Pointers and pitfalls in managing teams of educators remotely
The coronavirus pandemic has been a uniquely challenging situation for education managers the world over. In all contexts, managers have been grappling with the rapid, unplanned transition to teaching and learning from home, affecting their teams, learners and leadership colleagues in a wide range of ways; the shock of sudden radical change to working practices and life routines, the need to rely on technology and digital skills for communication with colleagues and learners, the planning and delivery of learning with no face-to-face classroom time, the need to make decisions and take action under immense pressure and with little chance for quiet reflective thinking.
In the UK, social media is awash with stories of how teachers and managers have risen to the challenge, with energy, creativity and innovation, engaging learners with online synchronous or asynchronous delivery and developing their own digital skills in order to function in this new world of online learning. These messages may be a source of inspiration and encouragement to others making efforts in these areas but there is a second narrative thread emerging that is concerning and worthy of reflection.
On Twitter there have been comments from some teachers about being asked to complete a daily log of their working at home activities and the negative impacts of that task – the weight of additional administrative workload at a time when planning and delivering learning programmes is even more time-consuming than usual; the feeling that their managers do not trust them to act professionally when working from home. At a tech innovation round table on Zoom recently, I heard these views echoed by some teachers in my own sector, that of Further Education in the UK. They talked about the strain of lengthy working days spent trying to develop and deliver content and assessment using digital tools in new ways with the added pressure of managers calling team meetings through Zoom or Microsoft Teams several times a day. For me, as this pandemic progresses, the narrative signals a real risk of COVID-19 burnout for some staff and the fracturing of team cultures.
Hearing these experiences, the significance of the role of managers in the transition to teaching from home came into sharper focus for me. Managers I have spoken to are just doing their best in a crisis, often with no or little experience of managing teams remotely and with varied levels of digital skills themselves. I can imagine that many managers are missing the information flow from managing by walking around classrooms and workrooms in their workplace. Some have told me they feel isolated and one step removed from the front line of delivery to learners and they are trying to connect with their teams frequently to get back in the loop. It is a time of making things happen, fire-fighting and trouble shooting all day every day, and it feels as if there may have been little space so far for quiet reflection on what kind of management will best serve staff and learners as this new way of working takes shape. It has been all about being responsive and reactive and not yet about standing back to focus on what might help and what could hinder. This is entirely understandable and this article is not about blame and criticism. It is about starting to open up a thinking space around how managers can best support and enable their teams to rise to this enormous challenge as we move into the next stages of the pandemic lockdown. It looks likely that in the UK, attendance at schools, colleges and universities will be at best disrupted over the summer term 2020 and at worst, nobody will be in classrooms until the autumn term. Managers and teams will need to develop sustainable and familiar ways of collaborating in order to make the best of this situation.
Reading about the experiences of those who have developed remote working practices has been helpful for my thinking and for this I have reached out beyond the world of education into business, where many of these practices are well embedded. Articles and blogs on the subject come back to similar pitfalls and pointers for effective practice for managers.
Pitfalls in managing educators remotely in the pandemic
- Focusing all communication on things that need to be done and omitting the human angle of how people are coping and feeling.
- Undermining professional trust in people doing the best they can while working from home by trying to check up on aspects of daily practice that managers might have seen when working together face-to-face.
- Overloading staff with online team meetings, which can affect their workload, stress levels and morale.
- Creating accountability checks such as daily logs of activity for teachers to complete, eroding trust and adding to workload pressure.
- Communicating so frequently via email or phone that staff can feel bombarded with details but lose the priority messages in a blizzard of information.
- Failing to streamline information flows at leadership and management levels so it is not clear for staff who is communicating about what.
- Neglecting the social element of team life so that meetings are all about tasks, data and challenges and never about having a drink and chat together as people.
Pointers for managing educators remotely in the pandemic
- Person first; Managee second – ask people about how they are adapting to and coping with the situation at home and in work. It’s useful to have to hand services that you can refer people to if needed e.g. employee assistance, counselling and coaching/mentoring for digital skills and planning online learning.
- Give frequent praise and encouragement for the efforts being made and the successes you can see during the transition, even if they are small steps forward. Boosting morale and confidence within the team is really important in helping people to stick at it over this period of transition.
- Discuss with the team the frequency and focus of online meetings and identify the best compromise on what will be workable.
- Consider introducing a team bulletin via email if you think you can pull messages together into something to share daily or every few days, to replace sending a stream of emails.
- Outside online meetings, identify together the most practical ways for individuals to communicate with the manager or each other. This may be via online messaging, WhatsApp or another channel.
- As the manager, identify ways to review progress with learning programmes using remote supervision – which online folders or assessment records can you review without pulling teachers into too many group meetings? Online 1:1s can then pick up specific areas to discuss.
- As a leadership team, discuss how to streamline information flows to staff. Some colleges have been doing twice weekly online briefings to share organisational messages in one central forum. It can be helpful to create ownership of communication strands so staff get used to following threads from specific leaders.
- As leaders and managers, take regular short spaces for reflection and review of how staff are responding to the style of management - it can be helpful to use a coach or mentor to discuss your reflections and identify useful insights and actions.
- Get honest feedback from the team on how helpful the communication and management approaches are for them and see if there is anything else that might support them at this challenging time.
With the pandemic expected to disrupt teaching and learning for some time, this is a useful point in the transition for discussion and reflection on management practices. Through these conversations and approaches, managers should be able to find new routines and support their teams with leading learning programmes as effectively as possible.
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