Leadership Not Luck!

I started the Port Elizabeth Montessori School just over 25 years ago and it is essentially my first child. I have grown, nurtured and raised the school with passion and commitment for every day of the nearly 26 years … so not surviving Covid-19 was simply not an option!

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided that it was critical to ensure that we had a response that was proactive, positive, and preventative. I consciously decided that we would not be driven by fear, instil fear, nor respond in a way that did not result in some form of growth and learning.

When it became clear that schools would not re-open after the March 2020 break, decisions had to be made that would result in the school not only surviving the pandemic, but thriving at the end of it. To be honest, I have no idea where the positive mindset came from, other than to relate it to the love a parent has for his or her child. There was simply no choice but to make it.

Fact, not Facebook

Our school is built on three basic rules or life lessons. We take responsibility for ourselves and our actions; we show respect at all times; and we act with kindness. These have been our rules for years, and there have been many times when I wondered if they really had any impact. COVID-19 taught me that not only did most of our families embrace these three rules, but they were infused into our school culture. With very minor exceptions, our school community – parents, grandparents, and students – were generous in words and deeds, and so supportive and so honest.

A clear and honest line of communication with our community was especially important. There was an enormous amount of misinformation and fake news flying back and forth, and keeping a level head as a school leader was definitely critical to managing this crisis effectively. By giving parents facts, by updating them often, and by setting the bar high in terms of responding to parents, our school successfully navigated the uncharted waters. We made sure we responded to Fact, not Facebook.

A Montessori approach

To translate Montessori Education onto a digital platform so that learning could still continue, was no mean feat. I faced criticism from Montessori colleagues and I was accused of compromising Montessori practices and principles. But it was necessary to do something, and options were limited. I stopped and thought about what those Montessori principles and practices were and took the decision to try to build our compromised solution around them.

Maria Montessori’s work was developed during times of hardship too. Although there are many facets to the philosophy and pedagogy, at its core is supportive adults facilitating children’s human development through a prepared environment. These supportive adults nourish the expression of fundamental human tendencies, including our human need for creativity, order, work, communication, independence, repetition, calculation, abstraction, perfection, and our gregariousness.

Our digital platform was created through the incredible support of a parent in our school, Ali Kibao. He worked so patiently with me, teaching me overnight how to manage our platform. My thinking was to replicate our classrooms the best we could – creating content for each of our learning areas and trying to do this in a way that fostered the same principles we used at school. Our team of teachers had to learn on their feet how to generate content that fostered independence, how to build on prior skills and knowledge and how to allow for the acquisition of new learning.

The biggest challenge our teachers faced was not having access to our own specialised Montessori resources, and because we were in South Africa, returning to school during lockdown before our Montessori colleagues in other parts of the world, digital Montessori resources were limited. Our team rose to the challenge and achieved remarkable success. For the most part, parents were positive and appreciative of our efforts.

How to avoid Zoom fatigue

One of the things we did not do was teach online – we did not run Zoom or Google classrooms and not all parents were happy about this – although the majority were supportive. I decided not to do this for a number of reasons, the most important one being that this would have been too much of a compromise of Montessori principles – unless we could have done it individually, which was simply not possible. I was participating in many webinars related to health issues, and one of the most common ‘ailments’ emerging, was Zoom fatigue. For our teachers to be available for individual lessons online would have been an excessive demand, and I could not compromise their well-being.

We did have informal Zoom sessions for different classes where the teachers and children would connect to socialise and chat. The teachers sometimes read a story to the younger children, and otherwise those who chose to participate could do so. Even these 20-25-minute sessions once a week for each class were draining and we were pleased with our decision to stick only to these sessions. It was important to constantly bear in mind that our teachers, like everyone else, were fulfilling many roles at home and carrying many additional burdens too.

My focus as a leader was to provide our school community with as much support as possible, without compromising the physical, emotional or mental well-being of my teaching team. I needed them to be ready and able to resume teaching once schools could re-open.

Open channels of communication

Our school community has always valued honest communication with parents, and continuing this through the lockdown period was critical. I ensured that I fed back to parents what was happening, how we were responding to it and giving them as much reassurance as I could. I was fortunate to be part of the COVID-19 response team for the South African Montessori Association as its general-secretary, so I had access to information emerging directly from meetings and engagements between the Department of Basic Education and the independent schools sector.

Right from the start, I was upfront with parents about the importance of continuing to pay their fees. In order for our school to survive, we needed everyone’s support. I explained to parents that our priority was to ensure our teachers’ salaries were paid. We were able to access support from our bank regarding a payment holiday for our property mortgage payments, but salary payments were critical: 75 per cent of our staff of 32 are the sole breadwinners in their families.

While we did eventually benefit from the UIF-TERS payments, there were a few stressful months. However, our parent community was unbelievable. Parents who had lost their own businesses made plans so that their children’s education was not compromised, other parents started paying fees for 2021 to help with immediate cash flow, the vast majority of parents maintained their usual payment schedule, and we made it through.

Perseverance, not luck

Many people started to make comments about being lucky – lucky to have received UIF-TERS payments, lucky that parents paid their fees, lucky that we could survive. And this began to annoy me because it was not about being ‘lucky’. It was about much more than that.

To have the trust of parents was not luck. It was the result of many years of building that trust. It was the consequence many years of open, honest, and direct communication. It was not luck that parents were supportive. It was the result of years of effort spent on building strong relationships, years of supporting families when they were going through hard times, and years of following through on our commitments.

When we got the news that we could plan for the re-opening of school, it was both a relief and an overwhelming burden. The realisation that we needed to develop protocols and procedures to keep everyone safe and healthy was a heavy burden to carry as a school leader. Despite having an incredibly sympathetic school community in both the families and the staff, the final resting place of the responsibility for a safe school was on my shoulders, and it was heavy.

A heavy leadership load

I don’t think that many people stopped to think of the school leader’s load during this time – not only did we have our own families to care for, we were caring for our teachers, support staff, students, and parent communities. In my case, I was supporting over 200 other school leaders through my work with the South African Montessori Association and running online teaching programmes too. I don’t think I have ever felt more like an elastic band, stretched to capacity. Leadership is a calling and it is driven by passion, commitment, and sheer tenacity.

When I became overwhelmed with all of the different facets that I had to keep track of and manage, I drew on my skills and training in mindfulness.

I stopped, breathed, and stepped out of the situation so that I could regain perspective. Of course I had many moments of being completely overwhelmed – school leaders are human too. But with years of experience, many skills tucked away inside, and with my focus on serving the best interests of the children in my care, so that they emerged as more resilient beings at the other end of the crisis, I was able to stay focused.

In preparation for the re-opening of school, my staff and I developed protocols and procedures that were designed not only to ensure legal compliance, but to ensure that they were met with a positive response from our children. They were developed to enhance our three core rules of responsibility, kindness, and respect. We developed a wellness guide for all of the ages in our school, lessons for emotional, social, spiritual, and physical well-being. Every Friday, the teachers gave opportunities for the children to express fears, concerns and anxieties in special lessons. The children were supported daily on an emotional level and they embraced everything exactly as we intended.

Acting responsibly

Although there was initial nervousness from everyone in the first few days of re-opening, our routines and protocols were quickly integrated into our daily practice – and will remain in place until at least the end of the year. We have used the experience of COVID-19 to reinforce many Montessori principles and ideals. We wear our masks as an act of service and kindness towards others; we wash our hands regularly so that we keep ourselves and each other safe; we keep our distance from each other out of respect; we act responsibly because we want everyone to be safe and healthy.

Our school reopened on 01 June 2020 at 50 per cent capacity and we allowed anyone to return to school on a Monday. The reason for this was that every Monday, we reviewed all of the rules, protocols, and procedures with everyone. We have been at almost full capacity for a while now and have not had anyone test positive for the virus at school. None of our staff have been infected and even those who could have been off due to co-morbidities elected to work, and have stayed one hundred per cent healthy. Again, this is not luck; this has taken effort, commitment, responsibility, and leadership.

Drawing on dance

A core Montessori principle is to follow the child. This means observing children to see what their true needs are, and then following them in order to provide the right environment to support those needs.

Within the first week of being back at school, I observed that the students struggled the most with the physical distancing. In a world where physical affection like hugging is such a normal response, they were not coping well. I could see they had a need to do something with this energy in their bodies.

In response to this observation, we arranged with a parent to give the children a weekly chance to express themselves through dance. The idea was not to learn to dance, or to learn a particular dance, but rather to give each child the chance to move their bodies and physically express themselves without touching anyone else. Their weekly dance sessions remain in place and the children love these times. The difference in their moods and emotional well-being shifted immediately and it is a real delight to see the joy on their faces as they express their human need for connection through dance and music.

Take a bow

As I reflect on the past months, I can honestly say that they have been more positive than negative, that there has been more growth than stagnation, and more enrichment added to our school community than damage. I won’t deny for a moment the loneliness of leading through a crisis like this, and I can’t deny the sleep deprivation and the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. The stress of leading is extreme.

But I also cannot deny the other side of the scale – the joy of seeing our children back at school, the heart-warming moments of connecting with them again, and my gratitude for a strong staff team that has been built up over many years and who stood and worked together. I have a deepened respect for our parent community, for their resilience and their commitment to our school and their children’s education.

I believe strongly that every school leader, including myself, needs to stand up and take a bow. To have led our communities through the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic took strength, courage, vulnerability, patience, resilience, thick skins, and kind hearts. To have gone through this crisis and successfully emerged on the other side required much more than luck – it required leadership. I salute each and every school leader for rising up!