It’s been a tough year for optimists.
Granted, it’s been a really tough year for everyone. But optimists have been hit pretty hard in all of this. Politics, the COVID-19 pandemic and the guilt and uncertainty around class closures and reopening have tested even the most fervently optimistic school leaders. When the world started shutting down and UK schools abruptly closed the majority of their classes in April 2020, big dreams and strategy were replaced with short-term operational triage. Whichever way any of us looked at it, there really didn’t seem to be much of an upside.
Children and school communities everywhere looked to school leaders for certainty. But who could school leaders turn to for support? To address this gap, Bond and Coyne, an award-winning creative strategy agency, introduced two former headteachers, Karine George and myself, Alex Bell; each of us regarded nationally and internationally as innovators, risk-takers and relentless optimists in education. With stories of school leaders in the UK and internationally having unprecedented stresses placed upon them, it was time to think beyond the obvious leadership support that would work under ‘normal’ conditions. There were no norms, and limited reference points. But that made the mission all the more compelling. The circumstances around COVID-19 had certainly thrown educators a terrible pile of lemons. Was it naïve to even think that we could help them make lemonade?
From our initial Zoom conversations, it became clear that we had a moral imperative to try. Back in April, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Andreas Schleicher (2020) was asked what his hopes were for the ‘new normal’ in education, a phrase that quickly emerged around the same time. His answer echoed those from discussions happening amongst our educator networks. Whatever ‘normal’ had been in education, there was a genuine reluctance to go straight back to it. There was an appetite to approach education differently from here onwards.
We went on to develop Leadership Lemonade, a live and responsive online webinar workshop programme for school leaders, that aims to do two things:
- To give the most practical, immediate support and advice possible for school leaders to make sense of and act on. No dense recommendations or lists – just succinct advice and questions answered in the moment, from trusted peer practitioners and thought-leaders globally.
- To build a confident, self-supporting community to dare to dream beyond COVID-19 and #buildbackbetter. We were determined something good had to come from all of this.
Our work as leadership coaches and consultants in the field, together with our dialogue with academic and research communities convinced us that school leaders felt overwhelmed, vulnerable and hugely responsible to their communities going through hardship. We wanted to enable school leaders to make sense of what they were facing, both personally and professionally, and to plan their way out of the crisis with a sense of hope.
To work towards our aims, we first focused on the arc of five short, sharp sessions – each lasting an hour, at 5pm every Monday and Wednesday. We also shared a toolkit of three must-have resources at the end of each session that would be immediately useful for use with children, staff, governors or parents. We put a call out on social media to our national and international networks and quickly reached our target of 25 UK and global participant school leaders.
Session one started with a brain-dump of absolutely everything that was keeping our school leaders awake at night. Despite widely varying contexts, the themes were exactly the same: child welfare, staff mental health and burnout, technical limitations, the impossible task of trying to fill information gaps and a craving to make better use of outdoor learning.
Each individual concern was picked up and addressed throughout the following sessions. We also introduced input from a community communications expert to support our school leaders with techniques for clear, concise communication to ensure that whatever families were hearing in the media, they would have real confidence in their school as a trusted source for what would happen next.
Session two involved a panel of global school leaders, ready for our group to ask them anything about how they’d approached education during lockdown. Session three offered practical advice on blended learning and working with governors and school boards to make lasting change in our schools, on our own terms. The fourth session asked our participants to follow our group coaching ‘silent disco’ and ‘spotlight coaching’ models adapted from Whitmore’s (2002) GROW model to decide on an audacious goal that would make lasting change to them and their whole school community. We were keen to build a self-supporting community. This was no time to be bombarding leaders with content and then leaving them on their own. We moved on to make pledges to ourselves and choose a partner to help us hold ourselves to account. By session five, we knew we’d done much more than just help our school leaders out of the pit. We’d given them a sense of control and a reframed sense of hope and purpose. We had also built a community, with individuals and whole leadership teams from the UK and across the world.
Overwhelmingly, our participants told us that what worked was the brevity and responsiveness of the first two sessions that dealt purely with the urgent and operational, balanced with a more nuanced and reflective approach once they were able to think strategically again. The format of 5pm over five nights in just over a fortnight was easy to plan for and remember in the diary. One participant summed up how Leadership Lemonade had got her through the crisis:
“Hearing leaders from across the world with the same issues in a different context was reassuring. Input from people outside of education that we don’t normally get, helped us ‘sort out the muddle’, focus strategically away from the operational and get to the nub of what we actually want to do.”
Leadership Lemonade participant Suzie Featherstone-Wright, Berkshire, UK
We are now a close-knit group of national and global school leaders ready to support each other, ready to welcome in many others to the group and ready for whatever post-lockdown, post-reopening, post-COVID-19 challenge might be on the horizon. As optimists, we hope for the best, but we make every plan we can to prepare for the very worst. It would be dangerous and naïve not to do that and to do it without hope.
Our top three tips for the next wave of challenges we will face in September:
- Find your support network. Who has been there a few weeks before whatever you’re going through and has the answers you need there and then? You may need to look internationally.
- Stay close to those who’ve got your back. Who can you open up to without judgement when you don’t know what to do?
- Authenticity is what staff and families need from now on. There used to be a time for professional distance, but ask yourself, is that really as helpful anymore?
We’re now looking forward to our next stage of the programme, building on all the learning from the previous run.
Schleicher A (2020) HundrED Webinar with Andreas Schleicher. HundrED. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOl-E_Vc49k (accessed 14 September 2020).
Whitmore J (2002) Coaching for Performance: GROWING people, performance and purpose. London: Nichols Brealey Publishing.