In early February, leaders from 40 Prizmah schools met virtually to unpack their experiences this year in a session facilitated by Future Design School. They reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus on education, including ever-changing health protocols, steep technology learning curves, disparate levels of student engagement, scheduling and communication challenges. More importantly, however, they identified the one attribute of educational leadership that superseded all others in importance in the Covid-19 era: agility.
The pandemic underscored the vitality of pivoting quickly, of trying new things and of reexamining entrenched practices. What became critical was leadership that focused less on perfection and more on action. It was necessary not just to weather the storm, but also to see the potential for opportunities to empower people and to evolve processes, protocols and permissions within a school. Though this approach has long been utilized by entrepreneurs and business innovators, it is less commonly seen in schools, where leadership is often shared, and where measurement and adherence to standards take priority. A school that is led with agility is able to react to sudden and gradual shifts in the world and proactively cultivates a change-oriented culture to embrace new paradigms.
Agile leaders are equal parts collaborative and decisive. They exhibit a healthy mix of humility and chutzpah. They understand that momentum breeds momentum, and they reflect backward to look forward. Most of all, they are empathetic. They understand the needs and experiences of everyone in their orbit. Here’s how leaders and stakeholders in a school can work together to make it happen.
The New Normal
First, a learning community must collectively define its new normal. This means examining recent changes to assess their short-term effectiveness and longer-term potential, and also reinforcing a culture of agility within a school community. During our session with the Prizmah small school leaders, for example, we asked them to contemplate how they adapted communication channels, supported wellbeing, removed barriers, redesigned structures and systems, and enabled change in response to unprecedented circumstances. Crucially, we then worked with them to leverage these key learnings in order to anticipate change, reveal pathways, and stress test strategies and policies in the months and years to come.
Now, more than ever, leaders at all levels within a school must be prepared to expect the unexpected and to be adaptable to external forces. This does not mean that they all must speak with one voice; diverse perspectives are vital.
But it does mean ensuring that everyone is moving in the same direction and is equipped with the tools to take an open- minded approach to whatever lies ahead.
Take, for example, the downstream impact on schools of the redefinition of the 9-to-5 workday. Many businesses are rethinking the necessity for employees to travel daily between home and office. What does this mean for schools? Answering this question requires an agile approach, with board members, through their connection to the business world, offering insights into new options for work spaces and connections, and heads of school and their administrators translating these trends through the lens of the teachers, students and parents they represent.
School leaders can foster an entrepreneurial mindset by removing barriers, valuing speed over perfection, emphasizing implementation and pivoting over time. Even the most deeply considered and exhaustively researched pedagogical approaches are often found to be fallible—including the times of day that learning takes place, the purpose and value of students spending time inside a classroom.
Covid-19 has brought about many revisions in our thinking. Though it took a tremendous toll on our world, the pandemic has the potential to be a vital incubator of new ideas and ways of doing things. Worldwide, schools have pivoted on things they thought were unchangeable. In some cases, there are benefits to these reactive shifts, such as school schedules that take a more intensive, less-fragmented approach and an increased emphasis on authentic, experiential learning opportunities. Virtual classrooms and journey-based assessment (valuing the process of learning over the end product) may be better than what they replaced. Identifying opportunities for growth at all times, even in the midst of a crisis, is the cornerstone of agile leadership.
One great illustration of this concept in action: Rundle Studio, a new initiative at Rundle Academy in Calgary, Alberta, that will be Canada’s first and only online school dedicated to the teaching and learning of students with diagnosed learning disabilities and/or ADHD. The idea emerged thanks to an entrepreneurially oriented leader at the school thinking deeply about what lies ahead for the school, and seeking ways to reach more students who would benefit from their program. We helped to shape the program through strategy sessions with Rundle leadership and key stakeholders. The resulting program will use a unique program-delivery system to maintain personalized connections while online, keep class sizes small and deliver the curriculum in ways that enable students with learning disabilities to reach their potential.
Adapting the Pace
Agility does not mean constant change for its own sake. It is incumbent upon leaders to maintain the trajectory of innovation but adapt the pace. School leaders must work together to listen to, support and empathize with the teachers, students and parents. It’s about being bold but also human, and providing a rhythm of innovation and iteration that works for the learning community.
During a recent strategy session, a Midwest school district told us that the pandemic helped them to recognize that some previous barriers to innovation were actually illusions. As a result, they sped up initiatives like promoting student agency and independence building, using virtual tools to foster community connections, and empowering teachers to push changes in assessment practices and expedite the use of innovative learning tools to make student thinking visible. But this agility was underpinned by a deep, established commitment to collaboration, and open lines of communication between all stakeholders, which requires ongoing nurturing in order to remain sustainable.
To help make this happen, leadership teams need to deploy themselves across the change management spectrum and give opportunities for teachers and staff to authentically surface new ideas and express their needs for development.
Empowering leadership from the middle of a school and creating space for change within different spheres of influence can be deeply impactful. Heads of school and administration can be the conduit to bring these changes to life by providing training and support to those struggling to keep up. Data collection and assessment must be conducted in a fulsome and actionable manner to understand each team member’s unique starting point in an effort to build their skills and competency in an individualized way.
Everyone starts somewhere on a change continuum. Just as it is vital to meet students where they’re at, leaders need to understand their team, know them deeply and help lead them through change. Agile leaders must know what kinds of support their communities need to bring new ideas to life.
Education is constantly evolving. Schools need to adapt to survive. Leading with agility allows schools to let innovation take root. Moments of change, consciously cultivated, can result in an environment that celebrates collaboration, action, empowerment and great ideas.