Leading in difficult, challenging and unprecedented times – where there is no predictability, no certainty and potentially no end in sight – requires a different type of leadership, a different form of leadership practice.

In this global lockdown, education has been rebooted as a home-based, technology-enabled, remote activity with zero physical contact. What we know about good teaching has suddenly been redefined and repositioned into lessons online. Some schools have morphed into places where children and young people, of varying ages, now play, learn and work together side by side during long days. School leadership has also been radically re-modelled through lockdown.

What does the research say?

While the evidence base on school leadership practices within a pandemic is non-existent, drawing upon the general leadership literature and the evidence about effective online collaboration offers some pointers, some ideas, some reflections for those currently leading in schools and classrooms.

School leadership, of course, is not just confined to those in the leadership team. If leadership is influence, then teachers and teaching assistants exercise leadership every day. In times of crisis, leadership at all levels or distributed leadership, is needed to address the complexity of the challenges and to carry the burden of leading in uncertain times (Harris, 2013).

We know that the best school leaders develop other leaders and build positive cultures where the professional talent, capability and knowledge of all educators can be fully expressed, enhanced and extended (Leithwood, Harris and Hopkins, 2020). Leading in a virtual world is not impossible but it will require extra effort to remain connected with others in meaningful ways that sustain relationships with colleagues and keep things moving forward.

How does it work in practice?

For those responsible for leading virtual schools and classrooms today, the education landscape is still emerging, and the leadership practice is still evolving. Yet, school leadership remains a critical and positive force in shaping the value-base of an education system that has shifted so far from its axis. At present, school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants, cleaners and caretakers are now the new front-line of leadership. Each person counts, each person is a leader and the collective work is now the most important catalyst for change and action.

Leading others at a distance requires establishing clear protocols of engagement around online communication and collaboration to ensure the experience is positive for all participants. This includes creating boundaries around online communication with colleagues and scheduling dedicated time slots for discussion. These boundaries need to be respected to give work colleagues the time and space to do other things and to meet other needs – family, friends, etc.

Not everyone is technologically confident or competent so, where possible, leaders should communicate with colleagues through one channel only so there is some predictability and pattern to the ongoing dialogue. This will lower stress levels for others and ensure that there are not multiple or competing channels of communication open.

Of course, there must be formal leadership guidance, direction, co-ordination and advice, to ensure we get through these times of global insecurity, panic and concern. There is no neat blueprint for leadership in such times, however, no pre-determined roadmap, no simple leadership checklist of things to tick off. There are only highly skilled, compassionate and dedicated education professionals trying to do the very best they can and to be the very best they can be.

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Video logs about leadership during school closures from MyCollege:

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