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A school leader’s response to the current COVID-19 crisis

| October 28, 2020 | 0 Comments

BY JACQUELINE AITCHISON

How do we survive this?

How do my students, my staff, my school and my school community make it through this? How do I respond to this as an ethical, responsible school leader? How do I capitalise on this opportunity to catapult education into a dynamic, long-awaited space while remaining sensitive to the fact that this very opportunity has come at a massive global cost? How do I offer guidance and stability to my stakeholders when even next week is uncertain? Is it fair to put my teachers into a space in which none of them has had any formal training, and still demand the highest quality of teaching from them? How do I resource them to the point of committed engagement without overwhelming them completely? How do I manage my own anxiety so that I can encourage, reassure and offer calm leadership to my matrics, my students, their families and my staff?

None of these questions would surprise any school leader right now. We are all aware that the novel coronavirus has thrown us into an unprecedented space.

However, this remains a story of hope. At the time of writing this article, South Africa’s lockdown had been extended and the South African president had demonstrated a calm strength of leadership last felt when Nelson Mandela was at the helm. And that gives me hope.

EduInc started planning promptly

A small independent school like Education Incorporated (EduInc) in Johannesburg, Gauteng, is ideally placed to be nimble and to pivot quickly. And that is exactly what we did.

We paid attention to what was happening in the world and started our COVID-19 planning early, with a questionnaire sent to our parent body. The objective was to establish three things: (1) what devices pupils had sole access to at home; (2) their level of internet connectivity; and (3) their power back-up facilities at home. The answers to these questions informed which platforms and applications were most suitable for our online teaching plans, who the school would need to assist with devices, and what plan would be put in place if power interruptions were added to the mix. It similarly informed our need to arrange for additional devices to be sent home, where required.

The second step was a ‘soft test’, where all the pupils would bring their devices to school for a day and we would run our timetable as normal using our tech framework, which is underpinned by G-Suite provided by Google. This would allow us to iron out as many glitches as possible while all of us were still together in the same physical space. The third step was to run a hard test where the pupils would spend a day at home, again running a normal timetable, and ironing out final hiccups.

During the first week of March 2020, we presented the full COVID-19 contingency plan to our board and admittedly, even at that point, we did not really believe that a country-wide school shutdown was imminent. It felt alarmist. On Sunday 15 March, however, the president announced that schools were to be closed by Thursday 19 March and our plan went into overdrive. On Monday 16 March, we released the first in our COVID-19 podcast series to our parents and pupils, detailing what the coming days would look like, and what was required of them. On Tuesday 17 March, we did our soft test at school and on Wednesday 18 March, we ran our first day of online schooling from home with 100% attendance and 100% teaching taking place. Not homeschooling. Not self-study.

Rather, schooling at home following our regular school timetable with teachers present in every lesson, visible to the students.

We finished our first term on 9 April without missing a single hour of ‘real’ teaching!

Testing times

Was it easy? Of course not. The teachers, as a team, upskilled themselves and each other on online teaching platforms at a rate Silicon Valley IPOs would find impressive. The pupils, as a united cohort, embraced the new way of learning, to the point that many would be online by 06:45, asking if they could start their 07:30 lesson early.

Importantly, we did not ‘dumb’ down the curriculum. We scaled it up! We added daily reading tasks to be recorded and uploaded, touch typing and Udemy online courses for all students in Grades 4 to 9. When we closed on 9 April, we made it clear that four weeks off with no stimulation was not an option, so teachers continued providing a multitude of activities to be accessed online.

The positivity, support and encouragement from our parent body has been the highest ever, the performance of the teachers has been consistently commendable and the engagement and pupil support of each other has been unprecedented.

A movable model

We have quickly and successfully developed a sustainable working model to continue with remote schooling and assessment for as long as required.

One of our model’s by-products is that as an independent school, we have already piloted this new education ‘biosphere’ using our own abundant resources. We are now in a position to assist lower quintile schools to follow our lead down the road we have already navigated. It’s either that or continuing to lament the growing divide between the two.

Our system is by no means perfect yet, although it is agile: we have been able to focus on function instead of form. A very long time ago, somebody taught something to someone and they understood it really well. Somebody else saw this and wondered how it could be replicated. Pedagogy and curriculum were born. Over the years, the focus shifted from function to form to such an extent that it became diluted into the dysfunctional education system we have been treadmilling for too many decades.

Bizarrely, the novel coronavirus has been the catalyst that has allowed us, as schools, to leap forward to restore a focus on function. We entered this crisis at the same time as the edtech companies whose platforms we are using. This means that our teaching has been centred only on which online tools best enable us to teach the most important concepts in a manner that effectively allows learning without all the extraneous fluff that normally bogs down our curricula.

This is an opportunity to reboot not just how we deliver education, but also how we determine if our delivery actually equips our pupils for a world where this is probably not the last time they will live through a crisis of these proportions. This has highlighted that an overfocus on form, assessment and fluffy curriculum padding does not serve us well.

The three mirrors

For well-resourced, high-quintile schools, there are three mirrors we need to take a long, hard look into right now, and that is seldom a comfortable exercise.

The first mirror reflects a whole school approach that instructs pupils to do things the old way, although they are physically not at school, i.e. write in workbooks that teachers have no access to, and that they will re-explain, mark, give feedback on, etc. ‘once we are back at school’. This is a checkbox approach that highlights both a lack of acceptance of the situation we are in, and a lack of commitment to providing the type of education their pupils need right now.

The second mirror reflects an approach that seeks to use the tools at hand as nothing more than an extension of e-mail or online homework diaries to give a list of instructions for selfstudy. Teachers using this kind of approach may even go as far as to upload a video of themselves teaching something. If this is not followed up with face-to-face live interaction with the pupils, these teachers are going to find themselves in dire straits when the time for assessment rolls around. Great teachers use live instruction as a formative assessment to gauge the mastery levels of their pupils.

The third mirror reflects the agility of our leadership. This is the time to get our heads above the treeline and gaze over the entire vista. Then we can re-evaluate the impact of this pandemic on the future of education and how we can lead our schools into a new landscape.

How do we measure the effectiveness of solutions to problems we avoid?

The choice is ours: we can use this opportunity to digitise what we’ve always done. Or, we can use the opportunity for agile leadership, coming to grips with the fundamental changes to education this pandemic is compelling us to make.

Higher-quintile schools that have all the resources they need at their disposal, but are not responding with the appropriate agility or are providing a shortterm, band-aid approach, will soon find the values of both their school and their offering called into question, probably in the form of having to defend why their fees should be paid. If we can demonstrate agility in matching our offerings to the needs and resources of our pupils, our parents will continue to perceive value in the education our schools provide.

The psychology of the thing

Under normal circumstances, we encounter children struggling with fast-paced, overstimulated lives. Again, COVID-19 has shifted this paradigm, and our children’s stresses are rooted less in the pace of their lives, and more in a global anxiety that is, at times, almost palpable.

An intentional reaction right now should be how to be courageous in how we propel our schools into the new educational era the novel coronavirus has brought. For us at EduInc., there is hope and excitement inside the fear and tragedy of COVID-19. This moment in time is both historical and catalytic for education. It is a time for heads of schools to be courageous in their leadership and more connected with their communities than ever before.

Reference:

See: https://www.udemy.com/

Category: Spring 2020

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