Suzanne Culshaw, Independent Researcher, UK
Andy Samways, Director of Research School, Unity Schools Partnership, UK
This article shares early findings of a small-scale project rooted in practitioner-focused reflective enquiry and funded by The British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS). It is a qualitative study into the experience of leadership; the overarching aim is to explore the extent to which using a creative approach is of professional and/or personal benefit to participants in terms of their wellbeing and leadership practice. The focus is on the emotions of leadership through lockdown, and the project seeks to provide leaders with an evidence-informed and structured way of thinking about their professional practice or issues with which they are grappling (Lofthouse, 2021).
The project involves an independent researcher, a research school and three leaders within a school from a Abbreviated to MAT, a group of schools working in collaborat.... The research is ongoing and the early findings shared here, with permission of participants, illustrate the significant potential of creative approaches within an informal quasi-coaching relationship. We suggest that this approach can have positive implications for leaders’ wellbeing and look forward to sharing the full project findings at a later date.
Background and research approach
The research process encourages educational leaders to engage in an arts-based reflective journey; while the interaction is between the leader and the researcher, it is predominantly a process of self-reflection. Creative methods can stimulate different ways of thinking (Marshall, 2007), and the process of engaging in this way has been found to be both revelatory and cathartic (Mannay et al., 2017; Culshaw, 2019). The approach is based on the notion of a ‘river of experience’ (Sutcliffe et al., 2016), which is created digitally using Padlet.
The process has active ingredients (Sharples et al., 2019), which are the key behaviours and content that underpin the approach. We refer to them as essential principles and practices. The principles include:
- participants having the choice to step into the process
- participants having agency in terms of how they respond
- questions being provided at regular intervals to prompt reflection
- a trusting and safe relationship being established with the researcher-coach.
The practices involve:
- a focus question being provided
- time to reflect being taken
- participants engaging and responding creatively
- the process being repeated as above.
We offered participants creative freedom in how they responded. Two participants responded in ways that might be deemed creative, as outlined in the responses described in this article. The other participants’ responses were in a more traditional written or audio format.
Adhering to these principles and practices provides an important fidelity check for this evidence-informed approach. Originally, the project design included research conversations at intervals throughout the year, but this has not yet been possible in practice. The process cannot therefore be fully conceptualised as a coaching relationship at this stage. It is our intention to develop this aspect of the project in the second year. Follow-up conversations with participating leaders are being scheduled for summer 2021, where we can discuss, reflect on and elicit further feedback about the process.
Leaders from one of the multi-academy trust secondary schools were keen to engage. Their identities have been anonymised and we use pseudonyms throughout this article. Rhonda is the headteacher of the school. Kath is a senior leader. Tom is a middle leader. All three participants are known to both authors.
A window into the emotions of leadership through lockdown
The narratives of participants are presented here as authentic voices of real leaders. These leaders have sustained their engagement in the process throughout the challenges of lockdown; the value that they attach to the process has been evident. We present here the essence of their responses to each focus question.
How does it feel to be in lockdown as an educational leader?
This question was shared in May 2020 and it elicited responses from all three participants. Responses included a spoken reflection, a photo and written narrative, and a narrated video.
In his video, Tom presented his life as four quadrants, with an outer frame. His life consists of school, home (schooling/childcare), home (chores) and Me. As he narrated his reflections, he moved the frame over the different quadrants, to show how priorities changed throughout the day. The day started with ‘lots of me time, I go out for my run before the chaos of the day commences’. As the working day got underway, the ‘me picture’ tended to ‘go out of the window’.
Kath shared a black and white photo of cables accompanied by a written narrative. ‘My house is overrun with cables… like techno-spaghetti.’ She described leadership in lockdown as ‘tangled, messy, constantly in need of recharging’. Everyone in her household was using the WiFi and she needed to ‘book the bedroom’ for video calls.
Rhonda provided an audio response. It took her some time to be ‘at the point where I feel ready to say anything out loud’. She used the imagery of a rollercoaster, saying that, at times, ‘you’re holding on tight, hoping the wheels don’t fall off underneath you’. She never seemed to refer directly to lockdown, using ‘this’ or ‘it’ instead. She reflected: ‘It feels sometimes hopeful… sometimes hopeless and it feels… exhausting.’
As a leader in lockdown, what are you holding onto right now?
This question was shared in June 2020 and it elicited responses from all three participants. Responses included a spoken reflection, a photo and written narrative, and a narrated video.
Tom presented a Lego® scene to represent his work and home life. An anchor was a key image in the scene: Tom was ‘looking for stability’ as he needed ‘to hold onto something’. Communication, too, was a theme: Tom referred to his laptop ‘as a link to the outside world’. He also mentioned his colleagues’ laptops, as well as the devices that his students used. Tom had created portals in the scene, which seemed to demarcate his work life and his home life. In the kitchen, he mentioned his ‘daily [coffee] ritual to keep me sane’. Music played gently in the background and a guitar featured in the scene. He panned out the video at the end and said: ‘There we are, relatively settled and trying to get through this.’
Kath sent a black and white photo of herself holding a picture of her younger self sitting with her dad. For her, it was interesting to reflect on the idea of holding onto something ‘at a time when we have had to let so much go’. So much of her routine had had to be ‘undone and redone’. Pre-COVID, it was policy and procedures that could ‘hold us firm’. But now they had blown away and it was her core values that stabilised her: ‘When we have let go of so very much, these are the things that I can manage to hold in my hands.’
Rhonda audio-recorded her response to this focus question. She mentioned holding onto:
- my nerve (twice)
- my breath – ‘waiting for the next government guidance’
- those dearest to me
- other people’s anxiety
- my heart – ‘because I lead from the heart’
- common sense
- hope – ‘I cannot wait to have a school full of children and staff again’.
She tried to reassure herself by relying on her gut instinct, sticking to her morals and listening to her husband, who encouraged her to ‘keep on making the right decisions’.
What are your hopes and fears for your leadership post-lockdown?
This question was shared in July 2020 and it elicited responses from two participants. Responses included a written reflection by email and a video of a participant reading out a poem.
Tom snatched a minute of his time ‘before the next lesson starts’ to record himself reading out the poem he had written. It was called ‘The Winds that Blow’. COVID-19 was being carried by those winds; the ills ‘are close and warm and threaten to kill’. Tom felt destabilised by the winds, which ‘buffet my skiff’. The poem moved from expressing his fears and uncertainty to a sense of resolving to come through this pandemic. He finished on a hopeful note by reflecting that those winds ‘will not bring me down, and not see me drift’.
Rhonda responded by email. She hoped that we could retain some of the positives of lockdown. She hoped that ‘we all return and remain healthy’. She feared that the pandemic would have a wider, economic effect on the local community. She also feared that her hopes would not come to fruition.
How can you nourish and nurture yourself as a leader still in lockdown?
This question was shared in November 2020 and it elicited responses from all three participants. Responses included a series of photos and a short written narrative, and two written responses by email.
Tom shared a series of photos of his home baking. He explained that the dough was a ‘vent to physically release stress and strain’. He talked about flow, a concept that he knew from his leadership training: ‘You are so focused and concentrated on one thing that you don’t see time pass because it is not the time that matters but the result that you are trying to achieve.’
Kath initially struggled to ‘put thoughts to screen’ for this question. She finally emailed in the Christmas holidays after ‘a week of trifle and cheese’. Kath’s experience of leadership in lockdown was one of the ‘utter relentless drudgery of Just. Keeping. Going’. This was in stark contrast to her default mode of needing to be ‘interested and stimulated by new, shiny things’. Pace could nurture her, and it was her determination that kept her going ‘even when it’s like wading through custard’. Bubble baths and meditation were not her thing. Instead, she turned her ‘twitchy, tedium-irked self’ towards being more mindful of the interesting opportunities and perhaps even benefits ‘of this very strange time’. This had helped her to keep steady: ‘It’s a mindset that means that instead of drudgery, I can see hope.’
Rhonda wrote that nourishing herself physically was currently an issue, citing the significant challenges of taking breaks: ‘Eating on duty while wearing a mask is difficult!’ She emphasised how ‘we look for the positives… we look for the laughter and find it daily in the most random places’. She had started being coached, and she and the team continued to give each other ‘time to talk’. She felt very well looked-after and her team had helped in times when she had not necessarily had sufficient emotional capacity herself. She was ‘very grateful to be in school’ doing her job.
Analysis is in its early stages; a descriptive approach was taken for the visual, verbal and textual data. Then a cross-participant interpretative analysis was undertaken for each focus question. For Rhonda, there was a strong sense of teamwork, values and being proactive, coupled with uncertainty and exhaustion. Kath seemed to have a heightened awareness of the messiness of leadership, especially in lockdown. Tom’s contributions were full of visual metaphors, including the anchor to keep him stable, the ‘flow’ of the baking process and the windows into different aspects of his personal and professional life.
In terms of learning from their reflections, Kath felt that she had grown as a leader. She had also realised that one challenge of leadership is that you are never ‘on top of everything’. Tom reflected in particular on his Lego piece, as it helped him to realise how important the people and activities around him were. Being asked to reflect raised his awareness of all the contributing factors in his leadership practice. Rhonda had a sense of hopefulness but was also exhausted. Reading back through her digital river of experience had been quite powerful; it was a chance to ‘think of what we have been through in the past year’.
Feedback from participants about the process suggests that it has been useful to have a ‘nudge to stop and think’ (Kath). For Tom, it has helped to solidify how he was coping and getting through lockdown. He commented: ‘Only when you stop and see what you have done do you appreciate how important the process is.’ Rhonda has found it cathartic. Throughout, participants have expressed gratitude at being part of the project.
There is a year still to go with this project. More leaders will be invited to join. More creative contributions will be received and we will continue to learn about the power of creating digital rivers of experience. We hope to adopt more of a ‘coaching for wellbeing’ approach. We will start to capture the emotions of leadership beyond lockdown, a time when, hopefully, the winds that blow will not see these leaders drift (Tom’s poem). What we know already, as Kath clearly points out, is that:
‘Leadership in lockdown is tangled, messy, constantly in need of recharging, and sometimes it bloody hurts when you step on the metaphorical plug.’
In time, we will be able to report more detailed findings on the extent to which this approach might be of professional and/or personal benefit to leaders in terms of their wellbeing and leadership practice. Perhaps the process that we have outlined here is one way in which to enable leaders such as those in this project to create a safe, reflective space where they are free to engage creatively and where they can recharge.
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