How can we adapt to new practices while keeping workload down?

30 Nov 2020, 5:00

Covid has reduced our face-to-face contact with colleagues. So how do we sustain school improvement in an era of remote leadership?, asks Tom Stevens

Can you hear that awkward silence? It’s the echo of countless unanswered emails in the inboxes of teachers everywhere. Covid has collapsed the ordinary staff meeting, and workload enemy number one – the whole-staff email – threatens to overrun us.

As argued by Laura McInerney in these pages, new ways of working may sound like a workload win, but the reality is quite different. And besides, video calls may have provided a neat replacement for face-to-face meetings during school closures but a return to the usual school timetable often renders that solution void.

The risk we run now is that teachers become mere recipients when they used to be participants. If they can meet, they are pixelated faces buffering at the mercy of school internet connections. Staffroom closures mean they are just as unlikely to meet informally. And even when colleagues pass in the corridor, can they tell whether they are still smiling behind the mask?

Teachers’ working lives have changed, which means the conditions for school improvement have too. So how do we lead effectively when so much of our communication is now digital?

Useful lessons can be found in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) implementation guidance, which makes clear that the key to school improvement is in getting the conditions right – creating a “conducive school climate”. Of course, controlling the climate is harder while we’re also controlling infection rates. But now that we are missing it, we are realising how much the “soft stuff” counts in shaping that climate.

They are pixelated faces at the mercy of the school’s internet connections

School leaders used to rely on “taking the temperature” of the staffroom. The ritual of a morning briefing would set the tone for the day. It was a chance for leaders to take questions, prompt reminders and model the positivity that a wet and windy Monday might otherwise blow off course. I know of faith schools where prayers and hymns are shared. While most of us weren’t literally singing from the same hymn sheet, there was unity in these occasions that we might now miss.

The EEF guidance reminds us that motivation and capacity are rarely static. Instead, they can be “developed and built, but can also diminish and vanish”. This is what is at stake, and it means wellbeing is the most important challenge we face.

Fortunately, we are a profession who have shown we can adapt. As part of the Research Schools Network, I have witnessed the rise of new practices to continuously acknowledge and support school improvement.

Many headteachers are pre-recording video briefings to act as a weekly keynote, and schools are using newsletters to celebrate achievements, signal upcoming events and restate shared goals. But as important as this communication is, it’s vital to ensure it is a two-way process. Using online surveys to consult colleagues, for example, positions them as ongoing participants. And the most effective aspect of the newsletter may very well be in pro-actively looking for the good news to report.

In the past, meetings may have discussed future actions. Now they take place in the moment as we share our screens. While that may be conducive to efficiency, it can also create or add to a persistent sense of urgency. It may not have the advantages of live discussion, but the back and forth of working together on a document can foster fruitful coaching conversations.

Beyond those conversations, continued professional development remains vital. Online provision has brought increased flexibility in when and how it is accessed, and many schools are reporting that as a distinct advantage.

When we emerge from the era of Covid, masks come off and staffrooms are full again, which of our new ways of working will we retain and which will we drop? School leaders will be thinking about lots of new challenges to re-establish staff wellbeing and sustain successes from a difficult time for teachers.

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