Michelle Brabner’s first days in her new job as college principal occurred just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

It would be fair to say that I consider myself fortunate. My family and I remain healthy so far, I have a career I am passionate about, and even though I find myself working from my spare room, I do have a spare room and garden space to enjoy (in those intended, but never quite managed, breaks!). I was thrilled to become the principal of Southport College and King George V Sixth Form, and started in my role with great excitement on March 9.

Coronavirus was impacting on the UK and discussions around how it would affect colleges were high on the agenda.

My first couple of days were a repeating whirlwind of meeting staff and students and discussing coronavirus. At the end of my first week I remember thinking what an amazing and crazy time it had been, not quite what I expected, and thank goodness I didn’t have to close the college in the first few days.

Starting contingency planning for a pandemic wasn’t my preferred focus when joining the college – I wanted to get to know the people.

Starting week two, closure was certain, and the priority had to be continuing the planning for this. Thankfully, the college staff had focused on the need to move to distance learning after our early discussions, and lots of testing of systems and processes were under way. Eight days into my time at the college we had to take the decision to move to remote working. I fear I may go down in history as the principal that joined the college and then closed us within days! But, it was the right thing to do.

I have always been a believer in the crucial importance of relationships and how we make people feel. Every day in lockdown I miss the chance to interact with the students. Thankfully I had opportunities before the coronavirus hit to make a start on establishing relationships. The college had a successful full
inspection in February and I was able to spend many hours with staff focused on securing the best possible outcome. At the time I could never have known just how much of an investment that would be. The outcome was ‘good’, although celebrations have been somewhat muted by the pandemic.

On day one at the college I did introductory presentations, just so staff knew who I was – the person behind the role. At the time it felt a little self-indulgent, but at least the staff now know the face at the end  of the emails I am sending to keep everyone informed and hopefully feeling supported. Who knew that Teams, Zoom and emails would become the main tools in developing those critical working relationships?

But oh how I miss a face-to-face brew with the people I work with!

I am one of many people who have completed a course at the Oxford University Saïd Business School to prepare me for a principalship. It was great, prepping me for finance, governance and strategy among other things. What was certainly not included was moving a college to remote working in a matter of days.

I am sure we will come out of this with innovations and a continued passion for our role in the community

Despite this, I find many positives, not least what a superb group of people I have joined. They are committed to supporting everyone, whether it means finding PPE in far-flung corners of our buildings to get to the NHS, delivering loan laptops to students, or rapidly creating a vibrant learning community online. I love nothing more than to hear the great news of innovations that are happening. We’ve seen motor vehicle workshop sessions delivered from home garages, and A-level students discussing current affairs in online debates.

New to the college? Yes, I definitely am. Proud to be working with staff who respond to a challenge with positivity, gusto and passion? Absolutely. Looking forward to the day when we’re working physically together in our new and improved “normal”? Categorically. FE has great support networks and I am sure we will come out of this with innovations and a continued passion for our role in the community.

Someone close to me recently shared that when we work outside of our comfort zone we feel challenged.

But our comfort zones are not rigid – they stretch. Without realising it, magic happens, and what was once a challenge starts to fall within our comfort zone. Let’s keep making the magic happen and carry on expanding and growing as a sector.