School leadership during Covid-19 – what does it actually mean?

I am always fascinated by the interpretation of this role across the world, and what different school boards identify as priority when they are recruiting a new head. I say this because I have experienced serving with several school heads who were totally different in role and personality and influenced the school in diverse ways. This got me thinking about the reality of the expectations of this role and the pressure put on some heads to produce totally unrealistic outcomes. My father was a school head in several schools and he always told me that his role consisted of 80% of skills he did not train for but embraced. I am told he was successful, and have heard that results in his school were excellent. Over the years, I have come across people my father taught (he was also a teaching head) who say thank you because he believed in them and pushed them to do great things and that is why they were what they had become professionally today. I have never spoken to any of the teachers who worked in his schools, but at least I do have anecdotal stories from his students. One of his dearest students spoke at his funeral, representing many generations of students he had taught and led, which was touching, especially as I was by then an educator myself.

I do enjoy reading about school leadership and what it means to the different authors that write about it, but I have always found that it is much more telling to speak with the students, staff and the parents about what their expectations are of a head of school, and many a time, we realise that these expectations are attainable if sometimes unreasonable, but usually very different from what the board expects. Bravo to the schools that have finally separated the role of the Operations Director and that of the school Director/Head, allowing the latter to focus on all things truly educational.
We all know that not all heads of school are business minded, get excited about building projects, are fundraisers and quite a few are not even the best recruiters. But for some reason, in this wonderful world of ours in international education, we seem to expect these people to be at the door to meet the students every morning, inspire the teachers with the latest educational best practice, visit classrooms frequently, hire excellent teachers who never complain and smile all the time, hold coffee mornings with parents and reassure them that their children are in good hands and well behaved, make important financial decisions that save the board of governors loads of money, ensure successful accreditations and inspections and still know all the students, parents, teaching and non teaching staff by their first names, no matter how big the school.
We also have very high standards for these leaders, and want them to be able to inspire, communicate, collaborate, ooze positive energy, be resilient, be great listeners, be willing to be lifelong learners, empathetic, be servant leaders, highly intelligent, finance savvy and of course think on their feet when an emergency lands on their feet.

Although different school leaders and boards reacted differently to our current situation with Covid-19, the most reassuring action I saw was that our school leaders were able to accept that they did not have to know everything and they did not have all the answers. They were working on solutions and focusing on students and teachers to ensure a continuity of learning for their students, and over and over again, we saw them sharing ideas, supporting each other, listening, encouraging, reacting, being risk takers and basically entering the unknown and trusting that the educators in their schools would do the right thing by their students, they had to let go. This I believe was the toughest test yet for our international school leadership and even though we do not know what the future truly holds, we have students, teachers and parents who got on with the new reality.

Life did continue and what happened to the role was a big reset and paradigm shift into understanding that in school leadership it is important to be informed, curious, aware, flexible, appreciative and be ready for the unknown because even the best risk management policy won’t prepare you fully for what you have never seen. I have already started seeing offers of new School Leadership courses as a reaction to the pandemic and all I can say is, school leadership is definitely not for the light hearted soul. Praise also to our school leaders’ leadership! I look forward to learning and reading more about school leadership during and after Covid-19 and possibly seeing some new traits and styles in that leadership.

About Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher

Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher is the Founding CEO of Educational Aspirations Ltd, a Global Educational Consultancy. She has studied and worked in international schools and organisations (IBO and UWCI) in Eswatini, USA, France, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Dubai and the UK in diverse roles. She is passionate about cultural diversity, teaching and learning, inclusion as well as leadership in international education. She is an advocate for student and teacher agency and shares her thoughts and her experiences as an African female school leader and educator in the international and global educational space. She is interested in the historical development of international education and the place people of colour hold in these institutions in the 21st century.
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