The COVID-19 Pandemic: An Opportunity to Build Leadership Capacity in Indian Education

Dr. Gopal Midha provided us with some insight as to the COVID-19 educational experiences in India. He makes a case for the importance of strengthening educational leadership.

The pandemic has made it necessary to reflect upon educational leadership challenges and opportunities in resource-constrained contexts like India. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been in touch with educational leaders from the public and private school systems in Maharashtra, India, and learned about the challenges they face. What I share below has been collected through informal conversations with teachers, parents, principals, and public officials and skimming through newspaper and Twitter feeds to get a gist of educational policy initiatives and actions. These preliminary findings are not a representative understanding of all perspectives and experiences across India’s diverse educational system. I raise questions, however, about leadership claims of how technology is ensuring that Indian students and teachers are faring well. Overall, my purpose is not to critique current educational leadership, but to make visible the distinct and somewhat unique educational challenges not highlighted in Twitter/news feeds and therefore map out areas of strengthening educational leadership.

In this post, I describe three main educational challenges pertaining to ambiguity, inequity, and unforeseen dynamics (poverty and migration) and then indicate implications for educational leadership. These challenges are rarely mentioned in public news reports. Overall, the message I gathered from Twitter feeds and news reports, representing the voice of theMinistry of Human Resource Development (which oversees education for the country) is that education in India is still largely proceeding as business as “usual.” The messages suggest that the use of technology (websites, mobile applications, and tv channels) is assisting most students to continue their learning at home, pending exams for grade 10th and 12th grades will soon be held, and students can expect a return to schools and colleges sometime in August, if not earlier. In contrast, from the perspective of teachers, principals, and educational professionals locked in their homes and attempting to return to work, this picture shows only one side of reality. From their perspectives, the Indian education sector’s response to COVID-19 highlights multiple challenges. 

1. Ambiguity: The talks with informants and select news stories reveal that education is a messy, socio-political endeavor and not a collection of neat technical policy decisions as the government circulars and news stories tend to portray. The intermingling of educational decisions with politics has led to multiple, conflicting interpretations of what is going to happen. For example, some states in India have pondered over whether to grant degrees without terminal exams (i.e., based on internal test scores) because bringing half a million students together would be a big biosecurity risk. Ruling party politicians, public education officials, and school boards have differing views on the matter. The decision about degrees reflects power dynamics (Times of India, May 23). What makes the decision politically more complicated is that some exam boards completed exams before the lockdown, while other boards still have to administer exams and declare their results. This clash along with the complications leaves students (and parents) in an ambiguous position about their educational futures. 

2. Inequity: Importantly, the pandemic has accentuated the divide between the low and high income  households. Students belonging to poor households largely attend free public or low-cost private schools and the students from high-income households attend costly private schools. What is becoming clear is that the wealthier a student’s household, the more likely that student will have access to quality to online education during the pandemic.

  • Differential access to technology: For public schools students, access to technology and therefore online learning is not a real option. More than 70% of students who attend public schools in cities like Mumbai, for example, don’t have access to a laptop. These numbers further drop when we consider rural areas. Although figures are hard to estimate, only about 50% of parents who send their child to public schools have a smartphone. These parents are currently out of work and struggling to get enough meals a day. So, expecting these parents to buy a data package and give their smartphone to their kids to use teaching apps, download worksheets, or watch videos for their classes is not likely to work despite content availability. A few compassionate leaders in the public school system have tried to address this inequity and there are stories of school principals buying data packages and phones for these poor parents. Most likely though, the poor parents would find it more beneficial to sell the smartphones to procure essentials. Government leadership has also responded by offering free access to educational TV channels. On the other hand, high-fee private schools are offering online lessons even to kindergarten students, who have access to laptops, tablets and data packages.
  • Domestic challenges: Initial discussions with informants show that when health and food security are challenges, education takes a backseat. For instance, some teachers shared that when they call parents to check up and see if their students are able to get homework accomplished, parents respond by saying, “Please don’t trouble us about schooling right now, we have other pressing issues.” On the other hand, wealthier households who send their children to private schools are now engaging more deeply with their child’s education. Parents often sit with their children during the online lesson to provide any instructional help.
  • Teacher availability: Due to the public health emergency, the government has created containment zones and turned to the education system for help. In Mumbai, for instance, since the municipal corporation is in charge of health and education, some public schools in Mumbai have been converted into temporary hospitals, and a few teachers have been employed to help with this transformation or to visit houses and hospitals working as contact tracers. Not only does such work (for which teachers are not well trained) create additional stress and risk, it also takes time away from any teaching preparation or guiding students. High or moderate fee private school teachers have escaped this reassignment of work, however, low-cost private schools have been forced to lay off teachers.
  • Technical Skills: Teaching through online collaborative tools, interactive whiteboards, or even using slideshows is not an expertise in public school teachers. Though expensive private school teachers seem to be more adept at technology, the involvement of parents sitting next to their child during online sessions has created new “performance” pressures for teachers and students. Still, compared to public school students, at least most private school students continue to engage in schooling.

3. Unforeseen dynamics: The pandemic has also created new, larger challenges such as student migration and gender dynamics. 

Migration: A significant number of parents, mostly  with students enrolled in public schools, have migrated from cities like Mumbai to their native villages where they have better community support and lower costs of living. Various state governments are currently conducting surveys to find how many students have migrated and if they will return. This migration means that many students will drop out of school since access to schooling and online access is negligible in rural areas. Even in rural areas, barely 100 miles from Mumbai, the migrated students are at a new home and adjusting to a new life (e.g., farming). The long-term implications of this migration is unclear.

Gender: Female principals and school leaders who are now back home have both professional and household responsibilities. In her conversations, a female school principal indicated that the professional dignity that accompanied the female leader’s work has been diluted and females are facing greater pressures at home to fulfill more traditional gender roles. The absence of a house maid, for instance, creates more pressure on the female teachers and female principals to do household chores besides their online responsibilities. The impact of gender roles also influences the ability for girls to remain in school and engage with their coursework from home.

Strengthening current and future educational leadership in contexts like India 

The pandemic has made prominent key fracture points revealing specific areas to build individual and collective capacity amongst educational leaders in India. I outline three interconnected areas of focus which might be helpful for educational leaders to ponder upon.

1. Aim for Coherence: The presence of ambiguity is natural in the current pandemic. Hence, the key strength here will be to build coherence in talk and action. Instead of considering teachers as field agents who provide data to senior leadership for decision-making, it is imperative that the institutional sets up processes that involve active sensemaking of the environment. For instance, involving teachers and principals actively in discussions of larger policy decisions (e.g., degree referrals or opening of schools) is not only an enactment of sensible distributed leadership but will also make the educational institutions resilient to future shocks. Educational leaders must leverage their knowledge and the strength of numbers to own up their professional power instead of leaving educational decisions to political parties.

2. Trust in Collaborative Agency: My conversations reveal that India’s legacy of the colonial model of education has in many ways stagnated leadership by suppressing agency of local leaders and by using the high-hand of inspections to command subservience. Hence, in the current crisis, teachers and most principals are “waiting” to be told what needs to be done since they have rarely been allowed to make substantive decisions. So, taking initiative collaboratively will build agency. To take the case of re-opening of schools, the system may encourage school and district leadership networks and peer to peer sharing of good practices than reverting to laying down rules for each school and then following up with inspections. Such networks must include parents and must actively acknowledge female leaders for their contributions. Including expert private school teachers in networks to support online teaching expertise could also help address equity in future online teaching-learning. School networks would be far more adaptive to sensitive health decisions and actions when schools reopen than waiting for official dictats. 

3. Valuing Compassion: The biggest possibility for addressing inequity and building greater leadership capacity lies in acknowledging and sustaining acts of compassion in the public school system. For most students coming from marginalized, diverse, and excluded families, teachers and principals in public schools have also traditionally been “care” providers. In my ethnographic work, I have found that teachers and principals often become pseudo-parents to struggling students partly because many teachers and principals have graduated from public schools and feel a closer connection with student and community struggles. Recently, a public school superintendent told me how she was negotiating with local temples to set up wifi stations to provide free internet access to public school students in the neighborhood. Hence, valuing compassionate acts of reaching out to parents to offer food security or calling/writing to individual students to keep in touch will promote inclusion and equity. My understanding is that there are already many teachers and principals who are engaging in such leadership acts of compassion and recognizing these as authentic acts of leadership will also help parents (and students) feel trusted and cared for to return sooner to the public schools they have left.

The three areas I highlight above are interconnected: collaborative agency without compassion for instance will lead to instrumental decisions about what works and what does not instead of also bringing in values. Coherence without collaborative agency means tight top-down control and further weakening of educational leadership. Compassion with coherence is critical to address equity. I hope these areas offer a starting point for a discussion on what is most needed to strengthen educational leadership in contexts like India.  

To read Gopal’s previous blogs please see his recent insights on this website:  “Unplanned Meetings”- The Hidden Gem in Educational Leadership and Theater as a Method for Developing Educational Leaders.

1 thought on “The COVID-19 Pandemic: An Opportunity to Build Leadership Capacity in Indian Education”

  1. An extremely interesting insiders’ perspective of the effects of the pandemic on Indian educators, students, and their families. Many parallels with what is happening in other parts of the world, and some new challenges, such as migration and teacher availability.

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