Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic
Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic
Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic
Sudha Govindswamy School Support & Evaluation Officer


By Sudha Govindswamy, CIS School Support and Evaluation Officer



What constitutes effective leadership and ‘leadership by presence’
when uncertainty and crisis management continues to be the order of the day? 

A fulfilling aspect of serving as a School Support and Evaluation Officer (SSEO) is the opportunity to interact with leaders in international education worldwide. I get the opportunity to ‘pick the brain’, (ever-so-gently through a critical friend approach) of thought leaders, movers and shakers in the field of international education. It always leaves me in awe. The extent of commitment and endurance that they showcase to ensure our community of learners’ ongoing learning and well-being is incredible. Navigating the pandemic has substantiated my deep sense of respect for our leadership community in redefining leadership approaches in unimaginable ways, more by necessity than choice. 

Leaders take pride in talking about their extensive measures to ensure that parents, students, teachers, and support staff are taken care of (to the extent possible in this pandemic situation). When I pose the questions: “how have you taken care of yourself as leaders?”, there is unfailingly either a pause, or a shoulder shrug with a smile and something that quickly conveys ‘this is under construction’. It’s no surprise that leading through crisis may mean putting the community's needs before their own. 

I can't help recalling a piece of research conducted by Arlie Hochschild conducted on stewards who flew long trans-Atlantic flights (not a relevant example in the context of the grinding halt of world travel at the moment), and coined the term the ‘Managed Heart’. Through the notion of emotional labour, Hochschild describes how—regardless of the physical fatigue or demands of the job—once the light flashes at a passenger seat, the steward is expected to show up with a perfect sense of everything being under control, and with a robotic sense of precision to be at the passengers’ service. This artificial coordination of mind and feeling, that often draws on a contradictory source of self, and that we honor as a deep and integral of our individuality and personal circumstances, is “emotional labour” (Hochschild, 1983, p7): an area often overlooked when we talk about well-being. 

My continued interaction with schools over the last year left me with the burning question: What constitutes effective leadership and ‘leadership by presence’, when uncertainty and crisis management continues to be the order of the day? The unpredictable nature of events and the lack of previous knowledge to navigate through the constant inconsistencies thrown at us daily are some of the valuable touchstones that have truly tested the mettle of leadership during the pandemic.

We took the opportunity to speak with four school leaders to share their approaches and strategies.

1.    What strategies helped to ensure a continued sense of leadership by presence?

Michael Spencer, Head of School, Aga Khan Academy, Maputo, Mozambique
Regular communication around the importance of well-being has been at the heart of our strategies to support our community members. As a relatively small school with 230 students, we have worked hard to build a sense of family. This sense extends beyond the faculty, administration, and support staff. We have tried to extend this care to the community by reaching out to our families and staff wherever we see a need. That need may have been emotional, financial, or academic. 

We have encouraged the community to see the school as a strong locus of support. Regular and close interaction with all stakeholders has been at the centre of this leadership strategy, along with seeking the resources necessary to provide support. Regular parental, student and staff surveys have enabled us to gather data that gives us a sense of ‘real time’ experiences. We have tried to proactively address the issues and difficulties raised, and we are learning to be nimble and responsive in all areas of our work. 

Chantal Al-Gharabally, School Director, Kuwait National English School, Kuwait
In a position of leadership, which is very often a lonely position, there is no time to think about yourself; you have to place your interest on the well-being and safety of all parties involved in your organisation. It is our priority to ensure the continuity of quality of education. The pandemic has taken all of us like a big wave, a strong powerful tide and there was no time without resilience to resist and survive.


Tim Boulton, Head of School Edubridge International School Mumbai, India 
“Making lemonade with lemons,” i.e., capitalizing on having sufficient time for school transformation initiatives.



Shaista Juma, Head Of School Dar Es Salam International Academy, Tanzania
We have been in a somewhat unique position as school leaders in Tanzania. International schools have been left mostly to their own devices on what health and safety measures to put in place. This is mainly because of a common belief that “there is no Covid-19 in Tanzania”. This brought its own set of challenges to navigate: careful language in communications to staff, students, and parents/guardians, navigating sensitive conversations with families who had bought into the idea that we were all safe, and delicately handling officials who queried the temperature checks, mask-wearing, and social distancing when entering our campus. 

2.    What measures have ensured the overall well-being of your community?

Michael Spencer
We employed additional pastoral counselling support for students and families, many of whom struggled during long periods of isolation and online learning. We adjusted our learning and teaching programmes based on regular survey data to tackle increasing loneliness, anxiety and stress. It included an emphasis on physical education because we noticed, and it was reported, that both the physical and emotional health of students had been a casualty of the pandemic. The number of collaborative online team events and regular online whole school gatherings have increased. We have worked hard to keep our ‘off-campus’ residential students engaged and connected with students currently in school. 

The uncertainty and inconsistency surrounding the re-opening of classes for students of different ages have been mitigated by regular and detailed communication. Fridays during the pandemic have become more creative and fun. We designed a range of activities to break up the monotony of countless Zoom-based lessons and breakouts. Online competitions, quizzes, art exhibitions and student-led assemblies really helped levels of engagement, well-being, and motivation. We recognise and draw upon those staff members who have coped well and share well-being strategies on self-help. With the support of our community members, we have also been able to vaccinate all staff members.

Chantal Al-Gharabally
On 1 March 2020, the Kuwaiti government suddenly announced the closure of all schools, public and private; no staff, no students were allowed into the premises. To avoid panic, especially among staff and parents, communication and open dialogue are the most important things. Immediately, we subscribed to Zoom for an extended period allowing us to continue online with the same timetable and cover all subjects, including physical education and music, which we found essential for the well-being of our students in that difficult period. 

Tim Boulton
We created a Student Wellness Study Team, with members from our Guidance, Learning Support and School Leadership. They met weekly to identify needs and make action plans. Subsequently, they evolved into several Action Groups, each focusing on a different aspect of well-being (socio-emotional learning, student equity and access, school ecosystem, transitions, etc.).

Shaista Juma
For re-opening, transparency is key. Clear measures communicated to all stakeholders, open communication, and a focus on ensuring that everyone is honest about where they are traveling and whom they've had contact with. Setting up classrooms in a socially distanced manner, supporting staff and students with PPE gear, knowing which students and staff required frequent ‘mask breaks’, and continual reminder messaging for frequent hand washing. Implementing a hybrid model of teaching and learning has allowed us to have continuity of schooling even in the worst of times.



3.    How have you ensured those in leadership positions (including yourself) have been looked after during these challenging times?

Michael Spencer
As members of the leadership team are currently located remotely worldwide, regular team meetings are essential and regular one-to-one meetings ensure that we check in on each other. Team support is central to each and every meeting. We have built-in opportunities for each team member to share their challenges and difficulties, and this has built great trust and support between us. It is reassuring that if anyone is struggling personally, there are channels of communication that enable support and outreach. There is a pervasive ethos of care that unites and binds us. In short, we look out for each other in meaningful, authentic, and sincere ways. 

Expatriate staff members have been encouraged, where possible, to take opportunities to see their families, and they have been financially supported and through time allocation to factor in quarantine periods.

As the Head of Academy, I regularly connect with fellow Heads in our network to discuss strategies to mitigate the worst effects of school closure and the pandemic. It has been incredibly helpful, not least because you realise that others are dealing with far more challenging scenarios. There are some wonderful ideas out there. Our challenge is finding them, sharing them, and ensuring that we implement them in ways that are culturally and contextually relevant to our community.

Chantal Al-Gharabally
More than ever, everyone, especially leaders, has had to show a strong sense of civicism, resilience and be present on all fronts at all times. So, it’s important to hold regular online staff meetings. 

To lift spirits, I even tried to sing an old revolutionary song of 1789 “ca ira, ca ira” which means "we will cope and succeed", and staff were grateful for the use of humour during that difficult time. Similarly, I held many assemblies online at different key stages, encouraging young students to also sing songs such as: “Don’t worry, be Happy” and “Stand by me.” 

Assemblies were held on different appropriate topics. We explored pandemics from antiquity to nowadays showing that humanity survived despite many worse epidemics and topics on civics and brotherhood. We looked at the advantages for nature due to the slowdown of human economic activities, and how nature seemed to be breathing, which led me to talk about one big issue that had a setback: the climate change with the Agreement in Paris. We organised debates in upper secondary on freedom, human rights, confinement, and lockdown. I tried to make school life as normal as possible.

Shaista Juma
The leadership team has been meeting much more frequently than during a ‘normal’ academic year. The key to getting through the year has been using each other as a support system when discussing challenges with absent staff and students and ensuring regular rounds are being taken of the school to maintain protocols. Most importantly, just being aware of each other’s home situations in case someone needed leave time. 



4.    How can CIS support leaders?

Michael Spencer
Provide some open forums for leaders to share their experiences and challenges. Perhaps develop a ‘buddy’ system between Heads who wish to seek the support of fellow leaders. You are already a great support. Some of the articles published on the website have been reassuring and helpful. Please keep these coming. They really do help. Perhaps a library of readings where we can share and understand strategies that help through these unpredictable times.

Tim Boulton
Over recent months, CIS has shown empathy for our school in various ways. We have received caring email messages from various individuals at CIS who have reached out to express their concern for the situation in India. Additionally, during our CIS membership process, we were granted an extension of a few days, making a world of difference to us. What has come through is that CIS is not just an organisation, but a community comprised of caring and supportive people.

Shaista Juma
Being part of the CIS network of schools this year has made us much more cognizant of the international community out there that we can depend on for professional development as well as conversations and support. Having this network of schools and colleagues have allowed us to navigate these murky waters, and luckily, we seem to have, as a country, recently turned a corner. 


5.    Additional thoughts

Michael Spencer
Never before has holistic well-being been brought so clearly into focus as during the pandemic. The community and its members have had to deal with loss, grief and hardship. It has brought us closer personally and professionally. I believe that schools will not only have learned a huge range of new skills and strategies to maximise their use and application of technology but also, they have had to refine and extend their pastoral care skills and protocols. The question, "How are you?" is now far more nuanced and meaningful than it ever has been. As a leader, I try to seek the answer to this question from all of our stakeholder groups. The hardships experienced in a community like ours are usually hidden. It is a challenge to simultaneously acknowledge and encourage individual resilience, privacy and dignity whilst also trying to ensure that we can effectively support our colleagues in practical and helpful ways.

Chantal Al-Gharabally
Resilience is part of our daily life in school leadership. Being capable of openly communicating with all parties involved, ensuring their well-being, and always being present, is primordial in the first months of the pandemic before things seem to become a routine.

Tim Boulton
This school year has been an ‘ultramarathon’ at Edubridge International School (EIS), with ten consecutive months of online classes! And now, as our students and teachers cross the finish line, they can feel incredibly proud of themselves for having worked so hard, despite all the challenges. Indeed, the resilience of our students and staff has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic—along with adaptability, self-directedness, IT savviness, and other aspects of 21st century learning. But what about our school leaders—has the pandemic delivered any pleasant surprises for them?

At EIS, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

During normal times, we spend most of each day interacting with people: greeting students, doing daily walkarounds, visiting lessons, collaborating with teams, listening to parents, solving people's problems, and so on. However, during the online era, these interactions tend to happen less frequently and more quickly, which has freed up an abundance of time for tackling the big-picture, bucket-list, highly transformative sorts of things that school heads always dream about achieving but seldom get to. 

Something interesting to come out of all this is that our school leaders have been working longer days than ever. Not because they have to, but because they are inspired to. Our focus on school improvement during the pandemic has been the best kind of therapy. With a shared vision of the future, we have set our sights on possibilities, which in turn has helped us to be ‘Happy Humans’.


The purpose of bringing together these leadership reflections was not to draw conclusions but to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the uncertainties of the pandemic and what constitutes effective leadership within different regional contexts. The nuances about the regions in which the schools operate bring very different perspectives in crisis management during a global pandemic. Regardless of these challenges and differences, the sense of calm and resilience that our school leaders have portrayed, despite growing uncertainties in both their personal and professional lives, is not only remarkable but also consistent, even though it has most often been nothing short of ‘emotional labour’. Adding to these uncertainties, leaders also experience pressure from the board, sometimes failing school finances (to varying degrees) and supporting teachers' transitions to virtual learning while perhaps battling a home situation where loved ones have tested positive or are seriously ill. 

Truly, the notion of ‘leadership by presence’ has been redefined by these leaders, not only through innovative ways but virtually. The virtual medium does not offer the opportunity, for instance, to be at the school entrance each morning to greet parents and for students to build that ongoing sense of support and trust. For these relentless efforts and resilience, we want our leaders to know that their efforts to sustain the learning and well-being of their communities is acknowledged and sincerely appreciated. 

Well-being is one of the drivers of school development. While it is often considered from a student-centred perspective, having focused discussions on how this should be extended to include all adults on the campus, including leadership teams, needs to be prioritized. 


Hochschild, A (1983). The Managed Heart. The Commercialization of human feelings. University of Ca

Related content:

Find more posts with reflections and guidance related to well-being in international education here on the CIS Perspectives blog.

Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic
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Redefining well-being and leadership by presence during the pandemic