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Community, communication and compassion key when leading schools in lockdown – new report

A study into the experiences of school leaders during the first round of COVID-19 related school shutdowns in 2020 has found that those who engaged in community, communication and compassion-based responses were most successful in leading their school community through uncertain times.

Conducted by the Faculty of Education at Monash University in Melbourne in the middle of the year, the study included research data drawn from individual, semi-structured interviews with eight school leaders across Victoria taken at a time when the first wave of community lockdowns was in place and schools were busy introducing remote learning practices.

Lead research Dr Fiona Longmuir said the study revealed four key areas in which the schools and their leadership teams had been impacted.

“The participants reported that their attention was predominantly directed to the wellbeing of their communities,” Longmuir said.

“They noted an increase in the community leadership aspect of their role and the requirement of effective, timely and honest communication.

"They also demonstrated prospective sensemaking capabilities in their ability to generate a positive and productive outcome from their disruptive experiences.”

The study participants said members of the community turned to them for a calm and authoritative voice during the challenging period, which heightened their sense of connection with their wider school communities.

“What you realise really quickly in times like this is that you’re actually a community leader,” said Danni, a government secondary school principal who contributed to the study.

“What I mean by that is outside of a political voice that our members of parliament have, it seems that the next voice that many community members go to, particularly families, is to school leaders.”

Frank, a government primary school principal pointed to the need to present a positive outlook.

“My role is as a community leader, and reminding myself that I’m leading a community of people – the families, the staff and their families – and ensuring that I’m doing the best to spread a positive attitude,” he said.

The importance of effective communication in a socially distanced environment also became apparent, Longmuir said.

“Overall, the strongest message from all participants was just how all-encompassing and important wellbeing became during the pandemic.

“Leaders reported that the caring and compassionate aspects of their role were the most necessary as they supported their communities.

“They developed systems and practices to ‘check in’ with students, families and staff,” Longmuir added.

“This included things such as arranging food hampers for families without income, supporting teachers with young children at home to manage their online teaching commitments, or making sure to have a one-on-one conversation every few days with a staff member who lived alone.”

The participants also highlighted the emotional strain and heavy workload they and their colleagues experienced through the lockdowns.

Kaleb, head of school at an independent school said: “There were a lot of conversations where teachers really just spoke about how tiring it is, and ultimately you really just need to listen to that ... and [acknowledge it and say] ‘Make sure that when you do get that opportunity you do take a break, or do something that you really love once a day’.”

In a related article in the university’s Monash Lens publication, Longmuir said despite exhaustion brought about by the pressure and constant changes of remote learning, there was nevertheless a degree of positivity and optimism from the school leaders about future possibilities created by the experiences of 2020.

“It feels like there’s a bunch of people that have come back and gone, ‘Actually, I want to do some stuff now’," said Dave, a secondary school assistant principal, speaking between the two major Melbourne lockdowns.

“Their desire to push change in school has now built up.”

This sentiment was echoed by Narelle, a government school primary principal.

“There’s been a real flurry of people wanting to try other things, and it being OK. It’s that agile thinking that has really come to the forefront within all the staff.”

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