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LEADERSHIP IN AN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION CONTEXT DURING TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY

ANITA KUMAR | APRIL 15, 2020 | IN LEADERSHIP

COVID-19 has triggered a humanitarian crisis of global proportions, with thousands of lives disrupted daily. Sadly, we are not nearing the end of the crisis.

In my day to day, I enjoy being in a mentoring role in an early childhood education setting, supporting head teachers and their teams when embracing challenges within the changing education landscape. In recent days, COVID-19 has dominated our lives and it is no surprise that I have been musing over how the situation was handled and what makes a great leader. In my opinion, the leader’s primary responsibility is to keep the teams successfully united and inspired to achieve a set of common goals. But what should a leader be focused on, in midst of disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic is causing to early learning services?

Specific actions leaders must take:

First and foremost, we must educate ourselves through reliable and trusted sources. This means that alongside being current and up to date with social and news media information, we are committed to researching further mediums to support our deeper understanding, knowledge and awareness throughout this time. We recognise that there will be a lot of conflicting information, which can result in misinformation and speculation, therefore we need to ensure that sources that we research are well-sourced and backed by experts. For example with the current Covid 19 situation that we are currently experiencing, I have been closely monitoring Government websites that include Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health updates and current informative articles contributed by Dr Siouxsie Wiles a British microbiologist and science communicator based in New Zealand. I have also been following how different countries and their leaders have been handling the Covid 19 pandemic and reflecting on their responses and where I feel the potential improvement lies in enhancing the leadership capability within our organisation. I strongly believe that leaders, that can adapt, learn, and find new solutions can thrive, whatever disruptions may occur in the future.

Secondly, we must create a clear set of priorities for the organisation. For example, what is most paramount is to ensure the safety of everyone we are responsible for and our ethical responsibilities towards our families. It is integral that systems are put in place (policies/procedures) to ensure clear organisation protocols and expectations are adhered to, with the addition of regular monitoring and fine tuning as necessary. Decisions need to be made as to how and what key factors are prioritised to ensure the protection and safety of all within the Community of Learners. Considerations we need to think about also include looking at identifying what needs to happen and be implemented for people to feel safe, engaged, informed and be useful. Leaders may be faced with financial decisions during this time that may risk margins, for example prioritising health & safety of people they are responsible for and assessing the need to purchase additional supplies that might be needed due to the pandemic such as resources, medical and emergency supplies. We also need to consider that some teachers may enjoy teaching and be involved in engaging children and may not seek to eliminate identified health and safety issues/ hazards. Thus, it is important to discuss these factors, and work together as a team to ensure priorities and expectations are very clear by way of maintaining regular conversations with teachers so everyone is working towards common goals.

Next, we will need to build a clear plan for your organisation. We must ensure that the plans are detailed as possible for longer term, recognising that things can change at an incredible rate, but at the same time we need to be focussed on our plan week by week or even day by day. A plan for the week, for example, maybe researching into what funding we may receive from Ministry of Education or insurance if there is a lockdown and provide necessary information to staff about their wages to let go of their anxiety. A plan for another week can be to develop some procedures on social distancing for your service. As much as we can, it’s optimal to demonstrate that we’re thinking of ways to tackle the challenges and we’re putting these ideas into action.

Be sure to empower your teachers. Effective leaders must empower head teachers and teachers to make the best decisions they can, to ensure alignment on plans, priorities, and possibilities. Clear procedures need to be in place for Head Teachers to report to Centre Manager/Management for authoritative decisions and advice in essential matters. This will be a matter of supporting Head Teachers to identify matters that are truly important from the merely urgent, alongside supporting and working with Head Teachers to do the same with their teams. We must ask them how they and their families feel, an emotionally intelligent leader should be able to gauge and be aware of how others are feeling, to lead and manage in the right ways.

Communication is key, keeping people informed during a crisis is one of the most visible and important roles of a leader. Below are some tips of how leaders can communicate effectively during a crisis:

Be clear and honest

Firstly, we must become the trusted source of information in the crisis. We live in an era of rapid distribution of information that is of questionable accuracy from multiple sources. We must be the trusted source and remember that in any communication plan, the emphasis should be more on what our audience can take in and understand. Furthermore, leaders who don’t share all the facts quickly become less credible, and that type of leadership can lead to more panic and overreaction.

Use credibility to build trust

Credibility is a combination of expertise and dependability. Leaders gain credibility when they demonstrate that they understand the risks and implications of a situation. At the same time, leaders should not expect that they know all the answers and be ready to listen to the views of others. They should consult the teachers as they are the experts on the field and know what other teachers or families are thinking. For example, the head teachers and teachers are the more likely people to know if parents have any concerns regarding our response to the COVID 19 situation.

Share information with empathy and optimism

In their communication, leaders should recognise the uncertainty and anxiety people are experiencing. This is especially important when leaders are communicating decisions that might add to people’s stress, such as wage reduction. Children coming in sick to the centre might be worrying for some staff or parents who are being vigilant about their own and others’ health. But children always have runny noses and some coughing. So, when is sick, sick? Providing some reliable information about COVID-19 symptoms and establishing criteria together with staff for recognising COVID-19 symptoms may remove the anxiety staff maybe feeling. Leaders should make it clear that there is path to a better future and involve people in contributing to the decisions.

Deal with stress and anxiety

Communicating well includes leaders being calm and deliberate in their decisions and actions. Leaders who react to stressful events in highly emotional ways can add to people’s stress and anxiety. Leaders must model calm and be realistic about the situation and keep the panic private. It will help confine their worries to appropriate times and places without risking the morale of their people. Leaders must take the time to reset and refocus even when facing the demands of a high crisis and be prepared as they can be.

As I said at the beginning, COVID-19 is a human tragedy that continues to have growing impact on our livelihoods. Good leadership is crucial and there is perhaps one silver lining, which is that this crisis represents an opportunity for leaders to obtain more trust and cooperation from teams and whanau in the face of hardship.

Anita Kumar, centre director of Our Kids Early Learning Centre

Anita Kumar

Bachelor of Education (Teaching) (ECE)

Managing Director

Anita has nearly 25 years of experience in early childhood education. She enjoys being in a mentoring role with teachers supporting them when embracing challenges within our every changing education landscape.

When she is not teaching she loves caring for indoor plants, watching movies and travelling.

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