2020

The leadership we need for our school communities now.

Children are the priority. Change is the reality.  Collaboration is the strategy”. 

Judith Billings, Superintendent of Schools, Washngton State.

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decision”.

Stephen R Covey.

There are two recent stand out moments for me this month regarding leadership, especially moral and values based leadership.  The sight of CNN’s Van Jones breaking down in tears live on TV is one such moment. When Joe Biden was announced to have won and would be the 46th US president, through his emotion, Jones said the significance of the moment meant he could look his children in the eyes; “Telling the truth matters, being a good person matters”.

In the week when schools around the World and in the UK, were holding events to mark the global “Anti-Bullying” week, the UK’s interior minister, one of the most senior members of the government responsible for laws being upheld, policing and protecting the public, was found by an independent inquiry to have shown the worst levels of bullying in her department. Despite this, and against all previous precedent, the UK Prime Minister, defended her actions.  Johnson called it “unintentional bullying” and therefore she remains in her post. One commentator for the Guardian newspaper in the UK wryly summed it up very simply; “shame is for little people”.  It is shameful just how prescient this statement is when we look at some leaders and their attitudes towards wider society right now.

I am fairly sure 2020 will be remembered for more than just the global pandemic.  It will also be remembered for the varying leadership approaches we saw around the World at local, national and global levels. As we enter the last few weeks, 2020 keeps reminding us it is not done with us yet and we are all wondering what twists and turns are left, especially as we look across the Atlantic and see the unedifying spectacle of a leader still refusing to recognise a reality.  It is a year where “Karen or Kevin from Facebook” have become a global parody to illustrate just how far we have come in watching powerful countries, leaders and organisations reject facts, science and logic. They seek to appeal to a ridiculous, yet worrying base for cheap and popular answers to the pressing questions of the age such as the pandemic, poverty and climate change.  It is also a year of clichés particularly surrounding the pandemic. These sound great for a very short time, seeming to exude some sort of confidence; that you know what you are doing for your community, but the longer this crisis has continued the more the weariness has set in. We have finally started to shed off the apathy of 2020 and we end the year with two significant election results that are pertinent to this blog that have given another surprise twist to the year.

The second round presidential elections results here in Moldova on the 15th November meant a win for the former prime minister, Maia Sandu, against the incumbent, Igor Dodon. Ms Sandu becomes Moldova’s first female president, joining a host of other countries where the shift in politics this way has become a feature of the 2020s. Joe Biden may be the oldest president to enter the White House, but he has already indicated the seismic shift in approach for his administration by announcing that America will re-join the WHO and sign back up to the Paris climate agreement. There may be a few acts to play out in the drama for Trump before leaving the White House on the 20th January, but to quote Superintendent Billings, “change is the reality”.

Where do these geo-political events of November fit into the daily struggle of school leaders trying to just keep their school communities continuing through this pandemic with some sort of optimism?   They are more relevant than it first appears:  The department of education in England announced this summer that “politics has no place in school”, and I agree, it doesn’t from a subjective party political/ideological point of view.  I taught A Level Politics for over 20 years and I successfully taught figures like Thatcher and her ideas from a neutral point of view, when my own father was a striking coal miner for a year.  It is interesting to see the way in which Gillian Anderson’s portrayal in “The Crown” TV series has made some re-examine this controversial leader again.  Politics however, is hard to avoid when the consequences of a poor decision, ambiguity or even questionable morality, impact on the ability to keep children and staff safe and to function at a basic daily level. When you see leaders, who should be a moral beacon for children and young people, acting as the interior minister of the UK has acted, it becomes that much harder to have faith in the system.  I make no secret of the fact, that along with countless teachers and good school leaders, I felt that the system in my home country was no longer an education system I could look my students in the eyes and say I completely believed in.  I am not the only one to reach this conclusion and it pains me to write these words.   There are so many brilliant schools, teachers and leaders across the UK, and in similar countries hanging on and working harder than ever. Working in education systems that have moved increasingly away from, in Eton’s former Headmaster’s words, “educating to schooling”. The same advocates of this narrow approach, and who argue to keep “politics out of school”, are the same ones politicising pedagogy in “false binary”, “zero sum” language and benefiting from the lack of transparency and accountability , be it in the new school structures or in the awarding of pandemic contracts.  I know from personal experience as a school leader in England that it is a very tough tide to swim against or to try to keep off the radar.

Leading the Heritage International schools and communities in Eastern Europe during this pandemic has been tough but I have felt more reassured that colleagues in the health and education ministries here are making good decisions for the schools, students and staff throughout this crisis, and taking their advice from major players like the WHO and the UN.  We know this from the role we played in our national education community at the very start of the crisis. Only this past week a colleague in the Hungarian ministry of education has approached the school because she has been impressed with the way we have developed solutions for learning as leaders and crucially, how we have adapted as leaders.  To quote Superintendent Billings again, the driving force for us has been the need for children and their learning to be the priority.  Unlike some national systems and governments, we haven’t waited for Covid19 to “happen”: You can see the exemplars of this approach in the astonishing success of governments and leadership in places such as Taiwan and New Zealand. It was an honour to be asked by the Tony Little education and innovation research centre at Eton College earlier in the summer, to take part in a panel discussion on the importance of international education and, this month, I was asked to write a guest blog (below) on leadership of an international school during the Covid19 crisis.

I quoted Covey at the start of my blog because I have been watching a debate, of sorts, and not the awful “trad/prog” #edutwitter nonsense, a real, meaningful debate, throughout the Summer and into the Autumn around the role and nature of our leadership in this crisis in our schools and in our communities. In this pandemic, there are lots and lots of things we cannot control, many have rediscovered that fact, particularly in Europe where countries like France & Spain, have gone into a severe lockdown for a second time. There are though, many things we can influence and impact in our schools and local communities, if we have the will to do so and this is what Covey meant about being a product of our decisions. 

I understood the frustrations of a good colleague and fellow international school leader when he recently called upon school leaders to stop posting overly positive stories that gloss over the challenges, but to instead highlight the very real struggles and difficulties our schools have faced throughout this crisis, illustrate how tough the reality of school life is now and make clear the true number of schools who are at breaking point. A survey this week revealed the shocking number of school leaders who no longer want to continue after this crisis. From a societal point of view, losing good school leaders, or experienced school leaders, is another serious concern to add to the list for the rest of the 2020s. Having experienced this at Wyedean in 2015-16 when we faced the task of repairing and improving that school community, I know the efforts, time and energy it took to move Wyedean from a vicious cycle to a virtuous one and to build the positive culture of an outward facing school. I also know that modelling and practicing good leadership and building leadership capacity in an ever developing, widening team, was the key.  I am pleased to see that model also work now at Heritage: we are banishing the old concept of leadership from the historic legacy, reframing and reshaping it for our forward looking school community.  It is these brilliant leaders in Moldova who are getting us through the crisis right now. This is exactly the school leadership we need in our communities now and into the foreseeable future, pandemic or no pandemic.

Nevertheless, I disagree with my colleague on social media about posting positive, inspiring stories, because the act of leadership itself is a positive force not a negative one.  I know, game faces aside, we are only human too, not machines. This crisis has exhausted us all as we expect the late night calls and emails about cases, colleagues off and classes in isolation. The role we have now, indeed, the role we have always had in school leadership, is to continue to provide the certainty and the way forward with hope and optimism for our communities.  We are centre in the arena, not ineffective in the margins.  We chose this when we chose to lead and it is too important that we do not concede the ground to those whose poor decisions and actions will damage the next generation. The actions of Trump’s legal team or the morally bankrupt description of Patel’s bullying as unintentional and her inadequate apology, make it harder for me and my colleagues to tell our students that we respect authority and rules and that the people in public office are there for the public good.  In the same way though that serving a poor school leader in our careers can teach us what not to do, I believe this is where we are in our political societies around the World going into 2021.  When Van Jones cried on CNN as Biden’s victory was announced, most people with any sense of decency felt the same: Jones spoke for us all. Listen to The Black Eyed Peas & Jennifer Hudson sing “The Love” or listen to President Elect Biden recite Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” to understand the turning point we are at now at the end of 2020.

History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.”

What I have found time and time again in my career is the ability to walk through the school gates and immerse myself in the wonderful atmosphere of learning, hopes, dreams and the day to day of the lives and dramas of our children and young people that we serve.  That is what I have endeavoured to do even more so each and every day in this topsy-turvy pandemic year. That is what we have all done.  This has been the core of our leadership in 2020.  There is no typical day or week in school and at Heritage and since the return from the break, as restrictions tighten due to still rising case numbers and still so many failing to wear a mask to keep safe, the last few weeks seem to have had even more richness of educational opportunities than normal. That is quite the statement when we reflect on what our normal weeks look like.  The school’s social responsibilities continue as we have collected food and items for the local animal welfare shelter we support in Chisinau.  The school was selected to be involved in the Climate Action day project with the great Koen Timmers and represented Moldova as they heard many global figures, such as Sir David Attenborough, speak.  We were really proud that Chisinau’s Mayor Ceban also supported the event with a powerful message around sustainability and these past few months we have seen the huge increase in planting of trees in the country’s capital, already a very green city. The school’s Founder’ Lecture series continues to connect real World leaders and figures so our students have a more holistic education and real life learning opportunities and rather than just abstract ones. Every day, classrooms are connected to those around the World and we look at what is happening around us and put it into an understandable narrative and context for students to challenge, make sense of and ultimately own as their knowledge and wisdom. 

All of this is possible through the brilliant dedication of the teachers and support staff who have leaders working hard behind the scenes, with our parents, with the ministry and other bodies so we can continue going forward. Leadership in schools around the globe is also focussing on each stage of this crisis. As we get wiser and we recognise that we are now in this for the long haul. We have shed what doesn’t matter and we have prioritised sharply what we need to focus on. That has been a real paradigm shift in education this year and the defenders and guardians of already outdated testing and accountability models that never really supported a school and certainly didn’t help improve it, know it too.  Those snake oil sales advocates in education, not the educational consultants & groups who genuinely support educators and schools, definitely know it too as they shift to become “online teaching experts” or “leadership life coaches” despite having no grasp or empathy of what it means to be a leader of school community in this crisis. Students being put through the mill of exams for their own sake and there being no real finishing line in sight has also had its day, as young people look to the poor leadership around the World and are deciding this is not what they want for their futures. How can we tell 17 and 18 year old students in some countries, that their university exams in the summer mean everything, only for them to spend the Fall/Autumn under social restrictions and in many cases, effectively locked up? I’m with Van Jones this November. I want to be able to look young people in the eyes as a school leader. I’m also with Superintendent Billings, “collaboration is the strategy” and that has been an extremely effective and emerging force, against the grain of schools being put up against each other in pointless and destructive competition.

I am looking forward to having a special Thanksgiving meal in Heritage at the end of November, where our international community will share this special meal. My American colleagues will look at the traditions and history of it and, as we have learnt to do this year we will mark the special moments and we will give special thanks for the simple things we have in our lives such as our families, schools and friends.

Andreea Dorin on Matinalii

Leaders emphasise the importance of such things to their communities. They need inspiring stories and narratives of hope to bring us together and keep us together.  Thus, I want to conclude with a real success story of hope of a young individual Moldovan, a young person who represents the hope and optimism for the future that we have seen in this country & the energy of its people, even in these uncertain times.  Andreea Dorin is a young artist, whose mother is a brilliant, innovative and inspiring music teacher at Heritage. Andreea is the creator of the rainbow arch of hope that we started our new academic year with and the beautiful mural on our Oak Centre on the campus.  Andreea is now being sought by galleries in Madrid and for commissions in London.  The national news wanted to interview her this week about her mural and how it has inspired our school and education during this time.  Hope.

Michael Fullan, the great Canadian education writer, once famously asked “What is worth fighting for in education?”.  The answer is more clear this year than ever before.  Young people, the future and the hope for better days, that is what is worth fighting for now and we need the right kind of leadership to take this challenge on and win. I look to individuals like Andreea and I know my role as a leader is to get young people like her ready to assume their roles of leadership in our societies and communities ready for the future.  As my hero Kurt Hahn once said of our true purpose as leaders in education:

“If we cannot change the World ourselves, we might by creating leaders who can through education”.

Rob Ford

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