Coping with COVID: How principals are adapting to the new normal

Coping with COVID: How principals are adapting to the new normal

If any year has tested school leadership in recent memory, it is 2020.

Whether it’s the sudden and monumental shift to remote learning brought on by COVID-19, the catastrophic bushfires that closed hundreds of schools or the major floods earlier in the year, principals have been the leaders who have navigated their staff and students through the emergency response of these crises every time.

With the school year now coming to an end, governments, institutes and universities are in the process of studying the key learnings derived from these crises.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) recently released a major report summarising the evidence base of leadership required during the massive changes they’ve had to navigate over the past 12 months.

AITSL CEO, Mark Grant, said principals and teachers across Australia should be congratulated for the tremendous job they’ve done rising to the challenges that the bushfires, drought and pandemic have presented to their schools.

“Through a number of crises this year you have demonstrated that you are resilient and able to adapt quickly to the challenges you, and your broader communities, face and continue to face,” Grant told The Educator.

“It is not easy, and it has been humbling to see how the whole Australian education system has adapted, and in many places, transformed in response to such challenging times”.

The Educator recently spoke to a number of principals from across Australia to find out how they’ve been adapting to the pandemic.

‘Necessity created a renewed sense of collaboration’

During the summer bushfires, more than 140 of Kangaroo Island Community Education’s (KICE) 700 students were directly affected with property lost.

KICE principal, Maxine McSherry said 2020 has been a year of uncertainty, but also new learning opportunities for many principals.

Speaking to her own context, McSherry said she and her team were able to strategically leverage the bushfire crisis to improve the way teaching and learning happens at KICE.

“The speed with which we were required to implement new learning opportunities has been a big lever,” she told The Educator.

“Necessity created a renewed sense of collaboration, shared resources and mentoring”.

McSherry said that as the year of disruption continues, principals need to be both flexible and creative to ensure learning remains targeted and engaging.

“For me personally, COVID-19 has been a time of upskilling in information technology, creating new opportunities to connect with people virtually”.

A unique opportunity to test new strategies

Southport State High School principal Nigel Hughes said “2020 has been a year like no other in the history of Queensland education”.

“As a result, has been one of the most interesting – yet challenging – leadership periods in my life,” Hughes told The Educator.

“The major focus in my leadership has been to continually remind our staff and students that they have the ability, resilience and determination to face this pandemic and, can with the right support and mindset, thrive”.

Hughes said that while the shift to remote and flexible learning has presented its fair share or challenges, there has been a silver lining.

“Change is about learning and learning is about opportunity,” he said.

“I see this as a time in which we have the so much opportunity to rethink and innovate how we deliver programs and engage students and staff, and to test new strategies to enhance learning”.

Hughes said the widespread acceptance and engagement of these opportunities may have taken years if it weren’t for the urgency of the pandemic.

“We have spent the last three to four years developing our LMS and have a 100% digitised curriculum,” he said.

“The pandemic has made as look at how we have structured the curriculum and by moving to online learning have adapted our structure so that Learning Intention and Success Criteria are very clear and easily understandable for students learning remotely”.

‘We had to do things differently, and succeed very quickly’

Orange High School principal, Chad Bliss, said that while he is no stranger to managing a crisis, COVID-19 was dauntingly different from any other he had experienced before as a school leader.

Bliss said the most significant learning from the pandemic has been the “new normal” that the school had to adjust to.

“We had to do things differently and we succeeded in doing so very, very quickly,” he said.

“We can continue to utilise technology platforms to meet the individual needs of our students and staff and develop them professionally to feel confident to use innovative technologies as a genuine means of improving outcome for students”.

Bliss said that more than ever, a strong sense of belonging to the school community is what got students and staff through the pandemic.

“This is what will keep our students engaged not only academically but socially over the coming year,” he said.

“We are aware that this is not over yet and our focus on our senior students particularly has meant that they have been able to feel strongly supported right through this pandemic”.