A director's perspective, with James MacDonald

Following an unexpected six months of global lockdown, disruption became an ongoing reality for education around the world. With a major Reopening Plan in place and the prospect of a new director arriving in the midst of a global crisis, the 2020-21 school year started at ISB. We spoke with James MacDonald, who joined ISB on 17 August, right when many were wondering what learning post-Covid-19 would look like. How did this crisis affect his role as a director? “I think the biggest thing that a crisis does is determine what’s on your to-do list; and, with that, the things that have to happen and the actions that need to be taken are largely determined by the turn of events. The second thing that it does is that you need to ensure a certain level of care for everybody around and know that people are going to respond very differently to a crisis. As a leader, you need to understand that some people may not be able to perform their best, while some people may actually really rise in a way that you did not expect.” In a moment when uncertainty and “new normal” share the same meaning, the role of Leadership has never been as important within an international community. As we navigate the uncertainty wave, there is a future ahead of us that requires attentiveness and clarity around the main priorities that will guide the community forward.

From surviving to thriving

“Right now - very sincerely - we simply need to get through this year safely. That is a massive momentous objective. We have no guarantee that it’s going to be possible because, as much work as we put into keeping the school environment safe, so much is determined by people’s behavior outside the campus. That being said, we are in a position where we can certainly do more than just manage a crisis. For example, we can undertake long-term planning now so when we come through this phase in our school’s history, we will be ready to embark upon new work and continue to develop our school and strengthen our community. In many respects too, it can be good for people’s well-being to focus on topics beyond COVID and to be involved in a bigger conversation about an exciting future.”

With this vision in mind, James led a conversation during the Professional Development days that granted the ISB Faculty and Staff community an opportunity to think deeply about two identified priorities for this school year: well-being and social justice. There is an understanding that the current situation has a long-term impact on mental health and human connection, particularly in moments of unpredictability.

By now, we have also learned that Covid-19 is similar to running a marathon. We found ourselves at the starting line in the Spring, but unlike any other usual race, we are unsure of where the finish line is and for how long we must keep running. Still, it teaches us to confront reality, embrace discomfort and focus on what we can control. In the meantime, we become stronger as a community. “I think that if you were running something that has a shorter distance, you would give all your energy to finish the race. But because we don’t know how long we have to run for, we need to make sure we have some rest and we are not running too fast, because we may need to keep running for a longer time than anticipated. So, if we assume that there’s going to be a vaccine before Christmas, then that's an assumption of a 10 km race. But if you are running a 10 km, and you are trying to do this in under 45 minutes, you are not going to be able to continue for the other 25km once you learn the finish line is moved. Psychologically, if we miss the target that we’ve set in our head, it becomes very difficult to carry on. That’s when the marathon mindset becomes important. We can’t pretend it’s going to be a short race because we must manage our reserves to see us through a longer period. “ Finally, leading a school to move further during Covid-19 requires skills that go beyond understanding deeply how to manage a crisis. Conveying confidence in the community, while ensuring that we are realistic, but still remain optimistic is a paradox that seems nearly intangible, but it pushes us to move forward in the hope that this will be over soon.

“I think we can also use this time as a little bit of a springboard to some bigger conversations. To not just focus on operating as normally and safely as possible this year, but on ways we can thrive as we move beyond COVID. I think there is space for both things, and we will find that space together.”

James MacDonald, ISB Director

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