Leadership series: Continuing school improvement during school reopenings
Nimish Lad breaks down curriculum, middle leadership development, and embedding change in the midst of a pandemic.
Reopening schools after lockdown in Summer 2020 was one of the toughest challenges that school leaders at all levels had ever faced. Alongside keeping our staff and students safe and happy, it was our duty to continue school improvement, to ensure the best possible experience for our students.
Managing the initial reboot
After the initial shock of adjusting to teaching remotely, by June last year much of our thinking about school improvement had shifted towards what was happening within curriculum areas. We wanted to make sure leaders of subject teams were making decisions that would result in real improvement in the outcomes of students.
However, the call for schools to be reopened to all students in Years 10 and 12 forced us to answer questions that would have a huge effect on department level leadership:
- What should a lesson look like when students return to school? Should we continue with the curriculum as it has been sequenced or go back and fill gaps created during lockdown?
- Should we launch straight into ‘normal’ lessons, or would returning students need a more personalised approach? And how could we attend to their mental health and wellbeing?
To help us answer these questions, we consulted year group and pastoral leaders and asked them to draw on their knowledge of the students and how they were coping with the situation. Together, we decided that a focus on curriculum and going straight back into face-to-face teaching was the way forward.
To make this happen, pastoral leads also drew on their informal knowledge of their specific pupils, as well as their formal knowledge of the common concerns that pupils have about schooling: falling behind, not understanding new knowledge, anxiety at not making progress through the curriculum. Our solution was designed to alleviate these concerns as quick as possible. The anxiety of our pupils decreased swiftly as a result.
Developing our middle leaders to deliver the curriculum effectively
Our school development plan includes an objective to develop our middle leaders. Upon returning to school after lockdown, our biggest concern was the possibility of staff reverting to what they’ve done before, rather than what they have learned to be effective, as often happens in strange or new situations.
In the previous year our staff had developed their formal knowledge of effective teaching and learning, thinking hard about how granular information collected in the classroom informs what should be taught next. We’d built a shared language on the process of learning.
But we knew that much of the know-how of effective delivery of specific topics was not yet embedded. Different departments were at different stages with this, so leaders drew upon their impressionistic knowledge. Their understanding of how their staff would deal with the unique stresses of the situation helped them to assess the right time to adjust teaching practices without adding to an already difficult situation.
Our senior team and experienced curriculum leaders supported novice subject leaders by modelling their thinking, focusing on self-management. Hyle, Ivory, & McClellan (2010) refer to expert leaders’ self-regulatory knowledge as understanding “how they had to prioritise and balance responsibilities and their time” (1). Some of our leaders understood that they were at the right moment to effect big changes within their curriculum delivery, while others were not yet ready for this.
One of our leaders, for example, adjusted the rota for their staff that were teaching the ‘reboot’ for Years 10 and 11, to ensure they could all complete strategic development for the next academic year. By releasing the right staff at the right time, they created the conditions for the whole department to plan ahead.
During the lockdown we communicated clearly with our staff and built on this strength during our ‘reboot’. Whenever we introduced a new measure, we explained through examples as well as non-examples. We developed this model, replicating it at a subject level too: new processes were described and important focus areas and possible pitfalls were highlighted.
Leaders then used their impressionistic knowledge of their teams to help embed new initiatives. We asked leaders to consider:
- How are your teams coping with the return to school?
- What is the classroom climate like? What is your team’s view of students’ attitude to learning, resilience and work output?
- Are any subject-specific pedagogical approaches working more effectively?
- What is your team’s view on the recent curriculum changes? How are they responding to the changes that have been made?
- How can the conditions be adjusted to maximise the effectiveness of your team?
These questions not only rely on the formal knowledge of leaders, but the informal, impressionistic, and self-regulatory too. Returning to school effectively this year has made us appreciate the different types of knowledge we hold more than ever.
(1) Hyle, Adrienne & Ivory, Gary & McClellan, Rhonda. (2010). Hidden Expert Knowledge: The Knowledge That Counts for the Small School-District Superintendent. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. 5. 154-178.
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