The power of creative leadership

Mâir Bull, former teacher now based at Manchester Metropolitan University, shares her reflections about the important role creative leadership played in lockdown

In March 2020 when the UK went into lockdown, three educational leaders embarked on creative projects to support their students most in need.

Harnessing the power of social media

This project involved a class of teenagers taking part in an online time capsule project with the theatre organisation Company Three. Each week Company Three announced the stimulus and students had a few days to creatively respond to that topic. Some students chose to submit a series of photographs or short films exhibiting their poetry, acting skills, or fine art responses to subject matters such as nature, wellbeing or education. These creative snapshots, detailing the skills students were developing and practising during lockdown, were then stitched together as their group entry and sent to Company Three. These weekly summaries from all over the world were posted on Company Three’s social media platforms, with certain pieces spotlighted for being particularly creative, technically skilful, or innovative.

Central to this project’s success was its use of social media as a tool to showcase and encourage creativity. The use of platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, helped the project feel relevant to young people, utilising technology they were already familiar with. Frequently, we associate social media with negativity, in particular, the criticisms that they harm young people’s ability to connect with the world, that they exacerbate loneliness and are a contributing factor to problems such as stress and anxiety (HelpGuide, 2020:online). However, social media was used to support students with precisely these emotions and situations - lockdown flipped everything on its head and technology moved quickly from harmful to potentially empowering within a matter of days through Company Three’s use of social media to foster creativity, self-expression and to address disadvantage and isolation.

Digital poverty

The contested nature of the term ‘disadvantaged’ was particularly highlighted during this first lockdown. One of the many forms of disadvantage that has become more evident during this process is digital poverty. The Children’s Society’s report (2020) indicates that many disadvantaged students live in households that cannot afford access to laptops, phones or adequate internet or phone connections and they therefore, are more likely to miss out on vital learning. The pandemic has highlighted the crucial need for leaders to ensure students have regular access to digital technologies. In addition, the importance of planning and anticipating further reliance on devices and high quality internet access is crucial to support students as further closures ensue but also to prepare them for roles in a digitised world. A leadership model that looks ahead like this, to anticipate challenges before they arise, is a characteristic of creative leadership, according to Stoll and Temperley (2009). Pertinently, since the first lockdown, the Department for Education (DfE) has added to its definition of disadvantage to include those who face digital poverty (DfE, 2020).

Using creativity to transform space and create community

This creative project focused on painting large murals onto the four walls of the school music block, a well-known local eyesore. All children in the primary school were encouraged to send in their designs online and children who remained in school spent time painting the selected designs onto the building. In addition, some Saturday slots were used for children who were being home-schooled, to come and make their mark in person.

The children were challenged to think creatively about what this grey, concrete block could look like and therefore, empowered to have a sense of ownership over their school environment. The staff entwined this project with activities around nature, and children were encouraged to imagine and conceive how their paintings could connect their school to the world around them. Furthermore, children were encouraged to experiment with symbols and imagery that represented the school’s name, its identity and place within the wider community.

During this experience the children became researchers, designers, planners and painters, to name but a few. The process walked them through a creative project from start to fruition, over the course of several months. They were able to see the progress over time and reflect on the achievements, in particular when the local press came to showcase their success. Using creativity to connect nature and the built environment helped young people to feel a sense of belonging, community and positive wellbeing as demonstrated in the Durham Commission (2019).

Connecting through ‘lockdown lunch’

This project developed through the free school meals scheme that the school delivered. However, the headteacher was determined this would be an experience that would build upon the sense of community.

Examples of families creating their own 'Lockdown lunch'.

This project evolved under the title ‘lockdown lunch’. All families in the school community (primary and secondary) were given family friendly recipes whilst those eligible for free school meals also received the required ingredients. Families were encouraged to let the children cook, post pictures of their meals on social media and donate ‘what you would have paid on a meal out’ to local food banks.

According to Burnard and White (2008:672), true creativity comes from ‘teachers rethinking their approach to learning and going beyond the safe and the known’. This is supported by Feldman et al. (1993) who have argued that 'going beyond' is what fundamentally characterises creativity. This is what happened with this project – it evolved and progressed as staff thought divergently, and ‘outside the box’; determined to problem-solve and support the families in need at this time. This type of leadership is characterised by Stoll and Temperley (2009) as creative leadership.

Key learnings

All of the participants’ projects addressed social inequalities and met an identified social need in their school community. They used techniques such as harnessing the power of social media, creative thinking, courageous leadership (The Durham Report, 2019), creative leadership (Stoll and Temperley, 2009) perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration (Durham Commission, 2019).

Teaching for creativity has real, tangible outcomes beyond the classroom, for example, the educational leader of lockdown lunches was particularly surprised at the cross-generational connection this venture created. The impact of families being encouraged to sit and share a meal together, even if only once a week, was evident. This contributes to the argument of ‘creativity as a social good’ (Creative Partnership 2006:56) used to bring communities together and contribute to a positive sense of wellbeing (The Durham Report, 2019)

It appears that the pandemic was a catalyst for leaders to use creativity to address social inequalities, in ways they would never had tried before. From these case studies, it is clear that creative leadership requires courage, determination and dedication, plus divergent and innovative thinking. This approach enabled leaders to see that out of the ‘mess’ of the pandemic, there was ‘space for imaginative freedom and new ideas’ (Cook, 2009:281).

Mâir Bull is a former teacher now based at Manchester Metropolitan University in the Curriculum and Rise teams. She was a BBC Bitesize content writer and is a vice-chair of governors at an SEMH school. Mâir has recently completed an MA in Educational Leadership and Management.

Further reading

• Burnard, P. and White, J. (2008) ‘Creativity and Performativity: Counterpoints in British and Australian Education.’ British Educational Research Journal. 34(5) 667-682

• Cook, T. (2009) ‘The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigor though a messy turn’. Educational Action Research. 17. 277-291

• Feldman, D. H., Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Gardner, H. (1994) Changing the world: a framework for the study of creativity. Westport, CT: Praeger

• Freire, P. (2013) Education for Critical Consciousness. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

• Harrebye S.F. (2016) Creative Activism Today. In: Social Change and Creative Activism in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, London

• Stoll, L. and Temperley, J. (2009) ‘Creative leadership: a challenge of our times’. School Leadership and Management. 29(1) 65-78

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