The pandemic has profoundly changed the way many schools have been operating over the past year. Yet teaching and learning during COVID must continue — whether students are connecting with teachers and classmates in person or virtually. Even in the face of a fast-moving crisis, schools must remain responsive to be effective. And among those under pressure to ensure that effective learning persists are public school principals.
In a newly published research study, Neag School Associate Professor Jennie Weiner and colleagues at several other universities examined the extent to which principals had created the sorts of conditions in their schools that support continued learning and teaching during the pandemic. Specifically, the researchers sought to understand how, and whether, principals were fostering something called “psychological safety” in their schools.
In a school setting, psychological safety may be understood as the degree to which teachers and staff view their work environment as conducive to taking certain risks.
In a school with a high level of psychological safety, or PS, employees feel supported in asking for help or suggesting new, innovative approaches. For instance, a school that welcomes creativity and change may more nimbly tackle uncertainties brought on by a crisis – like an unexpected shift to remote instruction during a pandemic. High-PS schools might then be more likely to give teachers leeway in changing up their practices to serve their students’ needs — resulting, ideally, in a greater likelihood of learning taking place among those students.
“We know that schools that are more able to meet and recover from crisis are those where learning occurs more rapidly and deeply.”
— Associate Professor Jennie Weiner
“Even in the best of conditions, and particularly in crisis situations such as the onset of COVID-19, educators are under tremendous pressure to continually adapt and learn to meet the evolving challenges and needs of their students and families, as well as external demands,” says Weiner.
“Indeed, we know that schools that are more able to meet and recover from crisis are those where learning occurs more rapidly and deeply,” she adds. “We wanted to see whether and how principals who reported engaging in behaviors that promoted psychological safety in their schools may have also been those with teachers most able to respond to the crisis and all it brought forth.”
Building a Culture of Learning During COVID
Using data from interviews conducted last year with public school principals across the country, the research team explored whether particular aspects of any given school – so-called environmental factors – might contribute to its PS level. For instance, would small, predominately white schools in suburban settings exhibit higher levels of PS than large schools serving mostly students of color in a city? In addition, they looked at organizational factors: Could the professional culture of different school districts influence PS? What kinds of actions could principals take to foster PS amid the disruptions and anxieties caused by the pandemic?
“One key finding is that within our sample of 54 schools, organizational features trumped environmental ones, in terms of promoting PS and learning,” says Weiner. This, she adds, “highlight[s] the need for educational leaders to focus more attention on building a culture of learning for both adults and students.”
While the researchers found that suburban schools with lower levels of poverty and more white students were more likely to be rated as having low levels of PS, such environmental factors as a school’s geographic location, demographics, and size in fact did not appear to be as important in predicting schools’ levels of PS as a set of specific organizational factors.
Five Key Factors
The five organizational factors that appear particularly significant with relation to PS include learning; principal autonomy; accountability systems; professional culture; and infrastructure for teacher decision-making and collaboration. Principals who, for instance, felt they had the autonomy to make key decisions, who adapted quickly, and who actively promoted positive, cooperative relationships among teachers tended to lead the schools with higher levels of PS.
“Facilitating trust and a sense of internal or collective accountability in which teachers hold one another to shared expectations for meeting students’ needs are key to school leaders’ efforts to enhance teachers’ willingness to try new things and learn,” the researchers write. That sense of ‘collective accountability,’ they attest, supports risk-taking and, in turn, deeper learning.
“Leaders in schools with higher PS joined with their staff to develop new guidelines for teaching students in a virtual climate focused on providing their learners with meaningful experiences and seeing teachers in practice,” Weiner says. “Our findings … emphasize the importance of collective accountability for professional learning as part of a culture, alongside PS, that can foster real change and learning. Such findings also again promote the need for schools to move away from a culture of ‘nice’ in favor of rigorous, but supportive, conversations that press for change.”
Facilitating trust and a sense of internal or collective accountability in which teachers hold one another to shared expectations for meeting students’ needs are key to school leaders’ efforts to enhance teachers’ willingness to try new things and learn.
In contrast, at low-PS schools, “principals described teachers having difficulty shifting and/or enhancing their practice to meet students’ needs after switching to remote learning.” Weiner and her colleagues note that these schools seemed to experience a “sense of paralysis” where their leaders were not only “unable to incorporate new forms of learning,” but also “relied on old forms of learning, creating difficulty in supporting students and teachers through the change process.”
Principals of schools with lower levels of PS also pushed for teachers’ compliance over their adaptability. That is, they appeared to focus less on ensuring that teachers were offering flexible, effective instruction that met the needs of their students amid the challenges of COVID, and instead were emphasizing the requirement that teachers deliver a particular type of instruction.
While they acknowledge that further study is needed, the authors point out that “collectively, these findings reveal the critical role principals and organizational conditions play in promoting psychological safety and learning, two vital aspects of ensuring adult learning during turbulent and hopefully, calmer times ahead.”