By Sharyn Baddeley, Principal at Beijing International Bilingual Academy. 29th March, 2020
Our school community is now about to commence our 8th week of on-line teaching and learning. During this period of time I have not had the chance to sit down and reflect on our journey thus far. There has not been time — I also never imagined that we would now be planning for the possibility of the school not resuming normality before the end of the academic year here in China.
No amount of training or experience could have prepared school leaders for the challenges that I have experienced. This situation will certainly test leadership capabilities and to handle extremely stressful situations whilst remaining calm and positive.
As a school, we were only provided with less than one week to plan and coordinate and implement an on-line learning and teaching program across the whole school, 1700 students and over 360 staff. We have faced many challenges, one of the most significant being that the majority of our teaching staff were located in over 26 different countries, with many not having their teaching resources or computers with them. As this unprecedented school closure event occurred during the Chinese New Year holidays. Most staff had travelled to other countries to spend some cherished time soaking up the warm weather or meeting family and friends at half way points around the world. No-one planned for the upheaval that was coming their way.
Staff were suddenly stranded in other countries for an indefinite period of time, creating unexpected financial hardships due to the inability to access bank accounts and the additional living costs of extending hotel accommodation which had not been budgeted for.
The on-line teaching and learning was relatively easy to plan and organise, however, the greatest leadership challenge was dealing with staff anxieties and stress resulting from the rollercoaster of emotions due to worries concerning financial hardships, job security, family wellbeing, health issues, and just, the unknown.
I was fortunate in that I have experienced crisis management in my career and immediately put my critical response plan into action. It was clear that our School Community was relying on strong leadership based on clear communication to alleviate concerns, promote positivity and most importantly to ensure all staff were informed. Daily reporting was the norm, necessary due to the constant change with Government policy. On quieter news days, it allowed opportunities to communicate praise, thanks, or to share positive news on student learning and teacher achievement. Letters were, and still are being sent weekly, to all facets of the School Community whilst staff also receive daily video messages. As the majority of staff were, and still are, located around the world different forms of communication was essential, as not all are able to access reliable internet connection. The information I provide is always honest and truthful. If I am unable to answer a question I would explain why — often necessary due to the frequent, daily changes to policy. I would always let them know I would find out and then respond as soon as possible. Even though I was and still am working extremely long hours and dealing with very challenging situations with Government and staff — I would ensure I remained calm and very positive.
I would always provide staff with opportunities to contribute to decisions which impacted them directly. Often, it was during these times when wonderful ideas were shared and all felt they were contributing positively to the situation we all were facing. I would share all communication we received from the Government directly — I did not wait for translation to occur because this often took additional time and I know staff could use their translation apps to assist them.
As mentioned above, no amount of leadership experience or training could prepare Principals or School Leaders for the vast challenges that resulted from this unparalleled event that resulted in school closure and the necessity to conduct on-line teaching and learning. For me to outline the specific, constant challenges that I have faced would require pages to document, my advice to leaders during this period of time is to provide clear, authentic, frequent communication. Ensuring that all leadership teams within the school community are also informed and up-to-date with regard to decision making is also extremely important. Finally, the wellbeing of all members of the community is critical and asking the question “how are you?” is a very important question that all community members should be asking, not just school leaders.
I thought heroes
Were supposed to be invincible
But then I saw
The battle wounds
Traced across your skin
And I realized
You might not be invincible.
But you are the strongest hero
I could ask for
(Challenges) fight a war inside you,
Never giving you a rest,
And you still build up
The strength to ask everyone else
“How are you?”
— M.H. (anonymous)
F3 poetry courtesy of Leading from Within (Jossey-Bass, 2007), by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, editors.