This post is the forth and final part of a blog series by Aminah Ottosdotter Davidsson reflecting on technology in education and educational leadership as part of her MBA studies in Educational Leadership at TAMK.
Challenging Times for Teachers – Educational Leadership Matters!
“Educational leaders play a pivotal role in affecting the climate, attitude and reputation of their schools. They are the cornerstone on which learning communities function and grow. With successful school leadership, schools become effective incubators of learning, places where students are not only educated but challenged, nurtured and encouraged.” Joseph Lathan
This year I was given the pleasure of working both as a teacher and leading a group of around 40 university teachers and supporting them in their work. It was a golden opportunity for me to practice some of the knowledge and skills I have acquired as part of the MBA in Educational Leadership at TAMK. Not only was I given this chance in general, but also under some special pandemic circumstances with most work in an online environment. I learned many lessons and I feel the opportunity has given me new insights not only related to teaching, but also to educational leadership. My former posts have mostly been related to teachers and their own choices, only touching briefly on educational leadership. In this post, I will combine experiences from teachers with the importance of educational leadership, focusing on the online technological perspective.
The challenges facing teachers this year are many and it is not my intention to point them out as negatives in order to be a pessimist, but rather to be critical in order to encourage improvements. When speaking to my team members I often sensed rising concerns related to increased workload, balance between work life and private life, acting increasingly as social support for our students and the challenges of being isolated during lock down. As a teacher, do you recognize yourself in the following questions?
- Are you feeling that you are constantly catching up after the pivot online, with a never-ending timeline of tasks to be completed, many of them electronically?
- Do you feel as if you constantly have to be available online, being there for your employer, your students, your students’ parents and your colleagues?
- On top of that, maybe you also have to be online for your children, their teachers, and their school admin.
- Perhaps even worse, you may have a family member or someone close who has fallen ill in Covid-19.
Whatever the situation you are in, we are all affected by the changes happening during the pandemic and it is easy to feel disheartened. This is why strong, supportive and empathetic educational leadership plays an increasingly important role. Are they supportive, guiding teachers with clarity, care, empathy and understanding? Or, are they putting more pressure on staff by increasing the workload and stretching the boundaries between work life and private life? The way our educational leaders choose to deal with the new situation will inevitably rub off on everything from all stakeholders’ wellbeing, to their performance, being it in school or out of school.
The common denominator for these expressed concerns is, besides the pandemic, related to technology and the pivot online in one way or the other. The following quote encircles this dilemma:
“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify … is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.” Heifetz and Linskey
Similar to teachers, educational leaders also live the narrative and determine, perhaps even more than the teachers, what route education is taking ahead. Living in an era of online education and increased use of technology, educational leaders can easily treat the situation during the pandemic as a technical one, relying excessively on ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and technical solutions, while neglecting other aspects, and failing to adapt to the new circumstances. The tendency of relying heavily on technical solutions can also be connected to some characteristics of the 21st century. Asma I. Abdulmalik & Maria Hanif Al-Qassim describe the 21st century as “an era of extreme speed, technological advancement and ruthless competition” where life has become “overwhelming and complex, working hours [have been] extended from eight to around the clock, and individuals [have] developed the entitled habit of wanting everything yesterday.”
In many ways, technology has been our saviour in times of lock downs and social distancing, times when learning and education have to continue in new online settings. However, the lack of purposeful and balanced use of technology by our educational leaders has also helped to create the situations described above, adding to the stressful situation that many teachers experience. Nidhal Guessoum reflects on the situation and problematizes the increased workload as a result of moving teaching online, as communicating online and creating engaging and feasible online material require more time. He goes on to describe how educational leaders, students and colleagues often assume that teachers are always available now that they work from home, which is adding to the pressure and leading to exhaustion, burnout and mental fatigue. Personally, I think the increased workload and feeling of constant availability, combined with the stressful pandemic situation are the most problematic new working conditions for teachers.
As we are not leaving the online environment any time soon and perhaps education will not look the same again, educational leaders have to set, help set and respect the boundaries between work- and private life. They also have to show increasing understanding and support for staff to match the current conditions and take on an active role as a leader, instead of merely being a boss, in order to support staffs’ wellbeing, encourage a healthy working environment and prevent burnout. In return for this, educational leaders will receive loyalty from staff members, who will further contribute to the prosperity of the education institute.
During the extraordinary challenges facing education as a result of the pandemic, this support has become even more prevalent and when it is failing to live up to the challenges, the consequences can be seen clearly. A recent study, surveying 1278 Canadian teachers, examined teacher burnout during the pandemic. The study took its stance in a job demands-resources model (JD-R model) that is used to evaluate teacher stress due to mismatch between job demands and resources. The model uses three successive stages to describe the burnout process: “emotional exhaustion with perceptions of having no resources left to meet the needs; followed by cynicism toward students, parents, and/or the school community; and finally by reduced accomplishment in teaching”. The results revealed many teachers experiencing the initial exhaustion stage of burnout. However, interestingly, the only resource that was connected to all three stages of burnout was support from administrators, which further underpins the need for good educational leadership.
“Just because everything is different doesn’t mean anything has changed.” Irene Peter
Irene Peter’s quote is food for thought related to our current pandemic situation. Everything is different in teaching now, but does it mean that the working conditions for teachers have changed for the better? Do we have better educational leadership? If not, we are not using the situation to grow and learn from and without strong, supportive and empathetic educational leadership, the whole education system is at risk and teachers will be grasping at straws. Even though teachers in many aspects are given flexibility in terms of their methods and ways of teaching, there are also many situations where they do not have much of a say, two of them being moving teaching online and using technology more extensively. Therefore, leaders are required to understand when to use technology, for what purpose and to create the conditions under which this can happen in the best manner. In the long run, good educational leadership benefits not only the teachers, but also our students and the entire school.
Finally, change is inevitable and we will all face it in some way or the other, educational leaders being no exception. Sometimes we choose change ourselves and sometimes it falls on us, so what matters is how we handle it and how we move forward. To wrap up here are some final tips for our educational leaders:
- Think of your narrative of education and use it to guide you in your role.
- Understand how the pandemic affects people and listen to, care and show empathy for teachers’ concerns.
- Be open for teachers’ ideas and innovations.
- Set rules for online availability (calls, emails, SMSes, break times, workdays etc.).
- Be flexible, accommodating and adapt workload to the current working conditions.
- Go for sustainable solutions and set reasonable and achievable goals.
- Help teachers deal with stress, burnout and isolation by offering virtual ‘lounges’ and networks of colleagues to support each other.
- Create contextual alignment and coherence between all solutions, technical or other.
- Choose technology purposefully.
- “Talk about the difficult subject, in a manner that still leaves people feeling good.”
Last, but not least, it is important to share and celebrate successes together as a step forward, which will help all stakeholders to thrive, despite the challenges they are facing.
Aminah Ottosdotter Davidsson
Guessoum, N. (2020, November 8). COVID-19, teaching online and burnout. Arab News. https://arab.news/4hbeu
Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002), Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press), p. 14.
Margolis, M. (2020, March 18). Keynote Reel // Storytelling for Disruption // Michael Margolis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tthn4zIshhg
Minnesota Department of Education. (2019, Revised). MDE059459 CHANGE LEADERSHIP Guide for School Leaders—Revised Feb. 2019.docx—Change Leadership \u2013 A Guide for School Leaders A resource for | Course Hero. https://www.coursehero.com/file/55056085/MDE059459-CHANGE-LEADERSHIP-Guide-for-School-Leaders-revised-Feb-2019docx/
Sokal, L., Trudel, L. E., & Babb, J. (2020). Canadian teachers’ attitudes toward change, efficacy, and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Educational Research Open, 1, 100016. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedro.2020.100016
Stachowiak, D., & Hogan, C. (2020, November 30). The Way to Build Wealth. Coaching for Leaders. https://coachingforleaders.com/podcast/build-wealth-chris-hogan/