Leading school recovery

We have begun thinking about the implications of the research we have been doing on school leaders’ work and wellbeing. One of the resources we have consulted are the literatures on leading during and after natural disasters.

Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and fires are not directly analogous to the pandemic as they tend to be short-lived and catastrophic. This is not our current situation, which is a very extended period of difficulty with peaks of crisis. However, there may be some lessons to be drawn for thinking about the recovery period. We have therefore been going to published research to see what might be instructive. Other UK researchers have also been looking at this literature – Sinead Harney and Gemma Moss have looked at disaster recovery in New Orleans and elsewhere in terms of impact on student learning – we are looking at it in terms of impact on schools and school leadership.

We are particularly interested in the literatures about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The devastation caused by ferocious winds and flooding wiped out an enormous swathe of the city, and its schools. It was an opportunity for the newly named Recovery School District  to completely rethink its school provision. Their solution was a new mix of public and private via the introduction of charter schools – schools funded by the taxpayer but operated by private organisations. Some 60% of schools in the district are now charter schools, making it something like the mix of academy, free and local authority schools that now exists in England. 

One study ( Beabout, 2014) which looked at post-Katrina school leaders in New Orleans (n=10, interviewed over 3 years) noted the considerable autonomy this new configuration of schools afforded. However, despite significant local differences, there were common principles that underpinned the post disaster change processes the leaders used:

Collaboration – the importance of establishing meaningful collaborative practices within the school after the disruption – distributed responsibilities and devolved decision-making were key to rebuilding staff cohesion and commitment to their common endeavour. There was an inevitable tension between the need to get going quickly and meet re-imposed accountability and the necessarily slower pace of addressing wellbeing and morale. 

Community connections – school leaders in the study saw connections with parents and community organisations as an essential part of rebuilding community, accessing expertise and support, (re)generating a positive school reputation and ensuring local solutions for local needs. 

Generating public support – linked to the need for re-establishing strong local bonds was a need to address the poor reputation of pre-hurricane urban schools. This required collective political action on school boards and in the state legislature, as well as in media.

Meeting student needs – because of the terrible damage done to homes and health, school leaders saw the non-academic needs of their students as crucial. Addressing trauma and regaining a sense of belonging and wellbeing were seen as vital accompaniments to improvements in learning.

Setting goals and meeting them – the leaders in the study had very different approaches to planning, but all paid serious attention to the management of staff, time, space and resources. Getting the infrastructure working to support other aspects of change was a key part of leaders’ work.

Improving instruction – the post-hurricane period created an opportunity to revisit previously taken for granted teaching and learning practices, to support and resource carefully staged and supported instructional innovation. 

Much of this particular study resonates with the results of our research. English school leaders told us about the importance of within school collaboration, the benefits of community connections, the need to address wider public support for schooling, particularly from the very top, and the importance of attending to the whole student – their emotional, social, physical, aesthetic and intellectual development.

As English schools have not been closed, as was the case in New Orleans, the heads in our study had not stopped being concerned about management of resources or instruction. But they were looking forward to a time when they could spend more of their time focused on learning, and less on the continued reinvention of everyday managerial requirements. 

However, the question in England is what systemic support leaders need in order to move most effectively into the recovery phase.

Our full results will be published in late November. Stay tuned! 

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Author: pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK

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