Change Management in The Age of Corona

How accelerating change affects leaders and 5 things that are helping me.

The only constant in life is change"-Heraclitus - Executive Drug ...

I don’t know about you, my gentle readers, but I have sent so many emails in the last few days that open with, ‘I am so sorry to change this meeting time/start date/start time/rule [select relevant option]’ so that I have begun to think I should sign my name, ‘Angie Motshekga’!.

We all know that modern life requires us to be flexible and learn to cope with change, but I think it’s the rate of change that has increased so much since we have entered the Age of Corona (forget Aquarius, this one needs its own title). We need change management techniques on speed, literally and figuratively.

The Effects of the Rapid Rise in the Rate of Change:

1. We need to be more flexible

The acceleration of changing information requires us to be instantly adaptable, with the dexterity of a taxi driver changing lanes. I had occasion to thank a staff member today, our imminently organized high school secretary, who had just been told one thing by her manager, only to have me alter the plan as new decisions were made. Her gracious shrug of ‘No problem,’ was so gratefully received because I didn’t have to placate, console or explain anything. (I would have hugged her if I could.)

Not everyone is that resilient.

Adapt or die may sound pithy when contemplating Darwinian theory, but when faced with the possibility that choices we make may well have life or death consequences, taking time to pause and choose wisely, then adjust your approach when new announcements change our underlying assumptions, takes a new kind of rolling-with-the-punches kind of thinking, which can be exhausting especially for those with a need for tidy, stable structures.

2. Clear, Accurate Information is difficult to Communicate

COVID-19 statistics are changing almost as fast as the numbers on an Eskom electricity meter in winter, and so does the information available, which makes it frustrating when trying to communicate effectively with our parent-clients who are crying out for clarity about so many things, not least of which are dates for the phased re-opening of schools. 

Knowledge is power, so when it keeps changing, so does our confidence in being on top of things. No one likes feeling stupid, and if we are caught napping with ‘I don’t know’ it doesn’t feel good. I have started tacking on ‘at this point,’ ‘according to current information, ’and ‘as far as we know’ to my statements, for plausible deniability.

Unfortunately, scientists are a bit like expert witnesses – you can always get one to back up your opinion. And everyone who has a viewpoint has a scientist to back up their view. We are bombarded with these twin talking heads, each crying fake news at the other and we as educators need to sail a path of sense through it all.

How I have managed to cope with the speed of change

1. Simplicity

I try to distil the myriad of articles, videos and documents into the essential snippets. However, anyone who has ever sat through one of my meetings knows that précis is not my strong point, but the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ technique would be a good one to follow, if I could.

2. Team

I have been blessed in the course of my headships always to have good management teams, with whom to grapple with decisions. There is so much benefit to be derived from collected wisdom, and fortunately what we call the 5 Cs: CCCCC (CCC (School’s name) Command Council – we could have named it the 6 Cs: CCC Covid Command Council, but that would have been a bit much) has been tremendously insightful in unpacking the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP – my new, least favourite acronym) and all the new protocols to be observed when we re-open our schools.

My leadership team has worked tirelessly to transition our school from being a conventional educational institution, to a remote learning school, and… coming to a theatre near you… a hybrid, combining physical lessons and the remote offering for those who can’t or don’t want to send their children back.

Note to all leaders: if your team is strong, you always look good.

3. Empathy

It’s easy to become overwhelmed or irritated with the content overload and perpetually altering circumstances, not to mention having to absorb the anger and anxiety of everyone else like SpongeBob superheroes.

That is when the ability to appreciate another person’s viewpoint enables you to maintain a certain amount of humility and gentleness in your responses, all the better to diffuse antagonistic situations. People are stressed. It helps to visualize what that feels like.

4. Creativity

If ever we needed this 21st century skill, it is now, in this crisis. The trick is ensuring we have fun even in the dark days. The entrepreneur, Sam Cawthorn believes that

Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.’

As a school we have seized on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the change has allowed us to do them.

5. Wisdom

Billy Joel thought that honesty was hard to find; wisdom is even harder and when everyone is looking at you for the oracle moments and quotable quotes, it can be a bit daunting. See #2 above. Thank goodness for teams.

When all else fails in a crisis, my mother’s favourite prayer (and also funnily enough the prayer of addicts) is what keeps me going:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

I am not in any danger of being addicted to change, but I certainly need the serenity of the Mona Lisa (although I sometimes think she was a schoolteacher thinking ‘%^&*& I don’t know what to do with these new-fangled methods – I’ll just smile and perhaps they’ll think I’m on top of it all’) and the guts of a Man United fan at Anfield. (FYI I’d never be a Man U fan.)

Mona Lisa with mask covid19 - wallpaper 1080p | Wallpaperize

But perhaps the Good Lord will grant me the wisdom I so badly need.  If not, see #2 above, repeat…

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’…and coming soon to a school near you: ‘The Redemption, through Resumption of the Class of 2020.

A reflection on change and what we face in our return from lockdown, like paroled prisoners

The Change Ralph Rumney, 1957

Aunty Angie has finally made the announcement: it’s back to school we go.

This is an appropriate season for us to be facing the uncertainty of re-integrating our learners into the wild, that’s for sure. It’s around this time that, as you dress for work, you contemplate ‘open toe? or closed toe?’ (Well if the weather is warm and your summer peep-toes are all worn out or packed away, you can’t buy more, just remember.) It’s also the time you get caught out sans umbrella, or a warm jacket for the late afternoon’s chilly breeze or downpours.

In many homes, parents will be contemplating how to return their wildlings to their natural school habitats and weaning them off the home environment.

So much of our return is uncertain. We still don’t know how other grades will be phased in and for our students it’s going to be hard to acclimatize themselves to new regimens of health checking and social distancing. And for our matrics, the added trepidation that comes with firstly being in matric and facing the unknown future of their tertiary studies and adventures, is exacerbated by the fact that now matric is almost as variable as the Cape weather, and as hard to predict.

Wearing masks all day will take some getting used to, because they are hot on your face and fog up glasses so there can be no heavy sighing. Different break time routines and washing procedures will become part of the fabric of the autumn time.

The Keats ode to the season of change, ponders the sliding transition as Summer slowly draws to a close and autumn sets in. Our youngsters will find themselves in this chilly term in socially distanced classrooms, and the jerky teenage hug-athon that usually presages the return from a holiday, will not be allowed. (The Pres did say the time for kissing and hugging is over). Pity these poor teens trying to get a date now too! But the warmth of the social embrace will be missing for them and we must be prepared for their reaction to the starkness of it all.

It will be up to us to make this new normal (I hate that expression already) as painless and as natural a process as possible, like the turn of the seasons. And fun – we must have fun too, just as Keats suggest autumn brings her own beauty.

The ode reflects on the fact though that Autumn’s music is just different from Summer’s and yet it has its own lyrical voice and cadence. I hope that when we return we shall have a new appreciation for our learners and they of their teachers. We shall still be playing music; it will merely have a different sound.

On my brief forages into the shops, I have noticed that wearing masks draws your eyes to other people’s eyes and this masked season in our schools may give us a new look at each other – I am hoping we shall see our children more clearly even though we shall have less of their faces to see (and we know of course that there will many a bearded young man hiding his lack of a razor behind his mask). Perhaps this will be a time of closer contact soul-window to soul-window, as we need to peer more intently at one another. Lord knows, we shall need to watch closely for signs of trauma.

Some of the sound of our return may be more groan than song however. Change of any kind brings with it attendant traumas, and these children may well not have been outside the confines of their homes, even to exercise, for 65 days by then, especially if they are the couch potato type, because, other than the hours to exercise, children have not had a chance to go to the shops like their parents.

When prisoners are released back into society, there are psychological adjustments to be made to adapt to their newfound freedom. (In the case of schoolchildren returning, some comics may say they will have swopped one prison for another, of course) but the fact remains that the elements present in the body and mind’s response to change will be reflected in our returning parolees.

Learners with pent-up emotions within the confines of the homes, like prisoners who bottle up their feelings and present bland exteriors in prison for the sake of keeping the peace, may well be prone to greater quarrelsomeness as their emotions have a little more space to be vented; ‘pecking orders’ will have changed (no matter whether the home or school is the more egalitarian) the rules will be different and learners will discover themselves on a different side of the heap than at home;  some will have been able to avoid facing up to the reality of impending matric exams (as well as the likelihood that feelings of dread,both real and imagined, may abound around how little they may have worked ) and will now have to confront matric, in the same way that an ex-con has to face what he has done when he sees his family again.

And, of course, not one child’s experience of the changed environment will be the same, nor will their responses be timed to make things easier. And we may well have days when we have the perfect storm of them all acting out differently on the same day.  And like all prisoners they will regard the teachers (and their parents) as jailers, and rebel accordingly, playing us off against each other.  

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Some will struggle with leaving their comfortable prisons where they have been cossetted. The challenge of trying to teach teens who have become accustomed to beginning their studies after 9:00 in their pyjamas, with hot chocolate or coffee on tap, is going to take some counting to 10. They are going to be grumpy. In some homes, there may have been little oversight and so educators may suddenly be seen as the abusive prison guards.

It is not going to be as smooth a transition of seasons as Keats describes in his poem, but I am comforted by this reality: the human spirit has the most wonderful power to adapt to changing circumstances, and I am sure that soon the new way of doing things will become as commonplace as wildlife in our towns these days and our resilient learners will flourish once again.

But… forget about autumn and mellow fruitfulness, …winter is coming…. the next grades have to return … and we shall start this rollercoaster again…. and again…. until we are all back.

Traces of change by Magdalena Morey

And learning to be comfortable with change, we need to be fluid, like water. As that great philosopher, Bruce Lee says:

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

Of Schools and Screens and Lockdown, and Socialising Scenes

There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone  (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.

But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.

The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).

Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.

Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.

I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.

That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.

Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time.. 

This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.

As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:

With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery.  But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.

With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.

The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects.  School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)

Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.

So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.

In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.

And tell them we miss them.

Or just show them this:

Or this:


Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:

I just hope we don’t go back to this:

At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):