A crisis not to be wasted

During this very difficult time where no individuals or institutions, certainly not schools, are unaffected by the implications of the Coronavirus, I have turned for inspiration to the speeches of great leaders – Churchill, Obama, Reagan – during the crises they had to manage. (YouTube, of course, is a wonderful resource, allowing us to actually see such leaders speak.)

Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. In the case of the present crisis, “letting the crisis go to waste” is not a viable option. While many businesses may not survive the economic devastation, one hopes that independent schools will not be hit as hard as, say, airlines, hotels or restaurants. But surely there will be an impact. Some parents are demanding tuition rebates because their children are not at school. Schools have little opportunity to immediately significantly cut costs. They are continuing to offer instruction, albeit in an online format, which means they must have teachers. Reports from Britain express fears that some independent schools will not be able to ride this out and may be forced to close. With parents’ loss of income and, in some cases, jobs, there may well be a negative impact on enrolment for 2020-21 and beyond. 

In times of economic stress, parents will certainly be reconsidering whether they are getting good enough value for the tuition they are paying. Schools are going to have to redouble their efforts to ensure that parents perceive the value in the sacrifices they are making to send their children to independent schools. Mediocre teaching or programs diminish the value provided, and schools are going to have to become very focussed on ensuring that what they offer is truly (and obviously) of greater value than can be obtained in the free public school. Removing that which is not good enough will create important and lasting improvements and will “not let a good crisis go to waste”.

For years, schools have been increasingly moving to hybrid models of instruction. While the classroom remains dominant, course outlines, assignments, notes, video and enrichment materials have been made available online through D2L and other course-management platforms. Students who miss classes, or need to review, can go online to get the material. Any number of communication platforms have been developed that allow parents and teachers to share students’ work and grades and otherwise communicate. This process of using online technologies to support teaching and learning has been suddenly, massively and very rapidly accelerated over the last few weeks with widespread school shut-downs. Classroom instruction has been replaced by teachers offering online assignments and sometimes video-classes using Zoom and other platforms.

Some teachers have been using these kinds of technologies and approaches for years, keeping up with their development to supplement and enhance their teaching. Others have been slow adopters. There was and is a huge disparity in teachers’ technology skills. However, the current crisis is forcing very fast and widespread adoption of “distance” education methods. We are in the midst of explosive growth in teacher skills, with just about all teachers being forced to learn and use online tools.

When the crisis is over, and students are physically back at school, I anticipate that many teachers will continue to make at least some ongoing use of the knowledge, skills and teaching techniques they were forced to quickly acquire. The delivery of more courses will be “hybrid”. Those administrators who for years have been encouraging, sometimes unfortunately coercing, reluctant teachers to use more technology in their work, will have been greatly helped in their desire to have their teachers adopt technologies. The crisis will not have been in vain.

Probably no school has a year without dealing with some “crisis” or another. Compared to the current coronavirus situation, those would mainly be insignificant. Yet, their effective management is vital. It does not take much for parents’ confidence to be shaken, heads to lose their positions, and enrollments to drop. The most critical element of crisis management is generally communication. This has to be timely, frank, have the “right” tone, contrite when necessary, and always show that those in charge have matters in hand and are taking the necessary action. In many places, certainly in Alberta, Canada, where I live, management of the present crisis is winning widespread approval. Chief Medical officers of Health are at the forefront of the communication efforts. A columnist a few days ago, described Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as our “Healer -in-chief.” As I write this, a news headline reads, “A new breed of celebrity in the age of COVID-19: the chief medical officer.” It continues:

Day after day, premiers have announced new restrictions on Canadians’ civil liberties that they say are critical to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

But it is the chief medical officers at their side who provide the science buttressing the calls for sacrifice. Some have become stars in their own right, displaying a kind of televisual bedside manner that combines a reassuring, fact-based approach . . .

I have advised my education students to pay close attention to how these communications are being handled, and the positive press they are receiving. Those students will all be leaders in their classrooms, and surprisingly soon, some will assume positions of responsibility and leadership in their schools. They will have to deal with crises and most importantly manage the communication about it. I can think of no better professional development for current leaders and leadership training for future leaders than to follow the management of this crisis closely. It is truly a crisis not to be wasted.

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