School leadership has been taken into a new realm of challenge since March 2020. Our school prizes creativity, something which a global pandemic could snuff out, so it’s been really important to us to practice what we preach.
1. Creative leadership knows that there is no single formula, no simple solution
The challenge of remote learning, the need to support and develop staff, parental concern, short- and long-term planning: these are just some of the things in my Covid-19 headteacher inbox. In the first few weeks of school closure in March, we were inundated with questions, suggestions and concerns that flooded into the vacuum of “not-knowing” what to do.
For example, when the crisis really escalated in March 2020, usually very resourceful and autonomous staff, thrown into the unknown, wanted to be told exactly what to do (or, they thought they did). Parents wanted to know exactly what, when, how their child would learn (or, they thought they did). The temptation, under stress, was to jump to a definitive answer, giving facts and certainties.
But we knew we had a high-quality curriculum in place and our delivery model would evolve over time, as we learned what worked and what didn’t, which would be different for each subject and each year group. It took courage to let the creative process happen and hold our nerve while students and parents clamoured for quick fixes. We reassured everyone as to how students’ remote learning journey was beginning, gave the information that we could reliably give, and made it clear that we would evolve and develop the way it worked over time.
As a result, staff had the freedom to try new things, involve students in co-creating the way forward, learn from each other in and between departments. The remote learning offer in January 2021 is different to the one we began with in March 2020, and we have not had to justify the changes as our stakeholders have come with us on the creative process.
2. Creative leadership springs into action in a crisis
School leaders have had to respond with lightning-speed, often at weekends and over holidays, to announcements on the evening news, new requirements from the DfE, confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the school community.
Since March 2020, we’ve created and re-created five different versions of school: school-closed, school-partially-open, school-fully-open, school-with-high-numbers-self-isolating-at-home, school-closed-and-partially-open again. We have developed keen and quick ways of interrogating what we do and do not know, what this will and will not mean for our students, the educational, logistical, emotional, social, financial consequences of each new announcement. We have become adept at distinguishing these strands from each other, not conflating the emotional responses with the logistical implications.
We’ve practised how to keep our minds elastic, to check “what are we not thinking about?” and “who have we forgotten?”. We’ve grown by remembering the different skills and resources of each team member, while remembering that others are not in your own head.
3. Creative leadership lets go
We learned that we needed to practice what we preach in the classroom: set up the framework in which learning can happen and then back off. This applied to remote learning, staff support and development, student welfare and wellbeing. It also applied to learning from mistakes and moving on, something we ask our students to do all the time. A vital part of the creative process, which ultimately nurtures the organisation, is letting go of what is no longer relevant or meaningful, even if you spent long dark hours on it.
4. Creative leadership is optimistic and pragmatic
Schools are hopeful places, so it has felt really hard to continue to have to say “We don’t know yet” to anxious students, teachers, parents. It’s been a test for us to present both a realistic sense of the now and an optimistic view of the future, when the challenges of the pandemic continue to surface and the media is full of them. So we’ve persistently pursued discussion of “what we are learning from this?”, “what might this look like in a year, five years, from now?”, “in the future, let’s remember to …”.
Most importantly, we have not done this in isolation and have drawn on our strengths to make us stronger: community, comradeship, kindness, humour.
We’ve learned that hope does not have to be blind.
Kat Pugh is headteacher of The St Marylebone CE School and is a Commissioner on The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education.