Is definitely not my style. I am a people person. I like to see people, talk to them face to face. Until last month, I only sent emails when absolutely necessary, held meetings when essential information had to be shared. I would much rather pop into someone’s classroom for a quick chat, speak to them over the table at lunchtime or in the corridor. It is so easy to say “Yes I am fine thanks” on an email; so much harder to look someone in the eye when you’re feeling terrible and say the same thing.
In today’s world, we have had to adapt, to change, be flexible and resilient. The hardest of all the ethical leadership values for me to role model has been optimism – how do you exude hope and optimism when the world around you is gloomy and dark?
I would describe myself as a resilient person and one who is eternally optimistic so here, I draw on my experience and think about the positives of leading from a laptop.
I have long since been a champion of flexible working. Roles within my school are advertised with the line “applications are welcome from candidates who want to work flexibly”. I always ask at interview what flexibility looks like for the applicant as it means different things to different people. Now more than ever, teachers are working creatively and flexibly and this should be celebrated. Most recently, the online meetings I have organised are scheduled carefully so that staff can juggle the rest of their life as well as contribute to the meeting.
Leading from a laptop means that we need to know which of our staff have very young children, making the plates of “teaching” and “home” even harder to spin; we need to know who is looking after elderly or vulnerable parents; doing their shopping or collecting medicines. It is up to me to know who is struggling emotionally with the uncertain world and who is in a position where their partner could be made redundant. When you are face to face with your colleagues, this is often easier to do. Long distance, remote working, it is very difficult to do. But in these uncertain times it is absolutely essential that we make time to know our colleagues well. One of the positives from this situation is the honesty and trust that has developed from some really difficult conversations. The team know that I am on their side, I have their back and trust them to do their job.
We have to appreciate that not everyone is available all of the time. My own children are 13 and 15 and very independent. However, there were days last week when I moved from staff recruitment, to helping with Geography homework (15 year old), budgets, science homework (with the younger one), equations (15 year old), School Risk Assessment, recovery planning and it goes on… We all have our own challenges and as a leader we must be flexible and adaptable enough to respond to the needs of our staff. Constant communication, respect for others and trust are the key ingredients to making this work.
We have used Microsoft 365 as a way of ensuring effective communication. Schemes of learning are planned collaboratively on SharePoint, Teams allows us to chat, discuss and share documents within and between subjects. All remote learning is set on Go4Schools so that students and their parents are all seeing the same resources and the same instructions – this keeps the message consistent and clear.
Personal Tutors are making weekly phone calls and are in regular email contact with their tutees; this has been the most important and mutually beneficial aspect of remote learning. Relationships have been built and maintained; staff and students know each other in a way that wasn’t evident before. As a teacher or a student, this human contact during times of potential isolation is a wonderful opportunity to connect.
The curriculum map that is usually on the wall in school, is now on a shared spreadsheet which everyone can see and contribute to. Meetings take place via Teams so that face to face communication isn’t lost. We have even planned a virtual staff Friday night social so that people don’t feel isolated!
Line managers check in with their colleagues to see how they are doing and if any support is required. This is a check in not a check up – we are trusting staff to do their job; albeit in a different way and sometimes at a different time but I know my colleagues are doing their best to support each other and their students.
Some educators have been asking about Performance Management – how will we know that teachers have met their target? In my view, the world has shifted so far on its’ axis that my question would be – are the team ok? Who is coping and who needs support? I do not believe that my colleagues will be seeing this situation as an excuse not to meet a performance target. We need to respect individuals and trust them to do the very best they can and if we understand their individual circumstances, we can do this even more effectively. So leading from a laptop has a further benefit of giving people autonomy over when and how they do their work; my experience of the last six weeks is of more conversations starting with “you’re doing too much, please switch off and take a break” than the opposite. We do not need to be sat next to someone, micromanaging them to support them; we can respect the fact that they may work differently to us, yet still complete the task at hand.
In a similar vein, we are trusting our students to plan and manage their time. Yes, we have provided a timetable for those who want the structure, but I would also hope that it provides flexibility and opportunity for enrichment as well as continuation of learning. Independence, innovation, resilience, and creativity are all vital strands of our STRIPE curriculum and our students have been developing these critical characteristics during this period of remote learning.
Flexibility, online communication, and increased trust I would hope to see remain once this current period changes once more. These three elements will support all our colleagues but for those who don’t want to work a traditional five day week, it has demonstrated that there is another way.
Students have demonstrated that interactive and independent learning can benefit them in lots of ways, not just relating to the subject specific content. I think we have shown that some meetings can be just as purposeful and effective via Teams or Zoom, that work can be completed at various times and still be high quality, that collaboration is better than working in isolation whatever the means of sharing.
However, the continuous lack of face to face human contact I sincerely hope is a temporary measure – at times, there is no substitute for an individual conversation when you’re both in the same room and not separated by a screen. Leading by laptop – it can be done but I cannot wait to lead in person once again.