Real Leaders

Why Modern Educational Leaders Need to be Agile

A man sitting at the table, studying.

It has long been clear that an effective educational leader needs to bring many and varied skills to the task at hand, not the least of which are the ability to communicate effectively, to organize, to collaborate, to unify and to promote growth.

But as we have learned during the pandemic, one of the most important skills is agility – the ability to adapt on the fly to ever-changing circumstances. Educator Pino Buffone summarized the challenge as follows in a January 2021 examination of agility:

So much has changed in regard to everyday life on Earth over the past year and a half. In society broadly, and the education sector specifically, the nature of the landscape has definitely shifted. With respect to leadership in schools and systems—provincially, nationally, and internationally—the organizational terrain has evolved because of the extraordinary experiences of the pandemic period and is not likely to return to the well-worn physical features of the past. Moreover, it is conceivable that changes to the features of institutions of public education have only just begun because of the impact of COVID-19 on children and school systems.

Buffone went on to cite several works showing how times like these demand adaptability and redefinition. One of those was the 2017 book “The Wonder Wall,” by former educator and administrator Peter Gamwell and communications strategist Jane Daly. While the book predated the pandemic, the authors labeled unsettled times like this one as a period of “inbetweenity,” when one era is nearing a conclusion and the next has not yet completely emerged. During such times it is abundantly clear that leaders have to adopt new approaches, lest they find themselves hopelessly lost amid the turbulence.

It is important to understand that throughout history there are examples of calamity leading to innovation, in all fields. As an example, consider the manner in which public sanitation was improved in the wake of the Black Death, or the way the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918 resulted in changes to patient care. COVID-19 has led to similar disruption, in such areas as vaccine development, social distancing and working conditions.

All of that has, of course, impacted education. Just as those in certain occupations have had to resort to remote work, those in education have adopted remote and hybrid models. As Buffone writes, there has been “a seismic shift” in long-accepted methods, which threatened to “widen existing inequities, but also make  qualitative and quantitative comparisons—already a challenge—much more difficult.”

Leaders as a result have had to adopt an innovative, inventive mindset, understanding and supporting the needs of students as well as educators, in order to create the best possible learning environment. Now those same administrators must continue to navigate the “inbetweenity,” understanding what approaches might work best as the coronavirus abates, and what might be applied if and when future public health crises arise. How can they best prepare their teachers and students for such an eventuality? How can they ensure that the best systems and procedures are in place? 

Again, it is a matter of being alert and aware. It is a matter of surveying the landscape, and seeing where problems might arise. And it is a matter of commiserating with others throughout the profession – comparing notes and seeing what might work best for one’s own school or district, then adapting accordingly.

As Buffone writes, proactivity and ingenuity are central to adaptability. So too are building relationships and partnerships, and cultivating the correct systems and processes. Moreover, administrators must be quick to pivot as the situation changes, and that has been the case the last several months, as schools have slowly reopened.

Janelle Duray, Chief Operating Officer & Executive Vice President at Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), writes that it is imperative for school systems to ”reconnect and re-engage students, especially those from vulnerable homes and communities.” And, she adds, it must be done quickly – that among other things, technology must be embraced if school systems are truly going to move forward in this tenuous time.

When I served as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), I collaborated with our team in 2019 to put into place an initiative called Imagine PPS, which built upon our Expect Great Things foundation, enacted when I came aboard three years earlier. And indeed, we sought to leverage technology to our full advantage. We sought to address inequities within the district. And when COVID-19 reared its ugly head, the mission was unchanged, even if the delivery model was. We wanted to engage students, even if it was from afar.

Now administrators are making another adjustment, another pivot. Now it’s a matter of learning lessons from the recent past, while continuing to understand that further midcourse corrections might be required. It’s a matter of keeping your head up, being light on your feet and understanding that the educational world, like the world at large, is a complicated place and forever evolving. As Buffone writes, “Vision matters most when clarity is missing.” That being the case, a leader must always have eyes wide open.

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