Srinivas Nednuri is the Principal of Sri Siddhartha High School in Hyderabad who participated in the inaugural cohort of Project Light, a school leader training program. In this three-month training, he attended a session on ‘Ensuring Student Well-being,’ where he learned how to use the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy as a tool to serve his students during COVID.
He, along with three teachers, called the parents of all 480 students of his school to check on them. It took them just two days to complete this exercise. They identified 50 families who were quite vulnerable due to this crisis and did not have rations that would last beyond a week. Mr. Nednuri pitched in money to buy rations for them and also roped in an NGO that could give additional support to some of them.
He learned other techniques through a three-month training program run by Alokit, an organization that works towards enabling school leaders. A survey by Alokit with 291 school leaders in India found that 85% of school leaders felt responsible for the welfare of their students. Yet, ensuring student well-being was among the top four challenges that they faced. The three others were online teaching, communication with families and managing finances (for affordable private schools).
In response to these insights, Alokit created ‘Project Light,’ a program to help school leaders adapt to the COVID crisis. Our team has had three key learnings from executing the program.
1. Adapting quickly needs both efforts and assistance
The Alokit staff was initially apprehensive as the program would take place exclusively through video conferencing. As we previously did in-person interactive workshops, we were skeptical about maintaining interaction in virtual spaces. Besides, will the school leaders, who were mostly middle-aged, be able to adapt to this new technology?
What we found out was surprising. Firstly, it was easy to ensure rich interactions in video conferences. We had to be mindful of how different elements in physical workshops translate into the virtual workshops. That meant usage of both WhatsApp and chat-box for communication during workshops, cold-calling participants to share and ensuring everyone’s videos were turned on to imitate the sense of togetherness that is brought about by seeing each other. We realized that almost all of them were quite eager to switch to this new medium of communication. Even though a lot of them (including our team) were initially clumsy in handling these new interfaces, that did not come in the way of their willingness to learn. All of this required assistance and persistence from our part too. We set up tutorials for a few of them who did not know how to mute or turn on their camera. We did one-on-one coaching conversations if someone was vary of implementing it in her school due to discomfort in the virtual medium.
2. Intentions triumph competencies during a crisis
At Alokit, we provided certain tools and sharpened some competencies that will empower the school leaders to adapt well, but what really helped us drive the program were the intentions of the school leaders. The school leaders who are part of our program dedicated 90 minutes each week to come together and discuss what they could do for their students. We found that all of them genuinely intended to help their students. Reena Ma’am, a school leader of Babul-ul-Uloom, an affordable private school in East Delhi, went to extreme lengths to provide for her community. Not only did she identify and provide monthly ration-kits to some of the most vulnerable families, but she also transferred cash directly to some of the families. She did all this in spite of the fact that she was barely able to provide for herself and her teachers. Of course, good karma came back to her and she was able to fundraise to provide salaries for some of her staff.
3. Pivot program on needs
Alokit had to adapt the training framework on leadership competencies to include addressing immediate needs. We spoke to many school leaders and partner organizations, ran surveys with hundreds of school leaders, spoke directly to students, and sometimes teachers to understand their struggles and priorities. Then we pivoted our program keeping the school leaders and their students at the center of our work. We ensured our content was designed around learning new technologies, engaging students remotely, increasing engagement with parents, etc. which were some of the urgent needs expressed by the school leaders.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions. Seeing the school leaders being at the forefront of their communities’ development is one of the most encouraging acts we have seen in these times of crisis. It is an opportune moment for educators and school leaders to take the big leap forward in rediscovering their own role and the impact they can have on society.