Responding to crisis: When leadership and resilience go hand in hand

11 August 2022


Students put their hands together.

During a recent IIEP-UNESCO training course, a federal Ministry of Education official from Nigeria commented, “Leadership is a collective social process, rather than just a position.” In this sense, leadership is not about one individual. Rather, it defines – and empowers – an entire administration as the primary duty bearers in education. A strong culture of leadership also helps ensure that relevant and sustainable responses are not only developed, but implemented, to protect the right to education, no matter what. 

But what does ministry of education leadership really look like in emergency situations? And what can help support it? In recent years, IIEP has been tackling these questions from several directions to understand how to strengthen ministry of education capacities for crisis management and how to bolster engagement and leadership during emergency responses.

IIEP first convened a knowledge-sharing forum, bringing together ministries of education from across the globe, humanitarian and development organizations, and academia. Country case studies also delved deeper into the experiences of Burkina Faso, Jordan, and Kenya.

In a similar vein, IIEP joined forces with Education Development Trust to explore instructional leadership at the middle-tier to understand how collaborative leadership and leadership networks contribute to effective crisis response.

Combined, these activities have helped define and articulate the importance of leadership at the ministry level to always preserve education and learning. Here are some of the key findings.

1. Lateral leadership is key to resilient education systems

When crises hit, no one school or leader has all the solutions to such complex situations. Instead, different solutions will be tried in different places. It is the sharing of those solutions which will enable actors to adopt the most comprehensive responses that are suited to their context and capacity. But how do you make sure those are communicated across schools and communities? 

Resources and solutions are naturally distributed across many actors locally, including across schools, and other actors such as parents, the community, and local businesses. Collaboration and ‘lateral’ leadership – informal and formal relationships across schools and partners – are as important as traditional vertical and formal relationships. 

When time is of the essence, solutions that are locally tested and organically shared allow for a much more efficient and rapid response. For example, in Burkina Faso, the Ministry of Education engaged local-level actors in planning education as part of the country’s broader COVID-19 response through local-level coordination committees. These regional, provincial, and school-level actors monitored and coordinated back-to-school activities. Education systems that have the networks in place to allow for collaboration across schools and communities, and where trust is already established between actors, are in a stronger position to become more resilient.

2.Invest in collaborative practitioner leadership networks to build resilience at the local level

While there is no blueprint for responding to crises, the tacit knowledge of peers is a valuable resource. Networks such as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) can offer an interesting platform for sharing knowledge and best practices. They can also help school actors to step up and act as agents of change during crises. 

In Kenya, the autonomy and leadership of the Communities of Practice (CoPs), which bring together primary school headteachers in networks around peer mentorship, enabled headteachers to address specific issues that have been relevant to their schools during the pandemic. Contextual knowledge enabled tailored solutions, while local problem-solving and endogenous leadership facilitated by the collaborative networks led to agile localised school responses during crisis. This demonstrates the importance of capitalizing on existing capacities within schools and on collaborative learning for improved leadership.

3.Harness all the expertise in the education workforce and empower professionals at the middle-tier and school level

Sometimes, in humanitarian contexts, parallel mechanisms and systems of response are created. Instead, we need to rely on the power of an education system, its education leaders in school and at the system level, and harness their potential. This requires distributing leadership across levels and trusting individuals to take initiatives. 

For example, the middle-tier of education systems – or those professionals working between the school and central level – is of specific interest. Supervisors, pedagogical coaches, district officials, and school leaders or mentor teachers working across school clusters are strategically situated to contribute to effective crisis response. They act as collaborative problem solvers who coordinate support across schools and teachers. With their proximity to teachers and schools, they have the local knowledge and agility to respond to local needs, as well as to shape the national response. 

During the pandemic, middle-tier professionals working across schools provided socio-emotional support, while also shifting lessons online and informing national policies. In Rwanda, for example, middle-tier networks were reported as the head teachers’ first recourse and were also credited for enabling the smooth implementation of the Ministry’s back-to-school campaign. 

4.Leadership for crisis must explicitly address equity and well-being 

When COVID-19 surfaced, many school actors saw their priorities quickly change. Personal and collective well-being tended to become a prominent concern, as well as how to maintain education for children, with a specific focus on the most marginalized. Schools around the world needed explicit leadership around equity and well-being. In Rwanda, through the virtual Professional Learning Communities, national and local education personnel focused discussions on how to reach the most vulnerable learners and helped other head teachers to understand the importance of engaging with parents via SMS and home visits and collecting data on vulnerable children. 

In the UK, school leaders used their networks to discuss how to address well-being when the pandemic hit.  As schools waited for the government guidance to emerge, they forged their own approaches to overcoming isolation, including weekly phone calls between teachers and children, and daily virtual calls by head teachers to check in on their teachers. These types of networks not only enabled schools to come together around a well-being agenda for students, but also fostered greater well-being among leaders themselves. Similarly, in Delhi, networks of mentor teachers working across schools reoriented their professional learning sessions to discuss well-being.

“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.”

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

Leadership in crisis settings relies on each level in the system collecting – using – relevant data and information with a specific focus on equity issues. To enhance equity and well-being, the views and experiences of crisis-affected populations should also routinely inform crisis response.

Opening two-way communication and implementing feedback can reinforce ministry of education leadership before crisis and build resilience to manage education continuity and uncertainty during and long after a crisis. 

Stay tuned! A forthcoming think piece by Education Development Trust will look at the role of professional leadership networks in effective response to crisis.