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Beyond the Pandemic: A Principal's Perspective

By Jon Butcher
Beyond the Pandemic: A Principal's Perspective

Art by Sativa Ertola @SativaErtola

My 2018 Crisis Management training with ESPCT didn’t cover global pandemics. Nevertheless, it was Wednesday 18th March when state authorities prohibited the face-to-face teaching of children at Berlin Brandenburg International School (BBIS), where I serve as Principal. I now write with 2020 hindsight, and boy, what little did I know then. Being charged with shifting to online learning was just the tip of the iceberg. What lay below the surface were far greater challenges.

As an inclusive school, we were primed and well-versed in preventative measures. Tracking the local COVID statistics in disbelief, we rapidly upskilled our staff to take on the virtual challenge ahead. I felt honored to be part of such a global deprivatised effort: Yokohama International School’s Continuous Learning website was one of the first to be shared, followed by Basil International School, and so on. I worked creatively with our AGIS principals, particularly thankful to Jenny O’Fee and Heather Baumann here in Berlin.

We quickly learnt asynchronous alone would grossly underestimate the social emotional learning needs of our students. A year on, we continue to shift gears, finetune, and rebalance our virtual experiences to ensure collaborative and social opportunities are capitalised upon, using the tools at hand. And if we don’t have the right tools I push to get them!

Our school counsellor kept me in check; being a self-proclaimed vision-driven leader, I was the recipient of quiet reminders that many were simply surviving and certainly not thriving. Yet, as time went by I challenged our institution that THIS IS IT for our students. Meaning that our children’s learning was not on pause, rather this is their experience, so we owe it to them to make it matter.

What support could I offer my staff? Be visible and available. Be confident, competent, and calm. Deliver an effective timetable that meets both families’ and teachers’ needs. Extend planning time. Share guidance on how to model, practice, collaborate, and confer virtually. Model AgencyByDesign routines for deep learning. But perhaps most importantly, offer my sincere gratitude, respect, and appreciation.

We were fortunate to get the students back before the summer break and stayed open right up until mid-December. When children did return to face-to-face, the mindset with both teacher and students was “every minute matters.” The ideas of Marie Kondo were embraced by our staff, and transferred into curriculum planning. The Global Online Academy’s (GOA’s) excellent PD guided us well in caring about relationships, wayfinding, and giving families agency.

Here in 2021, we once again find ourselves in lockdown. I think back to the ESPECT training, identifying circles of vulnerability, and it’s not our students who sit in the Centre, but our teachers. 70 hours+ is no outlier, teachers are working ridiculous hours. These are not demands set by their ambitious principal, but rather self-driven standards to meet their students’ needs. It is not sustainable.

It’s been many years since I received my National Pool Lifeguard Qualification—30 years, in fact—since I swam with a manikin across my hip, or threw a line to a swimmer in need. My pool is now our virtual school, and it’s my instructors I watch with concern.

The winter break lockdown had complex consequences: Overseas teachers were unable to visit family back home and had no local family to compensate. The state told them to make personal sacrifices in their private lives, restricting the already limited collegial support they had due to COVID social regulations. Then January came and teachers were asked to rise to the call to provide emergency care, thus putting themselves on the frontline once again, whilst supporting online learners too.

At BBIS, our teachers have not once wavered. They have remained committed to their students, demonstrating passion and care with a “can do” attitude. I am therefore in the privileged situation to worry not about the learning that is happening but rather for the teachers who are delivering these experiences. Whilst this does not come from one teacher complaint, I hear our teachers cry for help.

Things will get better. We play a game at the dining table with my six-year-old: What’s good about this? Well, I would reply, EdTech skills are completely authentic, the AtLs are omnipresent, Resilience (the missing IB learner profile) is being modeled and practiced. At the start of the pandemic, passion projects may have been luxuriously suggested, but now it’s clear this is not a short-term experience; pedagogues are challenged to prove they truly believe in project-based learning!

Douglas Fisher states that 60 percent of what students are taught, they already know. John Hattie’s metadata is just screaming at us, e.g., Teacher credibility 1.09, Success criteria 0.88, Class discussions 0.82, Deliberate practice 0.79, Reciprocal teaching 0.74, Feedback 0.64. Teachers are literally seeing themselves teach and reflecting on their own practice. This experience has to be transformational for any educational institution.

Across our Boarding School building, in large, bold print one can read the words, “Our actions define us.” As a faculty, we understand the importance of practicing positive thinking and mindfulness, and meeting tough moments with empathy. We know our students are watching closely. Paraphrasing Rosemarie Truglio, they are observing how we are coping with adversity, reacting to setbacks and mistakes, and handling these challenges. They are learning from us—all of us!

It’s likely the year ahead contains more Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA), so we must take care of our teachers. We must identify their circles of support. My success criterion is this: Teachers don’t burn out, nor quit this amazing profession, but remain with us beyond the pandemic.

Jon Butcher is Principal at Berlin Brandenburg International School. @butcher74


AgencyByDesign -



Visible Learning Database -

Marie Kondo The Curriculum -

The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12 by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie

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03/13/2021 - Privileged Teacher
Jon Butcher's unfailing sincerity and grace make him the most amazing principal and human to work with.
As one of his staff members I consider myself a very blessed teacher.
I would like to echo Tommy Buteau's comment to take care of yourself.
02/24/2021 - Tommy Buteau
Nice to see your work Jon. Remember to take care of yourself too. We are in Japan now. Take care.



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