Leading schools in times of crisis: 6 practical steps

Leading schools in times of crisis: 6 practical steps

You may or may not have had training on school leadership in a crisis. Being prepared certainly helps, though the scale of what is happening now is unprecedented in our lifetime.

Looking after vulnerable pupils and children of key workers, while managing full or partial closure, supporting staff remotely, learning to work effectively and all while continuing the education of pupils at home are just a few of the things you are managing.

There are six practical steps that will help you be at your best.

1. Manage yourself first. Your staff will follow your lead

It’s important to stay calm and manage your thinking. Otherwise worry can take over, you catastrophise and experience feelings of overwhelm. Easy to say, though it can be hard to put into practice.

Start by thinking about your current state – how are you thinking, feeling and behaving. Being self-aware is so important. Focus only on those things within your control and dismiss those that are not – making a list of each is useful for some people. 

Action: Try asking yourself a set of questions about anything that concerns you:
What action can I take? 
Who can lead on this or support me? 
What needs to be done? 

Use considered language and avoid exaggeration or inflammatory words. Be realistic about what can be achieved and don’t try to accomplish too much. 

Remain positive and remember, “life isn’t fair” and “the goalposts always move”. These are two beliefs recommended by Professor Steve Peters, the psychiatrist of Chimp Paradox fame. Adopting these means you are better able to deal with setbacks and manage the inevitable changes that will regularly be taking place. 

‘Goalposts always move’, a belief recommended by Professor Steve Peters that helps to manage change during a crisis.

You should also take regular physical exercise as keeping fit is another way of dealing with stress and improving your immune system. Plan some in each day, and ideally at a level that raises your heart rate for a short time.

Finally, recognise others within your team who have different or complementary skills, collaborate and delegate effectively. School leaders often think they have to be seen to have all the answers, while giving direction and using all the resources available to you is by far the better option.

2. Have the right support network

On a personal level make sure you have people around who you can rely on for advice and support. It really does matter who you surround yourself with.

Action: Build your own ‘mastermind’ group with a combined set of skills that adds to what you can do as an individual. Find people who share your values, who have a positive outlook and who will also be a critical friend. This means they have to be able to say no to your ideas and actions too.

Your network can also include a range of other remote ‘advisers’ – those writing blogs, making videos, authors, a coach (via video) and anyone who has experience and is prepared to share it. Consume content and learn – particularly when tackling something for the first time.

When asking for advice, remember to listen to answers. Where you do not take on what is suggested, clearly explain why – this way you are much more likely to build trust. This is so important when leading a school through crisis, as it is inevitable you will make mistakes.

A woman working from home on her laptop and having a call.

3. Set clear roles and expectations

People usually want to be involved in a crisis. This can often lead to confusion and too many people trying to do too many things. 

Action: List all members of your staff and establish responsibilities for everyone. You can have some team members managing the changes needed, while others run business as usual activities. With no place for uncertainty, your staff will concentrate quickly on what needs to be done. 

It is unlikely you will be able to deliver the same as before during a crisis, so you will need to change your perspective. Focus on the outcomes and make sure you have clarity about what you need to achieve. 

Your staff will find long-term objectives less engaging – it is just the way people think when under significant challenge. Create short-term goals and keep them simple. Explain why they are important and the part that each person has to play in meeting them. Thank staff for what they are doing – make sure this is authentic and specific. 

Action: One way of celebrating success is to set a goal for yourself (and fellow leaders) to capture people doing things right each day. Try encouraging your staff to share their successes, both personal and team ones, and praise someone who made good progress today.

Leaders also need to understand and demonstrate cabinet responsibility. No one should be representing their specific area or function but will need to take an executive role on behalf of the school or Trust. 

It is OK to challenge and disagree prior to a decision being made, but from then on you must all stand behind it and communicate as one.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

In any crisis you must communicate openly and regularly. We are seeing the Government do this consistently with the coronavirus pandemic through their daily briefing, led by the Prime Minister or deputy and relevant experts. This is designed to build trust, give greater certainty and make sure people take the right and recommended actions.

Staff need to understand what is going on. Facts are neutral so share these and make sure they have the information they need to do their job. Part of your role is to also manage this calmly.

Action: Don’t leave communication to chance – make a plan for it. Use a range of channels to ensure it is delivered consistently and confidently. With all the free technology available this is a relatively easy thing. Through personal contact, and using other leaders and colleagues, you can ensure everyone remains and feels connected.

5. Make decisions

There may be no easy decisions to take but the only bad decision is to not make one. Indecision leads to uncertainty, confusion, apprehension, anxiety and other emotions that are unlikely to be helpful in leading a school through crisis. It also lowers trust.

Use the information you have available to arrive at the best possible decision quickly and then move to action. If you don’t have all the information, just set out what you do know and if needed seek advice – but then move ahead.

Of course it could turn out that you have made the wrong decision and that is OK – you can change it as new facts emerge. It is the most adaptable in a changing situation that survives and this is going to be very true during the current pandemic.

Action: Don’t spread yourself too thin – focus on the most important decisions first. Brainstorm what could have the biggest impact for you and your school or Trust. This includes making sure your staff remain engaged and are looking after their own wellbeing.

6. School leadership in a crisis: be ‘the’ role model

Too often leaders are asking others to do what they say and not what they do. Make sure you are not one of them. Stay self-aware and consciously reflect on this each day – that is the best way to keep on track.

Being a role model means following the actions, policies and processes you or other leaders in your school have set. Do this well and others will copy. Don’t do it and you will find it much harder to lead your way through this and any crisis.

    Stay in the loop

    Get resources and answers to your school staff wellbeing questions in your inbox: