Timetabling: what an insightful conversation this was. School leaders spoke with clarity and authority about the timetabling changes they were making in their schools. This is just one among many changes that schools had to make in response to the pandemic, and it serves as a good example of what I called “disruptive change” in an earlier blog. Disruptive change happens unexpectedly, it is caused by an external source, and it is immediate, compulsory, and complex.

School leaders like Ms. Judtih Munshi, Mr. Tshabalala, Ms. Mchunu, Ms. Collins, Mr. Ndlovu, Mr. Majola, Mr. Ngcobo, Mr. Ubisi, and Dr. Soman all shared what they were doing in reworking the timetable, and what they shared gave us a deeper understanding of what this involved.

Here are the variables they had to take into account in reworking the school timetable for Covid-19: learner enrolment; staff allocations (and their health conditions); floor space; infrastructure and furniture; the implementation of SOPs; platooning, rotation, and alternative school attendance arrangements; textbooks and resources availability; time allocations for grades and subjects; curriculum coverage; professional judgment with regard to teaching decisions; preparing for work at home; following up on work done at home (and non–completion); intervals and breaks; learner and teacher absenteeism; and parent communication.

I’m not even sure if I have covered everything here, but all of these factors had to be considered as these leaders and their teams prepared a workable timetable for their schools. Besides the guidelines from the DBE, there was no prior training that could have prepared them for this.  As Prof. Metcalfe mentioned, timetabling is already a complicated process under normal circumstances, and the pandemic has made it a complex endeavor. These leaders have displayed flexibility, innovation, resilience, and responsiveness (to their schools’ contexts) in getting their institutions of learning up and running again. They have done well.

Timetabling is the blueprint for school functionality. It takes us into the heart of schooling and defines the core activities of teaching and learning. Timetabling lays out the essential aspects of the schooling processes that include the role of the SMT in managing the curriculum; the practices of teaching; and the activities of learning. Ultimately, it contributes to the tone, focus and climate of a school – the qualities and characteristics of a particular school that make it unique. Put simply, no timetable … no functional school.

So what are some of the leadership lessons we can learn about the timetabling process in response to the pandemic?

Firstly, we learn that timetabling is a complex process. A complex process involves a number of different variables or interrelated factors that interact with each other and give rise to certain outcomes, some of which may be unexpected. For example, learner attendance may be affected by alternating school weeks that weakens the “academic orientation” of learners and leads to higher rates of absenteeism or difficulties in keeping up with the lesson. This in turn affects curriculum coverage and places a greater burden on the teacher in terms of catch up.

The important lesson is that there is no single, simple solution or “perfect” outcome at the end of a complex process. Instead, there could be a number of possible approaches that may get the school close to the intended outcome. The key leadership lesson here is to work closely with others in making decisions that ultimately take the contexts of the school and community into account. In addition, leaders must continue to develop and use their “four knowledges”  (scientific, policy, craft, and contextual knowledge) when dealing with complex issues like timetabling at their schools.

Secondly, leaders will need to understand that timetabling, especially for 2021, is not a mere technical exercise, where information will be plugged into a computer to generate a final product. Instead, it will involve ongoing engagement with the above variables, and even new ones that may arise. In addition, there should be ongoing engagement with the people involved in and affected by the timetable – the teachers, learners, and parents. In this instance, it becomes important for leaders to get their inputs, to listen to their concerns, and to guide, support, and motivate them. This helps to secure their buy-in and support for implementing the timetable in their school.

Thirdly, complex processes usually involve a number of “unknowns.”  There may be an outbreak of infections in the community, or social unrest, and parents may decide not to send their children to school. In situations like this one, a rigid, rules-based approach won’t work, and leaders have to continue to be flexible and adapt to changing conditions.

Furthermore, as “unknowns” are a feature of our current context, it is crucial that the leader remains open to learning. A learning orientation allows for creativity and innovation to emerge, especially in dealing with some of the challenges caused by the pandemic.

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, our schools have been called upon to make the most changes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this radio broadcast discussion, we only looked at one of the changes, and are beginning to realize just how challenging some of them are. In the next few episodes, we will be hearing about more of other complex issues that schools are currently facing.

“ So, when we ride past a school next time, let’s pause to 
take a quick look at it… and then to remember and appreciate
the efforts that have been made to get that school functional 
so that teaching and learning can take place…”