seen.

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fionalongmuir/

References:

Hemmer, L., & Elliff, D. S. (2020). Leaders in action: The experiences of seven Texas superintendents before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. Educational Management Administration & Leadership48(6), 964-985.

Liou, Y. H. (2015). School crisis management: A model of dynamic responsiveness to crisis life cycle. Educational Administration Quarterly51(2), 247-289.

Papers where some of the research is reported: 

Longmuir, F. (2021). Leading in lockdown: Community, communication and compassion in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. https://doi.org/10.1177/17411432211027634

Striepe, M. and Cunningham, C. (2021), Understanding educational leadership during times of crises: a scoping review. Journal of Educational Administration, ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-03-2021-0057