The pandemic has pushed us to make change, to transform our practice, to relate to each other in new ways and to think differently about what it means to learn and lead and how learning and leadership happens. As leaders under these conditions we can sometimes struggle to maintain our equilibrium and to keep serving our learners. For the third year in a row we begin the school year with greater uncertainty about how it is going to unfold, what it will mean for our learners, their whanau, our communities and our leaders and teachers.
However, as time goes by we are starting to accept that uncertainty is a new normal. Actually, it was always present, but perhaps we could avoid it more before. Now we can see our leadership practices for what it really is: a hugely complex, high-stakes enterprise, characterised by uncertainty, unpredictability and ambiguity. As school leaders and educational professionals, how can we respond?
What is Educational Leadership?
Understanding complexity, what it means and how it impacts our lives can be helpful in supporting us to be effective, engaged leaders who don’t feel overwhelmed and out of control. Please note, the distinction between complicated (where there are lots of moving parts, but you can separate them out and work on them piece by piece) and complex (where everything is interdependent and impacts are unpredictable) can be helpful. At times the pandemic has tipped organisations further, from complexity into chaos. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework helps here: when you are in a complex situation you look for patterns and then act, when you are in chaos you act first and then look for effects. In chaos, it is not possible to move forward until some order is restored. So our first step is to work out if our school is in chaos or whether we are back in a complex ‘pandemic normal’ where we can see some patterns emerging and begin to heal our school system.
As leaders, we need to provide some certainty and hope. When we are faced with multiple issues we often seek to deal with them all at once, through multiple initiatives, or we look for one total fix that will deal with them all. However, this is overwhelming and not effective. Purpose and focus are central to effective leadership in schools.
Recent work in educational leadership has focused on the complexity of the work. In the past, there was a tendency for leadership work to seek straightforward solutions and ‘best practice’ and to provide ‘advice’ on how people should lead. Now it is becoming clear that the sorts of problems that educational leaders need to respond to are not routine or have been seen previously – the systems they work in are typically complex. Understanding some of the key concepts in complexity theory can help us to understand why and how leadership in organisations such as schools is such complex and important work.
(Fiona Ell, Deidre Le Fevre, Kaye Twyford, & Helen Timperley).
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