Moving Through a Global Pandemic (‘International School Leader’ Magazine)

First published in International School Leader Magazine in September 2020

It’s September 2020. Many in our global community have been through a transition; whether directly affected by COVID-19, moving to new roles, being repatriated or being on lockdown and separated from family and friends. Whether old or young, the world has faced unprecedented levels of life change.

Directly correlated to life change is physical wellness. I am quite sure that many of us would likely score on the higher end of the Life Change Index Scale, otherwise known as the ‘Stress Test’ (2020)! And yet, knowing this, so many of us have bravely made the decision to take on new roles, to relocate, to step into leadership, to start new in the midst of a global pandemic.

I have also made this decision. I have newly stepped into the CEO and Director position at the International School Rheintal (ISR), Switzerland and stepped away from my previous role as founding Director of the International Leadership Academy at the British School in the Netherlands. I too have had the WhatsApp remote house-viewing pleasure of trying to get accommodation, the inability to have transition visits with the school community in advance and the rather unsettling challenge of not knowing
whether we will actually be able to get into the country or not. Adaptability and resilience have certainly come into play!


A time of unprecedented leadership
So now, most of us (but not all), have made it. We have arrived and can actually begin our next step into our communities and new roles. However, having come on this journey, it certainly has not ended, but merely begun.
These are unprecedented times and this requires unprecedented thinking in leadership. The time to charge ahead or even continue as before is both unrealistic and inappropriate. As we service our communities, we need to facilitate cohesion, reconnection, time to acknowledge the challenges faced, and then bring our communities closely together as we regroup and begin to think about the path ahead for our students and families, our staff and also ourselves.

There is no rule book for such leadership, although there is much learning that we can access, draw upon and adapt to this new world. Firstly, remember that you were chosen for this role and you have shown up (yes, you are there whether in person or remotely!). Leave perfection at the door and lead with humanity from within; the core values that you hold dear and what your new community saw in you when they chose you for this moment. Next, look to others that have led in the face of adversity and learn from them.

I have been inspired by Steve Munby’s Imperfect leadership (Munby, 2019). As he previously faced adversity and unprecedented change in his role, he
anchored himself in servant leadership and learning from his extensive work in supporting school leaders as the then chief executive of the National College for School Leadership. He shared in his annual address that ‘in order to succeed we must retain the strong notion of leadership as service’ and he went on to identify seven key characteristics at the heart of this approach. These seem suitably apt at this time too:

  • Develop others
  • Are careful stewards of resources
  • Understand the context of those they serve and manage change well
  • Are learners
  • Collaborate
  • Are resilient
  • Hold courageous conversations

This is going to be my mantra for this year. Whilst not new, it is a simple and elegant representation of what matters.


A focus on development

‘Develop others’ has been core to my leadership approach for more years than I would care to admit! Having been heavily influenced by the work of Viviane Robinson, the Centre for Understanding Research and Evidence in
Education (CUREE) and the Chartered College of Teaching alongside our work at the International Leadership Academy, I know that great leadership is about how you empower others to develop and improve their practice.

This idea of marginal gains for high performance is firmly rooted in robust research evidence and yet, at times of stress and change such as these, the temptation can be to move away from a focus on this to a focus on getting through: the operational. This is a timely reminder to focus energy on bringing the community together and focus on development. As Viviane Robinson concludes (Robinson, 2011): ‘Leadership is not about building trust so that the hard work of improvement can happen later. It is about
tackling the work in ways that build trust through learning and making progress together.’

The time to charge ahead or even continue as before is both unrealistic and inappropriate

Liz Free

Knowing yourself, knowing your organisation and knowing what high- quality provision looks like will lay the foundations from which you can
develop as a collective endeavour. As I seek to deeply understand the context, I am going to start my journey at ISR through asking our community two key questions:

  1. What is great about our school?
  2. What can we do better?

From this we will then map our journey together through the year as we connect and reconnect, as we honour the past and look boldly towards
the future. We will collaborate and grow stronger together. As we rise through this time, I am hopeful about our work at ISR, the potential of
our #GlobalProfession and the potential of our young people as future global citizens.

As we move through this global pandemic and step into a new academic year, on the shoulders of all who have gone before, I wish everyone a remarkable, joyful and impactful journey ahead.

https://www.flipsnack.com/islmagazine/international-school-leader-magazine-september-2020-195g33jd1j.html


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