Meet middle tier school leaders making a difference during COVID-19

05 October 2021


Vulnerable learners were given school materials at Kanyundo primary school in Rwanda.

Throughout COVID-19, instructional leaders have helped education systems adapt to fast-changing needs and circumstances. From Delhi (India), Rwanda, Shanghai (China), and Wales (United Kingdom), IIEP met some of these leaders to hear how they supported teachers and learners during these unprecedented times. These testimonies also add to the Institute’s ongoing research with Education Development Trust to explore how middle tier education professionals act as catalysts of change and help improve teaching and learning at scale. 

Facilitating online dialogue in Delhi  

From Delhi, India, Ila Varma, a Mentor Teacher in a government school, describes how the Teacher Development Coordinator Programme, which launched in all government schools in 2017, laid the foundation for dialogue and collaboration. During COVID-19, the programme’s teacher network meetings shifted online to help strengthen connections between teachers, heads of schools, Mentor Teachers, and district officials throughout the pandemic. 

Ila Varma, a Mentor Teacher in a government school in Delhi, India.

”We have seen a lot of stress, isolation, and suffering of teachers, students and their families. There was a need to be heard and the monthly online network meetings emerged as a platform for reconnecting. The first theme was social-emotional well-being strategies for students and teachers, and the content adapted to the unpredictable situation.” 

"Teachers shared that they again felt a sense of belongingness and togetherness."
- Ila Varma, a Mentor Teacher in a government school, Delhi, India.

“While it was not easy for the teachers to adapt to the technology, Mentor Teachers made it easy by role modelling the skills during co-learning sessions with the teachers. They also organized technology orientation sessions not only at the school level, but also at the state level to connect with a wider group of educators. Now teachers are producing self-made videos and using online tools.

The teaching community confronted the digital divide 

“Many students come from economically deprived backgrounds with minimal resources. Some of the students connected over the phone yet some were not easy to reach. Teachers received help from school management committees, as well as students from other classes, to reach out to the students. Some teachers even went to their homes to find out if they were safe and one vice principal donated more than 300 mobile phones to underprivileged students so that they could attend online classes. Many other teachers took the responsibility of recharging monthly data so that their students did not miss their classes.”

Supporting vulnerable learners in Rwanda 

In Rwanda, Leaders of Learning have played a key role in re-opening schools and responding to the needs of vulnerable learners. Through their Professional Learning Committees, Head Teachers were supported so they could communicate and plan together more efficiently. Celestin Mutabeshya, a National Leader of Learning, in Rwanda’s Rubavu District, explains. 

A Professional Learning Committee meeting on issues related to school re-openings in the Ngamba Sector, led by Sister Bernadette.

“It was not easy for the Head Teacher alone to be well-equipped for re-opening schools, as every Head Teacher was wondering how to get learners back to school, how to prevent them against COVID-19 at school, etc. By coming together at sector and district levels, Leaders of Learning assisted head teachers with coming up with solutions. During Professional Learning Committees, we discussed the ways we can get learners back to school. Through these discussions, some of the actions included: 

  • Head Teachers working collaboratively with teachers, the School General Assembly Committee and local leaders to sensitize parents on school re-opening,
  • Collaboration on implementing COVID-19 prevention measures in schools,
  • Identifying affected learners to support them in re-enrolling, such as pregnant girls and vulnerable learners.

We did not take only these action points and stop there. We also met to share our progress and implementation of action points, the best practices, and ways forward." 

"With the assistance of Leaders of Learning, Head Teachers were prepared, learners came back to school, and the vulnerable learners were supported with school materials, uniforms, and free school feeding programmes."
- Celestin Mutabeshya, a National Leader of Learning, in Rwanda’s Rubavu District.

Familiarizing teachers with unfamiliar with Shanghai’s Air Classrooms 

Lan Shen, Teaching Research Officer in Shanghai, China, explains how the middle-tier advised teachers on how to conduct meaningful physics courses online through Shanghai’s Air Classrooms – the city’s online school platform launched during COVID-19.

Lan Shen, Teaching Research Officer in Shanghai, China, advises a teacher for a video-recording of a physics lesson for the Air Classroom.

“In the face of the epidemic, the shift from offline to online was unfamiliar to most teachers. 

"There were no online teaching resources and no previous experience in massive online teaching. Frontline teachers urgently needed online teaching resources."
- Lan Shen, Teaching Research Officer in Shanghai, China.

My colleagues and I first designed a survey to understand teachers' needs for online teaching. We then provided common and individualized support. Since February 2020, I have also participated in the preparation and video-recordings of the Shanghai High School Physics Air Classroom in Shanghai. Online teaching did not simply mean moving "offline teaching" online – it has its own characteristics in the restructuring of teaching, re-organizing contents, and re-capturing students' attention. For us, it was a completely new challenge and exploration.”

Also from Shanghai, Jiaxiang Shi, another Teaching Research Officer at district level, says the middle-tier has played a key role in bridging teachers, schools, administrators throughout the crisis.

"I need to go down to the grassroots level and meet teachers on the frontline, to collect their opinions, to understand their needs, and to advise school administrators to adjust or improve school teaching and learning policies."
- Jiaxiang Shi, Teaching Research Officer, Shanghai, China.

"During COVID-19, I suggested to the schools in my district to organize efficient teacher learning on user-friendly online teaching technology. I frequently organized online meetings and online teacher development sessions to collect teachers’ feedback and questions, such as whether the teachers should answer the students' questions in time and how to improve efficiency of students' homework tutoring in an interactive way.”

Prioritizing the well-being of school leaders in Wales 

From Wales, Ian Gerrard, the Head Teacher at Ysgol Aberconwy and Associate of the National Academy of Educational Leadership, shares his experience in ensuring that policy-making reflects the realities of teaching and learning during COVID-19. 

Ian Gerrard, the Head Teacher at Ysgol Aberconwy, and Associate of the National Academy of Educational Leadership in Wales.

“COVID-19 has clearly had an impact on the well-being of Head Teachers and Senior Leaders in schools.  As an associate of the National Academy for Educational Leadership in Wales, I have been actively involved in gauging how school leaders are faring and asking them to help us to reflect on their role through the design and analysis of a national well-being survey.

"We wanted to know how teachers were feeling and how we could help them."
-Ian Gerrard, the Head Teacher at Ysgol Aberconwy and Associate of the National Academy of Educational Leadership, in Wales.

The subsequent report has given real insight into the challenges they face – indicating that workload has the greatest impact on school leaders’ well-being. The report also explores what well-being means to school leaders and where they get support from. We also wanted to identify what can be done to support school leaders during the crisis and beyond and to this end the report has started to impact the thinking of policy-makers and other middle-tier organizations. It is clear that a lot of policy-makers are now putting well-being front and centre in their decision-making.”