How can leaders provide comfort and purpose during uncertain times?

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Director of European Azerbaijan School Francesco Banchini reflects on a year filled with change and how leaders can foster a sense of community during challenging times.

By Francesco Banchini 

During the past year, we have learned new skills and adapted ourselves like never before all within a short period of time. There has been a dramatic shift in the direction and purpose of our lives. We are still in the transitional phase where the past is known but our day-to-day lives contain an unprecedented level of uncertainty. As the CEO and Director of European Azerbaijan School, I would like to share some personal reflections on this recent period of disruption and opportunity.  

A shift towards distance learning 

There are several opportunities that have been created over the past year such as a move to distance learning. This increased our skills enormously and gave us the motivation to rethink how we relate with our students. As we moved from a familiar learning path, albeit one where a vision of moving forward and keeping the community safe was our motivational drive, we approached distance learning as a new horizon and unknown territory. At our school, it has been an opportunity to develop our skills and engage our students in an enhanced digital educational era. We have been able to introduce a range of different platforms to engage our learners, although significant investment in training was needed to ensure that teachers felt confident to embrace the new technology. 

After a few months of distance learning, we made two clear observations: Firstly, we realized that this approach to learning developed differently and new ways of communication depended heavily on electronic devices. Secondly, the mandated lockdown resulted in high levels of anxiety among families and teachers. The well-being of our community was our main priority but communication through devices created a challenging side effect to this new learning path. 

Fostering comfort in the community 

As a leader, it was imperative for us to create comfort within our community and as the challenge of distance learning continued, we developed support systems across our two campuses. We held meetings with students, parents and teachers to discuss the issues and challenges they were facing. This was vital in establishing effective communication with our stakeholders. At the same time, the IB took the decision to delay deadlines to submit documentation and later on decided to cancel the M20 examinations. Whilst we welcomed the IB’s desire to show compassion and fairness, we had to address our parents and students queries about how the overall grades would be calculated. Even though it was stressful time of our community, our stakeholders found comfort when the IB were responsive to revising grades after receiving feedback from the community. 

Summer in Azerbaijan went by in strict lockdown and we held online meetings with parents to reassure them that we were investing time in fulfilling the necessary procedures needed to establish a safe return when we were allowed to do so. Infection rates were moderately low and in the second week of September, the government informed us that we could resume school and our community was pleased to hear that. We rehearsed the opening and through this, we all became confident in maintaining the safety of our students and community. With on-site learning resuming, it felt as if things were returning to a state of normalcy. 

Addressing the challenges ahead 

On the evening of September 27, we heard the news about the war in the Nagorno Karabakh region and the tenuous feelings of normality were shaken as the situation became more uncertain. We resumed school on site but at the same time, some of our community members were called to go to the front. The news and the images received created an uncomfortable atmosphere in our community. As an IB school, we focus on promoting international mindedness and encourage diversity. However, this war created many challenges for us, and the government ordered us to close our doors because schools became targets, which heightened feelings of uncertainty and anger. 

The war ended 45 days later and there was relief in all of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, many families were mourning the loss of their loved ones and it was natural for us to respond to those in need by organizing a trip to support families in two villages: Barda and Agdam. Every member of our community wanted to be involved and we provided them (and still provide them) with ongoing care. 

Even before the war ended, I was reflecting on the fact that our community needed to regain its sense of purpose by looking outwards rather than inwards. I developed the idea to provide educational support to students who were living in the war zone. We are in such a privileged position in our learning community compared to what these students faced during this conflict and the hardships they continue to face today. As educators, we have the moral duty to make a difference by sharing knowledge and developing educational strategies which benefit everyone. Therefore, I arranged a meeting with my colleagues and asked them for their feedback and availability, as all the teachers provide their time and support voluntarily. I received an overwhelmingly positive response and more than half of the teachers volunteered without hesitation. I then contacted the Ministry of Education and discussed the plan to create and develop a dialogue with local schools and municipalities that could provide educational help for students and professional development for teachers. 

Thankfully, the project was approved and from 18 December, we have been providing online lessons to Barda and Agdam schools, helping 350 students and providing professional development to 57 teachers. This is all happening at the same time as our normal lessons on our two campuses. Throughout the project lessons, we provide students with the experience of attending classes in an international school. By developing multidisciplinary approaches, with subject-integrated problem-based-reality lessons and hands-on learning, we gave them a different learning experience. We provided pedagogical support and professional development to the teachers based on the most recent educational practices. Our sessions were focused on developing student-centered approaches, inquiry-based and skills acquisition learning in an authentic context. 

Our role as an IB school 

We are an IB school because we firmly believe that we are working to become active and compassionate learners that understand other people and their differences. The founder of our school was an IB student and because of this, we demonstrate and share our passion to live this mission and put this into practice in our daily lives, to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. 

We know that COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has had a negative impact on people all around the world. As educators, we need to look after our community and actively address feelings of discomfort and apathy. As a leader, I have the responsibility of proactively addressing these matters. We need to manage uncertainty, share values and understand the impact that our current situation has on the entire community. We are focused on finding solutions to minimize the negative impact, develop clear communication with colleagues, parents and students and learn to react and adapt to improve the agility of our thinking and our actions. This is a journey, and one which is certainly not smooth, however, it is one that I feel proud and motivated to be sharing with those inspirational individuals around me 

Francesco Banchini is the CEO and Director at European Azerbaijan School. He is an experienced leader, educator and researcher that has implemented many innovations in international schools. He published a book on leadership (convergent and divergent thinking) and has written several articles on education and leadership. His educational experience has spanned across a wide range of schools and curricula including extensive work within the Primary Years Programme (PYP) Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP) as a coordinator, examiner, workshop leader and trainer. You can connect with him here.