Leadership in uncertain times

Sujatha Mohandas

After a yawning gap of almost 18 months, when a sliver of light dawned in the form of a slight easing of pandemic restrictions, I decided to pick up the threads of my earlier existence by making a visit to the school, which I considered a home beyond my personal home. The school seemed to beckon me with open arms. As I looked around, I had the strange feeling that one had to breathe life into this building, which until a few months ago was a hive of activity. The ‘namastes’ of our students, as they rushed towards their teachers, their faces radiating warmth and happiness, their chirpy prattle, were painfully missing. The basketball court looked forlorn. Where were the joyous cries and the animated voices of the children, who made a beeline for the basketball court during recess? A place that should have been bustling with activity was desolate and beyond recognition. It was as if the world had stopped in its tracks and the human race was forced to go into a state of hibernation; it was hibernation of a different kind, though.

While 2020 was ushered in with great zeal and enthusiasm, no one would have imagined that globally, people would witness a Black Swan event. We were all suddenly thrown into the whirlpool of learning and teaching digitally, adapting to new methodologies of assessments. Everything seemed a challenge. Social interactions and face-to-face meetings went into a dormant mode. As an educator, my heart went out to the world’s children as the depths to which their emotional quotient had plummeted was difficult for even the most erudite psychologists to fathom.

The immediate challenge was to identify a suitable platform to take the digital plunge. There was a clamour to make a quick and suitable choice of an online platform and a plan in place for video conferencing. As educational leaders, crises management is part of our professional world; I realized the challenge was far more than the usual day-to-day fire-fighting, dealing with minor disagreements or student misbehaviour. Here, the challenge was to seek adequate knowledge of how to adapt to the new normal and find a quick-fix solution. The first lessons on adaptive leadership and making informed decisions had to be internalized. It dawned upon me that the need of the hour was to enhance resilience in myself and my team.

The long and unfamiliar ‘to-do-list’ was rolled out; developing a robust in-house training program on pedagogical practices and the new untrodden zones of technology were priorities list which required providing ‘Any Time Support’ to building confidence to conduct online sessions. All the while, efforts were on to allay fears and uncertainties, finalizing viable guidelines for enhancing safety and security for everyone on the online sessions and sustaining a fair balance between academics and co-curricular and extracurricular activities, enabling students’ participation in local, regional, national and even international events in various disciplines. A Clear Operating Guidelines pack was provided to every staff member of the school to help her/him in conducting the sessions smoothly. A monitoring and control team was formed to monitor security and extend support for the staff and students.

The next step was to communicate and share the possible plans to be implemented by all stakeholders. There was a dire need to reorient all those directly involved in the change process. The concept of shared responsibility came to the fore. The practice of distributed leadership at every level paved the way for a pool of ideas that helped enormously. The collective wisdom of the team offered direction and clarity. While our teachers were weaning away from face-to-face to connecting with tiny grids on their online devices, their primary focus was to nurture relationships and hold the school community together. The students were provided opportunities to lead the learning process, to explore and navigate on their own, and adjust to the novel techniques in the school ecosystem. Our parents donned the additional role of teachers too.

Illustration: Tanaya Vyas

During the pandemic the most affected were the first generation learners and the students with special needs owing to their economic challenges and learning difficulties respectively. Remote learning came in handy at this hour. As part of the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, organizations offered their support by way of devices and data.

Asynchronous learning and web-based educational apps, games and activities, to a large extent, replaced the experiential learning that happened in physical school, for those with learning concerns. The students took a great liking to this new learning methodology and the success stories were seen in their increased confidence levels and morale. Learning became fun and joyful. For students under the spectrum of autism who have difficulty with social interactions, online teaching proved to be a boon. Dealing with socio-emotional concerns of the students was discreet, as the child was meeting the school counsellor from her/his comfort zone, devoid of being judged by her/his peers. Many students came forward on their own to discuss their issues.

The most critical aspect was figuring out the coping mechanisms to handle the trials and tribulations of young lives devoid of human interaction. The essence of mankind, to feel and understand one another, to be there for one another, suddenly seemed to be a distant dream. The hugs that came to me so naturally became an absolute taboo. Left in the lurch were the young beings, our little Montessori children who just couldn’t fathom this thought of social distancing, a life of isolation. The stage in life where friends meant everything to tweens, now became a stage of isolation and induced a sense of desolation.

The manifestations that our counsellors came across proved to be tearjerkers/disquieting. Meltdowns, loneliness, high stress levels, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, a sense of insecurity and uncertainty were what we came across amongst our student community. The multitude of these conditions made the situation particularly challenging for children.

We soon realized that the cauldron of challenges yielded several opportunities to explore a new path, a new trend. One of the best outcomes was the bonding with the educational fraternity, while we shared good practices with the community schools. It was evident how the underlying values and the vision of the school play a significant role in the hour of crisis. The inclusive culture of our school proved extremely helpful to handle the crisis effectively.

What seemed a humungous mountain was well handled by our teaching community. Not only did they scale the heights, but managed to hoist the flag on the summit. Noticing the minutest of change, scheduling regular check-ins, lending a patient ear, extending a supportive hand, providing a shoulder to lean on – our teachers dealt with every child as though he/she was their own. Cocooning them when required, giving them wings to fly at the opportune time made a huge difference in helping the children overcome their difficulties. Being non-judgmental and maintaining confidentiality, our teachers reassured and empowered our children. Our teachers have stood by our children through thick and thin and epitomized the saying,

Tough times don’t last, tough people do.

The author has been an educator for more than 35 years and is currently Principal, Sishu Griha school, Bengaluru. She can be reached at sujatha.mohandas@sishugriha.in.

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