Blog: What matters most when leading in a crisis

12 May 2020

Steve Whittle, Principal of Hayes School and Senior Partner of the Impact Alliance Hub, shares his reflections on leading through crisis and what really matters most

In the early days of uncertainty, when children passed me in the corridor or saw me in the lunch queue, I was constantly asked “Will school be closing?” I simply told them that I would close when I got the call from Boris. (I think they still think that I have some hotline to the PM!)

It was easy to speculate, to draw up plans for the unknown and to waste time as the sands shifted almost hourly. I considered it important to focus on managing the here and now, while preparing for what was known and inevitable, notably implementing remote learning policy and practice for the closure of school to all but a very small number of students. I am proud of the way in which as a whole staff we kept things normal for as long as possible for our students, despite increasing levels of staff and student absence due to self-isolation.

In school-style COBRA meetings, I was determined that the leadership I provided and demanded of my colleagues was decisive, distributed and avoided distraction

We came together for a slice of pizza and drink as a staff body on Friday 20 March (at a time when the talk was more about handwashing than social distancing). The combination of exhaustion and emotion led to my voice cracking and the tears started to flow as I expressed my thanks and pride in the whole staff team, reminding them that our school community was much more than a set of buildings, which we would be vacating in the short term.

I now know more than ever how true this was, how my own emotions mirrored those of so many others, and how important the next phase of school leadership was going to be for the students, staff and parents of our school.

In every school up and down the country we have responded to new circumstances to protect the vulnerable, support the disadvantaged and look after the emotional wellbeing of our staff, children and young people.

The next phase of leadership has both demanded and been driven by a desire to connect and communicate.

Innovative ways to communicate with staff, students and parents have evolved. Our staff receive a daily digest email, which not only shares key information, streamlining and reducing (hopefully) the volume of work-related emails, but also shares the personal insights and reflections on lockdown of me and my Vice Principals.

As so many others have done, we have produced online assemblies, online staff meetings, a photo quiz and video montage of the school. We have also been inspired by those schools producing parody music videos to popular music. ‘Shout out’ nominations from students to teachers and support staff have reminded us of the value of what we are doing and the appreciation of this by those we serve; and a staff bingo night reminded us of just how much we enjoy (and have missed) each other’s company.

The decision to maintain our weekly newsletter was, at first, a real worry as I anticipated that nothing newsworthy would be taking place. Instead, our newsletters have never been more packed with examples of student work reflecting their creativity, charitable acts and good deeds in the local community.

If the two weeks prior to Easter were a dress rehearsal for longer-term school closure, then it quickly became apparent the need to re-establish line management, to introduce a revised staff wellbeing and coaching offer, and to remind staff of the bigger picture in terms of the priorities for the term ahead. We have set new expected standards for online learning developed our quality assurance, teaching and learning protocols and other ‘normal’ processes to meet new needs. Working from home and the demographics of our staff have resulted in a significant increase in the number of lone workers within our organisation. In our contact and communications, and in devising the rotas for staff in school within our keyworker provision, we have been mindful of those staff who live alone, many of whom have been quick to volunteer and have welcomed the opportunity to interact with students and colleagues in school.

Our staff have been required to ‘report to work’ each day and, formally and informally, our teams have had each other’s backs, checking in on those from whom they do not hear or those they know to have been unwell.

All of our decisions have been driven by a recognition of the challenges and demands on all parties in this ‘new normal’. We have sought to balance the needs of our students and families, to reduce inequity as far as possible and to recognise the demands on our staff as they, along with so many others, take on the role of home tutor to their own families. I have had to remind hardworking staff that ‘good enough is good enough’.

An early survey of students, teachers and parents drove home how much the human interaction and ‘teacher voice’ was missing from our lessons. In standing our ground in respect of the decision not to live stream lessons, I took the decision to suspend online learning for a day to focus on a remote INSET Day for staff: the result of this has been increased teacher confidence in the use of a range of technologies and an improved experience for our learners. Teachers are now using audio, video recording and other interactive tools to connect and communicate with students and to support direct instruction in the now virtual classroom. As a result of this, I remain hopeful that we may sustain the motivation and engagement of our learners (and teachers?) for longer.

Setting lessons online for my own classes, making weekly calls to designated vulnerable students and participating in the weekly safeguarding meeting has kept me grounded to reality and to the experience of my teachers and students.

I have never felt more proud to lead nor felt such a great burden of responsibility to provide calm, assured leadership to students, staff, parents and the wider community at a time of such uncertainty.

Inspired by the most recent online Challenge Partners Senior Partners meeting, I am now excited about re-connecting our hub and finding new ways of working - sharing and growing to make sure that none of us stand still in the coming weeks. I am certain we can steer our ships through unchartered waters more successfully and with greater confidence by working together and sharing our concerns and worries.

Does it really take a global pandemic to make us focus on the things that really matter? – the strength of relationships and the importance of how we look after ourselves and each other above everything else.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

  • This blog was originally written as a letter to Hayes School Governors