Five priorities for education leaders in the next normal

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This post has been prompted by a recent McKinsey article I read titled What matters most? Five priorities for CEOs in the next normal. It’s one of a series from McKinsey on how leaders can adapt to a different future. I need to acknowledge this from the outset as the source of the five priorities I’ve used below – my post here is simply a reflection on how these might apply specifically to the context of educational leadership, most particularly, school leaders.

The driver for this reflection is the experience we’ve all had of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As the McKinsey article notes, the pandemic has both revealed and accelerated a number of trends that will play a substantial role in the shape of the future global economy – and, I would add, education!

It’s pretty clear that most educators, students and parents are looking forward to a ‘return to normal’ as the rate of vaccinations increases and the need for lockdowns decreases. Many argue, for example, that the education of young people is a ‘contact sport’ (as I heard it referred to on the news) and requires the in-person presence of teacher with students, and students with other students. I’d certainly agree that the opportunities for social interaction and collaborative activity provided within the context of a physical ‘school’ environment play a significant part in the development of social, emotional and physical wellbeing of learners. For most, they thrive the immediacy and connection within these sorts of environments. But is physical proximity essential for every student for every part of their development? What has been revealed to us about the differences in the ways learners learn, and the ways teachers teach, that we might want to take notice of as we prepare for the ‘new normal’?

So what are the signals for us as educational leaders? What are the trends that have been revealed that we should be taking notice of? And what should our priorities be to ensure we are well prepared for this ‘new normal’ (whatever that may be). Here’s my take on the McKinsey priorities for school leaders…

1. Centre strategy on sustainability

McKinsey’s advice for businesses is that they must act to ensure that sustainability is more than a buzzword. So must schools.

I see three reasons for this being a priority for schools. First, schools must work to remain relevant in the context of the world they are preparing young people for. The sustainability of a school, like a business, will require it to operate in ways that are agile, responsive to change, and adaptive to the identified needs of those who are involved in it (staff and students.) This will require consideration of new and/or different ways of meeting organisational requirements, including protocols for decision making and accountability processes.

Second, as a part of reviewing their operational processes, school leaders should be considering the extent to which they are modelling sustainable practices everyday. This includes embedding sustainability practices as a key focus of all policies, and being explicit with staff, students and parents/whānau about how these are informing all decisions being made. Easy examples to think of here might be school recycling programmes (though these must go well beyond simply having differentiated bins for the different categories of trash – there needs to be a commitment to following the disposal of each type in an ecologically sustainable way.) But there’s also a lot fo supply-side things to consider, including investment in the everyday things that students use – classroom resources, often designed to be disposed of after single use etc.

Thirdly, sustainability must become a key focus within the taught curriculum. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide an excellent context for studies across all areas of the curriculum, for example. Sustainability as a context for learning should not simply be an option. It should be a priority. Addressing these things isn’t simply a case of doing what’s ‘trendy’ or ‘politically correct’ – it’s a matter of urgency to ensure the health of the planet and its environment that our young people will be able to live and thrive in into the future.

2. Transform in the cloud

As businesses experienced the impact of changes to their traditional supply chain as a result of COVID, so did schools. With the move to online transactions the potential of the cloud, which has been identified for some time now, has now become grounded in reality. As a result we are much more ware of what works – and what doesn’t.

The challenge for school leaders now is to identify and leverage the potential of digital tools and the cloud that has been revealed through the lockdown experience. This includes the value of having access to good digital content and digital tools for engaging with and creating that content. It includes the opportunities that online communications technologies provide for engaging with parents/whānau and with the wider community. And it includes the opportunities created to provide access to expertise and learning opportunities not available within the local school setting.

The priority here must be to accelerate schools’ digital strategies, ensuring they are aligned with what is happening nationally and internationally, so that teacher, students and parents/whānau may benefit from the opportunities this provides. Of course, these strategies must also address the issues of cyber-security, the digital divide and digital well-being will require attention as we all become more active citizens of the digital world.

3. Cultivate your talent

Just like in any business, schools must recognise that talent is the most important natural resource they have. Effective school leaders coach and empower small teams; deploy talent based on skills, not hierarchy; and fill gaps through appropriate PLD.

Our data on the recruitment and retention of staff in schools makes for bleak reading. For at least the past two decades we’ve seen patterns of high teacher turn-over, frustration about limited career prospects among young teachers and high levels of teacher burnout and diminishing job satisfaction.

While much attention for these things is, quite appropriately, focused on policy and resourcing concerns at a national level, that shouldn’t stop school leaders exploring different ways of working with and supporting staff at the local school level. The fact is that, despite the concerns across the country as a whole, there are a number of stand-out schools that ‘buck the trend’ and manage to retain vibrant, effective and innovative staff by focusing on in-school coaching and mentoring programmes, replacing hierarchical management with innovation teams, and fostering effective career planning through engaging and purposeful PLD programmes that meet individual needs, but also contribute to growing the capability and capacity of the school staff as a whole.

4. Press the need for speed

The pandemic lockdowns forced schools to move fast – they had no choice. The priority now must be to sustain that speed by designing it into the way schools (and our education system) operates.

That said, I must acknowledge that working at speed is exhausting, particularly when the need for speed is the result of a large scale, unanticipated (and often traumatic) event. I therefore acknowledge the many school leaders who are taking action to protect their staff and are taking actions to reduce the amount of stress being felt as a result of the recent lockdowns.

Having said that, we can’t simply leave things there. Education has been notoriously slow to change and adapt. The lockdowns demonstrated that it is possible to organise and deliver learning differently – and to make this change at speed.

The secret here is the old adage “go slow to go fast”. It draws on the famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln who said: “If you give me eight hours to cut down a tree, I’ll use the first six hours to sharpen the axe.” The point is, to move fast we must put the time into preparation.

This was the difference I observed in schools as we experienced our second period of lockdown. In the first it was a surprise for everyone – a sudden shift in the conditions that affected everyone. While some schools seemed to respond to the second lockdown as they did for the first (surprised, un-prepared), for others it was more seamless as they’d taken stock of what was learned from the first experience and worked intentionally to ensure the right resources, processes and ways of working were in place should a further disruption occur.

McKinsey suggests we should think of speed as a muscle to be developed. As school leaders we should hone our skills at anticipating shifts in demand and prepare ahead of time so that a rapid response can be made when required.

5. Operate with purpose

My observation is that most schools have worked hard in the area of defining their purpose. The words of Simon Sinek’s “Find your why” resonate with most educators. This is because teachers want to work in schools that have a sense of purpose—and will leave if they don’t find it. A school’s purpose must reflect the beliefs of its leadership, staff and community. As such, it strengthens resilience and creates value – as long as it is authentic.

McKinsey notes that companies that execute with purpose are more likely to generate long-term value. The same applies to schools. Of course, it’s one thing to have your purpose defined in your school mission statement – it’s another to see it lived out in the actions of staff and students on a daily basis.

There are now libraries of books devoted to this topic so I don’t intend to repeat the lessons here. Suffice to say, as a point of reflection, it’s interesting to note the reactions to and responses made about the lockdown experience, and the extent to which these reflected a strong sense of alignment – or dissonance – with the espoused purpose of the school.

Most obvious to me were the differences noted between schools where the emphasis went immediately onto maintaining continuity of learning, vs. those who took immediate steps to address the wellbeing of staff, students and their parents/whānau. Where the continuity of learning was a focus, it was also interesting to note the requirement made by some schools focused on the importance of attendance and interaction with the teacher (in the form of relentless Zoom meetings) vs engagement with learning tasks (provided via a learning management system or similar).

In making these observations I’m not suggesting a value judgement be made. Rather, it’s a prompt for school leaders intent on prioritising purpose as the centrepiece of how their school operates to reflect on just how the responses of students and staff in each setting align with the espoused purpose for the school.

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