This paper explores the role of professional collaboration and agency during the global COVID-19 pandemic and possible lessons for the future from the perspective of a teacher, leader and postgraduate researcher.
This essay explores the complex role of collaboration and agency in responding to the challenges arising during the global COVID-19 pandemic utilizing research as well as the author's lived experience.
The author finds that through a renewed emphasis on effective professional collaboration and agency, not only are there opportunities to embed lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also scope to work towards education systems that reflect the complex global socio-political contexts communities may find themselves in and the evolving needs that result from them.
This paper offers insights into the work of teachers and school leaders, the increasing complexity of their roles over time, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, considering what this might mean for the future.
Campbell, P. (2020), "Rethinking professional collaboration and agency in a post-pandemic era", Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-06-2020-0033Download as .RIS
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Shifting socio-economic climates, constitutional uncertainty, forced migration and conflict of values, all within the challenging and unfamiliar dynamics of a “post-truth” era, have come to characterize the world we now live in. With this have come new demands on the work of teachers, school leaders and education systems. Traditional conceptualizations of the function of teachers and teaching have frequently relied on concerns of curriculum, pedagogy, learner support or implementation of education policy reform. As national and international socio-political contexts have shifted over the years, the role education is expected to play has also evolved alongside. This has required rethinking as to how teachers and schools meet these changing demands in increasingly uncertain times.
The complexity that characterizes the work of teachers and school leaders was amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The immediacy and urgency of schools' responses to this unfolding situation positioned teachers and school leaders as education's front-line responders. Ensuring continuity of learning and the well-being of students and families became a central focus. In places, access to schools and campuses has been critical for the children of key workers leading the pandemic response and maintaining local infrastructure. Without warning, pre-planning or systematic response plans, the work of teachers and school leaders continued, but in an entirely unfamiliar form. The eyes of the world have been watching, critiquing the response and trying to understand the impact.
This intensified public focus, and the dynamic nature of teachers and school leaders' responses offer new insights into how they can react in times of crisis. Professional collaboration and the capacity to exercise agency have been central to developing approaches that reflect community needs. Utilizing my own lived experience as a teacher, leader and a postgraduate researcher, and connecting this with related research, this essay explores what we might learn from emerging practice during the pandemic. Considering the intensified focus on teachers and school leaders, and the shifting demands placed upon them, I explore why rethinking of professional collaboration and agency has been required and what this might mean in a post-pandemic era.
The functions of teachers, school leaders and education systems
The purpose of education and the role of teachers and schools within it are highly contested. Often, irrespective of the stated political intent and articulated purpose of education at a policy level, the lived experience in schools for teachers and students can give insight into the intended or unintended values, practices and purposes of education. Policy drivers, economic rationales and the associated education mechanisms within systems are more frequently influenced by supranational forces favouring skills and economic outputs of schooling and education, rather than the values upon which it might be based (Adamson and Åstrand, 2016). The globalization we have witnessed over recent decades has not simply resulted in a transfer of education policy development from the public to private sector following a global neoliberal culture. What it has done is alter the economic and political conditions that frame the process of problem identification, and choosing responses within education systems, as well as the scope nations, systems, school leaders and teachers have to make their own choices (Bonal, 2003; Verger et al., 2012).
While equity, excellence and high-quality learning and teaching remain key elements of educational improvement agendas around the world, discourse and practice can easily refocus on themes of global demands for efficiency and effectiveness. While not always mutually exclusive in nature, there remains a danger of redirecting efforts towards standardization, data collection and workforce preparation. In doing so, focussing on the reduction of inequalities, and curriculum and pedagogy that emphasize the development of the whole child can be sidelined (Adamson and Åstrand, 2016). This brings to the fore questions of what is important in the work of schools, who decides and how that is reflected in practice.
During the pandemic, consideration of what is important and what makes the work of schools effective demanded rethinking. The nature of a global health emergency and the associated restrictions placed upon communities brought about new challenges for how schools operate. Physical campus closures, a newly intensified reliance on technology and the immense emotional toll such an emergency can have on individuals required teachers and school leaders to rapidly assess what their community needs were and how they could best meet them. A focus on continuity of learning has featured in much discussion about the function of schools during the pandemic. However, priorities for what this might include have challenged some traditional conceptualizations of learning in the school context. Teachers and school leaders have had to reevaluate priorities and make decisions about the support they put in place for all those that make up the communities they serve. This has frequently focussed on the importance of social connections, maintaining physical health and well-being and establishing routines that support both of those.
What we have seen is that under the direction of teachers and school leaders, systems have been forced to move beyond concerns of workforce preparation and narrow measures of attainment. Instead, teachers and school leaders have refocussed their thinking and efforts around issues of justice, equity, well-being, identity and community, and with this has come a repositioning of teachers and school leaders as the key decision-makers within their learning communities. From this period of health emergency, locally responsive and diverse approaches to curriculum, pedagogy and organizational arrangements to meet the needs of communities have emerged out of necessity. As a result, the power of dominant models favouring performativity and standardization, found to consistently reinforce or make worse inequality based on race, ethnicity and social class, has been diminished. Teachers and school leaders have been able to creatively and collaboratively rethink how they support the learning, development and well-being of their communities now and are beginning to consider what this could mean for the future.
Rethinking professional collaboration
The collaborative element during this global health emergency has been crucial to ensuring an effective response. In a time of uncertainty and high demand, collaboration can turn overload and fragmented practice into a coherent and focussed approach (Fullan and Quinn, 2016). Being so central to an effective response during the pandemic, it is worthwhile to consider the role effective professional collaboration will play post-COVID-19.
Professional collaboration, for the purposes of this essay, can be conceptualized as a process of joint work around a shared focus (Henneman et al., 1995; Ainscow et al., 2006). It involves individuals coming together, committing to the sharing of expertise and thinking, planning, deciding and acting based on a shared understanding of each other and the communities we operate in (John-Steiner et al., 1998; Cilliers, 2000).
Professional practice in education over recent decades has had collaboration at its core; a key feature of educational effectiveness and a lynchpin to successful educational change (Datnow, 2018). Given this reliance on collaboration, it is now well documented that it has a positive impact on school improvement, reducing inequalities and enhancing student experiences and attainment (Muijs et al., 2011).
During this period of global health emergency, we have seen how both established and new approaches to collaboration have been central to the response of teachers and schools. This has included how schools were formulating plans to ensure continuity of learning, supporting the well-being of the community, addressing issues of equity and access and contributing to broader emergency responses to maintain the functioning of local and national infrastructure. Through social media and other platforms, we have seen the collaborative and community-orientated approaches of teachers and school leaders throughout the pandemic. Highlighted in these examples have been the clarity of need, a focus on shared values and a commitment to communication centred on supporting their community.
For collaboration to not only emerge but also work under such challenging circumstances, there are clear foundations that are required. Meaningful and effective collaboration must account for the intricacies and complex interplay between organizational and systemic norms, language, cultures and social systems (Robertson and Patterson, 2016). While new forms of collaboration have emerged from necessity, most notably online utilizing a range of technology and software, for collaboration to continue to work, and for it to become an embedded part of professional practice, collaborative relationships, trust and mutual respect must be developed and maintained over time (Hargreaves and O'Connor, 2018). For this to happen, increased autonomy and empowerment across education systems are required, matched with joint responsibility for decision-making across stakeholder groups (Chapman, 2019). This has emerged as a vital component to our responses during the pandemic and could be equally applied as we consider how we move forward post-COVID-19.
These broader concerns of power, autonomy and contextually relevant responses will be central to how we move forward into our “new normal”. What remains to be understood is what a more collaborative, autonomous and empowered education system could look like both as a result of and in response to the work of teachers and school leaders during the pandemic. Arguably, more autonomy is not necessarily the answer, but the capacity to act with agency is.
Agency, for the purposes of this essay, is defined as how an individual can act by means of their environment, resulting from the complex interplay of individual effort, available resources and contextual and structural influences within the place and space of which an individual operates (Biesta and Tedder, 2007). These factors have influenced how teachers and school leaders have ensured adequate resourcing and the maintenance of necessary infrastructure to support their communities. During this time, there has been a significant reliance on teachers to develop and engage with new ways of working, utilize technology and engage in professional learning to support their new approaches to practice. Added to this, teachers and school leaders have had to make significant and consequential decisions based on complex advice from governments and local authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of students and staff as learning returns to school buildings and campuses.
While it is clear there has been a large element of collaboration in schools' responses to the pandemic, this has required a great deal of individual and collective agentic action. In many cases, this has been atypical of the norms of practice pre-COVID-19. The agency we have seen exercised has resulted from both the urgency and necessity of the situation.
The giving of the space and opportunity for teachers and school leaders to act with an increasing sense of agency has enabled them to develop a shared understanding of the nature of the needs within their communities and how they might act on those. Greater value has been placed upon the input of teachers in the development of community responses to the pandemic including the form continuity of learning takes, how we address issues of access and equity, how our practice reflects our values and how we collaborate and utilize networks in order to respond to both learning and well-being needs effectively and rapidly. What we can learn from this is the positive impact of utilizing the professional expertise and community knowledge of teachers and school leaders in decision-making processes. Utilizing this, while also affording them greater agency in the development of practice and policy, can result in not only better community responses but also higher-quality decision-making, greater development of professional capital, increased self-efficacy and a more confident sense of professional identity (Tschannen-Moran, 2001). Given the importance and success of this, questions remain about how this could be maintained in a post-pandemic era.
The demands on education systems pre-COVID-19 were already significant: from catering for an increasingly diverse range of student and community needs to an emphasis on effective school systems being self-improving and school led. The range of professional knowledge, skills, attitudes and adaptive expertise needed by teachers in order to respond to these demands are ever-increasing (Brown and Flood, 2019) and have been well demonstrated during the pandemic. We can be certain that the skills and expertise developed will be vital in our post-pandemic contexts. Much of the power in catering for these shifting demands, and in the realization of a learning community's values and vision for learning, achievement and well-being, lies within the affordances or barriers to localized decision-making at a political level. A wider analysis of the process of how policy and practice are developed, fostered and evaluated and the consequences this has for students and communities is needed. This could enable us to better understand how we achieve the often laudable aims of policy development, while also ensuring a collaborative, community responsive approach led by teachers and school leaders.
The experience of this pandemic has made clear that teachers, school leaders and education systems are key to building better societies. But they require broader support. Concerns of equity and access must be part of a wider public policy agenda focussed on eliminating inequality, amplifying the voices of our often marginalized or forgotten community members and ensuring education is the vehicle through which we empower, champion and lead our communities. In doing so, out of a global emergency could come a renewed sense of humanity and belief in the unparalleled power of education.
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