Strengthening School Leaders – Interview with Elvira Mendoza and David Velázquez

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is also available in: Spanish

The Strengthening School Leaders Working Group, convened within the framework of the Leadership for Change Regional Program of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Teach For All, and the Inter-American Dialogue, has published the “Declaration on Strengthening School Leaders” to empower the voices of educators in policy debates regarding leadership competencies and horizontal or shared leadership, with the objective of promoting a common vision of leadership within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This blog post consists of an interview with working group member Elvira Mendoza, director of the Rosedal Educational Institution in Colombia, and David Velázquez, researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Villarrica del Espíritu Santo in Paraguay.

We start with Elvira Mendoza’s responses.

Question (Q): Could you tell us a little about the Declaration and its creation process?

Response (R): The Declaration is a collective construction of affirmations describing the pertinent actions that educational institutions can take in response to post-pandemic needs. It is a document that condenses the views and consensus among educational leaders from ten countries, as well as the contributions of over a thousand teachers and school administrators which describe the common and unique situations found across schools and culminating in the definition of a proposal of five detailed recommendations that respond to the challenges and key messages identified.

(Q): What have we learned about school leadership during the pandemic, and particularly about horizontal or shared leadership? How did we observe these challenges before Covid-19 and how have they worsened in the last two years?

(R): There are positive examples and lessons that we can reclaim from the experiences of the pandemic. One of the most palpable lessons was the horizontality that emerged in leadership, as well as the sudden transfer of daily learning spaces to the home, changes, and adjustments in school dynamics, and new ways of organizing and sharing responsibilities. Parents also took the lead in teaching and, together with teachers and principals, suddenly found themselves orchestrating the teaching and learning processes. Additionally, as students developed autonomy, self-evaluation became the main form of assessment. Virtual spaces became real spaces where the much sought-after collaborative work flowed naturally — spaces where listening, negotiation, agreements, and maximizing each person’s abilities were absolutely necessary, “the only way to keep moving.”

(Q): As the leader of an educational institution, what key message from the Declaration do you think is most important to highlight?

(R): Each of the key messages in the Declaration forms part of a whole, which ultimately fits together to form a solid structure of five fundamental tenets, but if one is removed, the proposal loses its soundness. Even so, in my particular role, I emphasize how school autonomy is key for decision-making. I think that leaders committed to change and the progress of the educational system have long realized the urgency of bringing about an educational transformation. The pandemic pushed us to the limit, putting us face to face with the urgent need for shared leadership and curricular flexibility. We had been talking about how imperative it is for our teachers to acquire competencies to take advantage of technological tools, and the pandemic led us to address this issue very quickly. We had already been setting the issue of socioemotional competencies on the table, and it was resonating in school environments. So, I think that what we have been missing is being able to make decisions more freely in the pedagogical and administrative aspects. There are many things that limit us and it would be essential to be able to have and assign autonomy in decision-making processes.

(Q): What are the importance of the Declaration and its recommendations in your work?

(R): It has allowed me to contemplate the bigger picture for all educators and educational managers after the pandemic, as well as to know that these are not isolated situations only happening to one specific country or community. Having a global interpretation is very important and has allowed me to communicate with teachers, parents, and students. This prevents everyone from making conjectures and subjective interpretations of the situations that arise, and it prevents them from making judgments and assigning blame. I have had the opportunity to transfer a vision to the educational community of what is happening, and from there to summon everyone to share responsibilities, always insisting that the first step for overall improvement is to identify what needs to be adjusted. I have told everyone, “as always, if we are all together strategically addressing each reality, inevitably things will improve.”

Therefore, the Declaration has allowed me to train my community, as well as to mobilize, motivate, reassure, and create consensus with everyone. 

Now, David Velázquez shares his responses.

(Q): Could you tell us a little about the Declaration and its creation process?

(R): The Declaration is an integrated and systematic set of ideas based on the centrality of management and teacher leadership in Latin American schools. It proposes how to strengthen educational systems and make them more effective in the face of new challenges, such as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education. 

The Declaration was the product of dialogue among 37 participants – hailing from the teaching profession, academia, civil society and the governments of ten countries in the region. It was articulated in three virtual sessions and several additional online exchanges. It’s important to point out that all discussions contributed diverse and enriching ideas and initiatives, and that the Declaration’s five pillars reflect that broadest consensus. I would also like to emphasize that discussions are also a repository of ideas that may eventually be taken up by many of the meetings’ participants. 

Pandemic school closures represented the longest closure in history, and even by the end of March 2022, 23 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, kept their schools shut down. As the pandemic is not yet fully under control, it’s important to keep talking about it in the present tense. The consequences of Covid-19 and containment measures severely affect education systems around the world, and it’s not easy to determine how long it will take to improve education quality indicators. What is quite clear is that education systems can’t continue to function in the same way, proving ineffective in the face of scenarios such as the pandemic. 

(Q): What have we learned about school leadership during the pandemic, and particularly about horizontal or shared leadership? How did we observe these challenges before Covid-19 and how have they worsened in the last two years?

(R): The most effective responses to the crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic are driven by horizontal school leadership among principals and teachers, who involve their educational communities and other social and community actors in developing strategies tailored to their environments.

These strategies are often developed against strongly centralized curricular, legal, and institutional educational frameworks. Through dialogue, a proper reading of reality, a strong commitment to education, initiative, and creativity, several schools were able to sustain basic educational standards during the two years of school closures, despite the precariousness of resources.

Educational institutionalism in most of the region remains centralized and rigid, giving schools very little room to react effectively in times of crisis and establish recovery measures. Therefore, one of the main lessons learned has to do with promoting measures that make legal norms and curricula more flexible and temporary to launch educational recovery efforts. 

(Q): What is the most urgent recommendation you would prioritize in your context and why?

(R) To the extent that the Declaration’s five tenets reflect essential standards necessary to transform education in the wake of the pandemic and were conceived as a coherent and systematic whole, it’s necessary to adopt all the measures together, tailored to national and local realities.

(Q): What is the importance of the Declaration and its recommendations in your work?

(R) The Declaration is of great importance. It defines possible relevant milestones on the road to a transformation of education, and not to a “new normal,” as it’s usually called. 

The Declaration attempts to show how the pandemic not only deepens education systems’ specific flaws, but also shows the ineffectiveness across countries of the institutional articulation between the education system and other systems, such as healthcare, emergency management, and the economy. 

The Declaration demonstrates once again that additional efforts are imperative to guarantee the right to education, given that its violation affects other fundamental rights, such as dignified employment and healthcare. Ultimately, it also negatively compromises the opportunities available to children and youth, and subsequently, societal development. 

The Covid-19 crisis makes it clear that there is an urgent need for access to technology and connectivity resources that were already necessary before the pandemic to improve learning. It also highlights the neglect of key dimensions, such as the mental health and well-being of teachers and students, which cannot be ignored in the long term. It’s imperative for us to think about the importance of research and the systematization of experiences of this nature as a basis for future decision-making in educational public policy. Finally, just as the Declaration has been a collective and horizontal exercise conceived across diverse national and regional realities and developed by a plurality of actors, the document also highlights the importance of horizontal cooperation on educational thinking down the line.