School Leadership in Times of Crises: the COVID-19 Pandemic was the topic discussed at a webinar hosted by the College of Humanities.
Speakers were academics Professor Jan Heystek of North West University, Professor Callie Grant of Rhodes University, retired educationist Dr Perumal Naicker, Dr Pinkie Mthembu of UKZN, school principal Dr Sikhulekile Ngcobo, and Professor Felix Maringe of WITS, with the event chaired by UKZN’s Professor Vitallis Chikoko.
Examining the relevance of the webinar and its topic, Chikoko said: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has become a crucible within which and eventually out of which we must understand and enact leadership differently. There has never been a more compelling time than now for us to engage others in shared meaning. Schools need cutting-edge adaptive leadership capacity. It is time for compelling voices.’
Heystek noted that while there were challenges, there were also real opportunities for real leaders to create a new vision for schools as well as in the education system at the macro level and change the attitude, structure and methodology of teaching. This would include the provision and priority of education in the system.
‘The biggest potential challenge in the plan is that the Department cannot deliver on the sanitation and social distancing requirements demanded by the unions. The Department needs to balance academic and health priorities and it is therefore the responsibility of the Government to show they can provide education for all safely. This balance is nearly impossible at this stage since nobody knows how the scenario will pan out,’ said Heystek.
Grant spoke about her own experience of being part of a team leading a university education department during the COVID-19 pandemic and how their leadership practices have had to abruptly adapt because of the pandemic. Using the concepts of absence and presence, Grant showed how the daily ways of leading and managing have altered, possibly irrevocably, and what this might mean for educational leadership going forward. ‘Leadership work during and post the pandemic, whether it be in schools or universities, will need to be reconceptualised as “an ethics of collective care”, characterised as welfare care and pedagogical care,’ she said.
Retired educationist Naicker noted that the danger to school leadership was reacting in crisis mode. ‘What is evident is that there seems to be a disconnect between the various sectors hence the absence of integrated plans for what the post COVID-19 period will look like. Whether we can salvage this academic year will be decided by when the virus-spread peaks. There should be proposals for the worst-case scenario such as losing the entire year, a shortened academic year for all learners and a third alternative that seeks to salvage the current matric year. Educational leadership at all levels should grasp this as an opportunity to plan for the future,’ he said.
Naicker believes that should a second or third wave of the crisis or even a brand new crisis arise, schools must be ready to tackle it based on a blueprint prepared for such contingencies. ‘As leaders, we need to respond by thinking strategically about using this phase, and what is to follow in the months ahead, as an opportunity to change direction, strengthen various areas of teaching and learning and bring in fresh ideas about doing the same thing differently in the classrooms. This, however, hinges on how best we manage the present.’
Mthembu argued that the situation was too complex and unpredictable to come up with a complete solution that would cater for all diverse contexts. She suggested everyone join forces and offer workable solutions and flexibility. ‘Education system leaders need to see this as the opportunity to deal with the deep-rooted inequalities that still persist. Such unprecedented complexity and uncertainty, needs a bottom-up, solution-orientated approach and not dictates from above.’
Ngcobo said school leadership was in a position where it had to learn new ways of teaching and called for school communities to be exposed to E Learning.
‘As much as everyone would like to see learners going back to school it is unsafe for now as we have not yet managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve. The exit grades in both primary and secondary schools can be sent back to schools but only if healthy measures are in place at all schools. If the exit grades resume, they will create space for the other grades next year,’ said Ngcobo.
In his presentation, Maringe outlined basic elements to inform resilient leadership in times of crisis in the different types of schools in South Africa. He argued for a tour stage leadership development programme for resilient schools involving responsive capacity, adaptive capacity, transformative capacity and anticipatory capacity.
Maringe said the national lockdown should have provided an opportunity to think about what ‘we could have done; what we should have done; what we could do now and what we need to do in future. These were the questions any responsible leader should be asking about their school.
‘Leadership in times of crisis teaches us a big lesson about leading for resilience; the need to build resilient schools, resilient staff, and resilient teaching and learning practices,’ he said.
‘Resilience theory is based on the understanding that our organisations should be able to respond; adjust; transform and anticipate future disruptions in ways that allow normal functioning to proceed without loss to the academic programme.’