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Flourishing During Difficult Times

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Increasingly, teachers are verbalising that they want their students to not only achieve, but to thrive. Living through a pandemic creates a real threat to education accessibility.  In our country with such huge wealth discrepancies, the threat is even larger.  How do we provide an environment for students to flourish during difficult times?

Teachers have an even greater task on their hands.  They now not only have to close the perceived curriculum coverage gaps from loss of teaching time, but are  constantly navigating a litany of changing guidelines, directives, lock downs, health hazards, new “waves” and other restrictions amidst a determination to keep themselves and their students safe.  There has never been a season that requires such a high level of adaptation as our profession is experiencing at the moment.

In 2008, professors Amy C. Edmondson, Francesca Gino and now the late David Garvin studied how organisations learn and they proposed that there are three building blocks that construct a learning organisation. Keller Education’s belief is that these three building blocks are fundamental to creating a space where students can flourish during difficult times.

The Three Building Blocks

The Three Building Blocks

1.  Supportive Learning Environment

2. Concrete Processes and Practices

3. Leadership that reinforces Learning.   

As we have begun working with a number of schools across Southern Africa, these three blocks are proving to be as important in 2021 as they were in 2008.  Having led a school during difficult times, the thoughts of Justin Reich and Jal Mehta in their article “Imagining September: Principles and Design elements for Ambitious Schools” during COVID-19, never sat too comfortably on my first reading.  But the longer I reflected on my response, the more I began to see its value.

They argue that it is during times like this, when people don’t feel safe to offer new ideas, raise concerns or admit mistakes – school organisations can fail to learn.  The fear of making a mistake in a climate where answers are not easily available from previous experience, often leads to a culture of leadership paralysis.  Leaders feel isolated and stop listening.  Added to this environment is the need to operate remotely during lockdown.   The powerful connection of our mirror neurons is lost on our leadership teams.  

“This is a time for new lines of communication.  It is a season for innovative leadership.  Innovation requires optimism, and if the emotional and physical well-being of our Principals was at a low level before Covid, it is now even lower.”

Gavin Keller, Co-Founder: Keller Education

Rather, moderate to deep pessimism often results in Principals opting for a “lead by auto-pilot” and “Just let me survive another day!” mindset.  Sadly, this typical response leads to persistent problems and a sense that no one is being heard.

What many schools are currently experiencing is a product of how they set themselves up.  The egg-box routine where every teacher operating in their own space – safe and secure, has led to a low level of organisational learning.  In many schools, sharing ideas, strategies and planning is unheard of.  Now that they face a crisis they feel isolated.  Leaders need to inject as much energy as possible into generating shared learning experience and shared After Action Reflection and Refraction.  

I love the concept of After Action Reflection and RefractionMy first Principal when I started teaching, Bruce Lane, always facilitated a staff meeting after every school event where we sat in groups and did what he called an AAI – Adapt – Adopt and Improve.  

Wisdom from bruce lane – gavin’s first principal

I can clearly remember him making sure that no one felt victimised or judged before asking us all how we could have made the event better.  What did we do wrong, what did we do right and what could we have done better?  Once we had reflected we then shone the planning light through metaphoric water droplets and allowed it to refract as the sun does when creating a rainbow.  Because the environment was psychologically safe, we were able to invent, innovate, improvise and improve our offering.

Leaders need to inject as much energy as possible into generating shared learning experience and shared After Action Reflection and Refraction

Now is the time to set up online connection for parents where they can vent and share ideas.  Allocate time to talk on the telephone.  Avoid sending emails to the parents as they often are used against you in unsafe spaces.  But listen, acknowledge their concerns and keep brief notes.  The call does not need to be a battle with a winner or loser.  It is simply an opportunity to allow for organisational growth.

Plan for brief teacher conversation on managing children during Covid, online issues and closing learning gaps.  Schedule these events into the timetable so that the team feels a sense of organisational support.  This environment leads to the teaching staff feeling more responsive when challenges arise.

Get those building blocks in place. Make sure the classroom has an invitational environment that supports learning.  Make sure that there are concrete processes and practices in place.  Not everyone will agree with them – but by having them you are creating the correct environment to make sure the students flourish during difficult times.


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