School leaders in the Middle East are facing a perfect storm. The combined effects of the Covid-19 Black Swan event are hitting the economy, education, health and society simultaneously. Inboxes are overflowing with emails that range from the latest on-line tool promising turbocharged learning, to spreadsheets forecasting losses in fee income. ‘Leadership in challenging times’, a conventional academic description of events, doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of school leaders in the last month.
In the middle of the storm, school leaders have responded brilliantly using their full professional repertoire of skills and knowledge. Leading a school in the Middle East is a tough gig that attracts the best in the business: right now it requires that blend of lead professional and chief executive roles which characterize the role.
Plans are now being put together for full summer term closure. We are moving from the sprint to get on-line teaching plans in place, to what will feel like a triathlon for everyone. Parents find themselves in the role of teachers and need guidance. Many schools are already experiencing high volume calls and on-line feedback about student work from parents.
Migrating to an on-line learning system overnight brings its own challenges. The core tradecraft of teachers is rooted in the classroom. All those basic assumptions of what works and how you know it works must be revisited, from foundation stage to A level and the IB. There is a multitude of on-line platforms to choose from – that’s the relatively easy bit.
Keeping learning going is much harder. Teaching at home creates a new social dynamic and school leaders will set the culture and expectations of what’s expected. We have already seen some heads plan lessons at home for their own younger children only to give up by mid-morning and simply enjoy themselves with creative fun activities. That’s fine in the short-term but sensible learning routines for the long-haul are needed for the months ahead. Guiding parents to aim for the right balance of learning, dealing with children’s anxieties about Covid-19, and knowing when to cut the slack and make space is essential.
Advice is needed too for teaching teenagers at home who are ‘individuating’ as young adults and looking to spread their wings. The biggest skill required here for home teaching is negotiation and to avoid stand offs. Unless parents are experts in physics or geography for example, their teenagers will probably know more about their exam subjects and have a rhythm of study established. They may appear distracted by their phones but know how to make progress with their studies.
Most importantly, parents need permission to have ‘bad days’. Every teacher knows that some days can be written off – parents need to know that’s OK.
Meanwhile, leaders also need to devise new ways to moderate staff workload and foster well-being. As boundaries between work and the rest of life merge, the evidence shows adults are working longer hours. Teachers are social creatures and ‘people people’ who are accustomed to full-on contact at school. The sudden lock-down will not be good for many teachers’ mental health and they need regular check-ins and the ubiquitous Zoom time together.
What about the impact on leaders themselves?
Leadership can be lonely and school leaders are highly exposed right now. When I visit schools anywhere in the world my final question to the head is usually ‘who looks after you?’ Very few leaders are able to say confidently that they have a strong support network in place. They habitually look out for everyone else but not necessarily themselves, which drains the emotional bank account. And they may be experiencing unrealistic pressure from governors and owners to keep the school performing educationally and financially.
At times of crisis knowing that someone ‘has your back’ is crucial, as every day high level decisions are being made by the head on the front line. As retired General Colin Powell said in his Leadership Primer, ‘the commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon wrong, unless proved otherwise’ and that’s authentic wisdom. Yet, all leaders are imperfect and will make mistakes if they fly solo and don’t make the most of their senior teams. Mentors are invaluable and networking essential. School leaders need that check-in routine just like their teachers do.
The role of government regulators is key here to moderate the education system, by introducing flexibility on any policies that could produce pinch points for school leaders and governors. In Dubai the KHDA has moved fast, adapting policies in recognition of the Covid-19 situation whilst gathering a treasure trove of on-line materials and guidance.
It’s too early to predict the long-term outcomes of Covid-19. We know that the symbiosis between the economy and education sector will continue and schools in the Middle East are at the sharp interface. Demand for school places has dropped already. Indications are that distance learning and blended learning models are here to stay with much improved technology. The search is on for an education system that is both efficient and effective: in other words, one which continues the vital social functions of school, but builds in learning for the twenty first century and is affordable. Covid-19 has accelerated thinking about this already.
An optimistic take on the long-term can be summarized in one word: henosis. This is the ancient Greek word for ‘oneness’ or ‘unity’. It’s relevant here because the economist F.A. Hayek argued that forms of collaboration that emerge spontaneously from society are the strongest in the long-term. We are seeing support networks and new kinds of modus operandi springing up across the education sector. Inventiveness is blended with compassion and driven by vocation. The Middle East school system will emerge stronger, tempered by events, with new ways of working for the decade ahead. Ramadan offers a timely opportunity to slow down, reflect and plan this journey ahead.
Colin Diamond CBE
Professor of Education Leadership
University of Birmingham Dubai