This Saturday’s Phepha Ufunde show explored the relationship between the science of the pandemic and its implications for schooling practices and experiences. Teachers and learners shared their experiences and challenges in adjusting to new practices of school functionality. One teacher mentioned feeling “overworked” at times, and this was not only in relation to the core responsibility of teaching, but also in ensuring the implementation and monitoring of the school’s safety protocols. A learner spoke about the difficulties of social distancing and how this affected their relationships with each other, saying, “We can’t talk, we can’t laugh, we can‘t socialize…” 

When listening to them sharing their stories, we have to appreciate the fact that out of all the components that comprise the education system in our country, it is schools that have been called upon to make the most changes. These changes have been as sudden as they have been overwhelming for school leaders, teachers, and the learners – all of them had to rapidly adjust the ways in which they work and interact with each other. 

We call this disruptive change as it affects everyone at the personal, professional, and organizational levels of the school. Disruptive change tests the resilience of the organization and its people, and can weaken an organization to the extent that it may take many years to recover. This is why the concepts and practices of care and support that were mentioned in last week’s broadcast are so important during this time. 

And, despite the heroic efforts of many school leaders and their teams, we cannot expect them, on their own, to effectively deal with the challenges thrust upon their schools by the pandemic. Support is both an internal (the principal and SMT members supporting teachers and learners) and an external practice – the district, NGOs, universities, community organizations etc. have to rally around schools during these times. In other words, we need to build a network of complementary support around our schools. 

Prof. Madhi, one among a few South Africans who are world leaders in the science of the pandemic as well as the development of an effective vaccine, shared some of the scientific knowledge related to the pandemic. One important point he made was that as the pandemic was evolving, so the science around it was also evolving. In other words, as the coronavirus mutates (changes that occur in the structure of the gene), so the science and knowledge related to it changes too. The big lesson for all of us to learn here is that knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is never static – it is continually evolving or emerging. We are thus always in the process of learning. This orientation and disposition is sometimes hard to find in leaders. Our society has too many “all-knowing” leaders who often become stuck in “old mindsets and old ways of doing things,” and are not open to learning. These leaders will find working in today’s context of the pandemic extremely challenging and stressful because of their inability to effectively respond to the changes foisted upon the organizations they lead. 

Prof. Madhi also raised questions around the usefulness of the temperature scanners. We know this is a policy mandate, and we will discuss it another time, especially as an example of policy-making that is sometimes disconnected from theory and practice. 

What made his contribution to this Phepha uFunde broadcast so important was that it explained the science behind the pandemic – and this is what provides the rationale for why the practices of social distancing, wearing a mask, sanitizing the hands, and ventilation are so important in preventing further spread. Herein lies another important leadership lesson – when leaders make decisions, introduce new programmes, or change structures, they often do not provide the rationale (the why) for doing it. In other words, they don’t make a convincing case for change. The implications of this are often a lack of support, buy-in, indifference, and even resistance to the changes from members of the team. 

The final leadership lesson from this week’s broadcast centers on the different kinds of knowledge (or “knowledges”) required during the current crisis. We noted earlier that knowledge is never static and constantly evolving. To lead effectively during this time will require that school leaders connect and collaborate with others to develop the following four “knowledges”:

  1. Scientific knowledge: An adequate amount is required to understand the pandemic, its effects, and why the decisions to institute the safety protocols in schools are so important. 
  2. Policy knowledge: School leaders need to be clear about what the policy mandates are. The policy provides a framework for the actions that can be taken in terms of school functionality. It also allows the SMT and SGB to make decisions in the best interests of the health and well being of everyone, and of teaching and learning in the school. 
  3. Craft knowledge: This is the knowledge and insights that school leaders and teachers have built up about teaching practice. It involves a combination of professional (content and pedagogic) knowledge as well as experiential knowledge that is acquired over time and through practice. 
  4. Contextual knowledge: This knowledge encompasses a deep understanding of how the schooling processes and practices (especially teaching and learning), as well as the people (the teachers and learners), are affected by the environment and the circumstances inside and outside the school (the community). More importantly, this kind of knowledge is acquired by engaging with how poverty and social inequality affects learning and development, and what can be done to mitigate some of its effects. 

All leaders possess some degree of these four “knowledges,” but they are often unaware of how important they are for effective leadership practice. When these four areas of knowledge are developed and integrated into the thinking and actions of the leader, it often leads to more effective decision-making and even innovation in addressing some of the challenges that schools may encounter. 

Until next week … let’s keep learning ….