Starting a new job or taking on a new role can be stressful and anxiety provoking at the best of times, becoming a Headteacher for the first time during the COVID pandemic could be like a baptism of fire without the right support or advice around you.
Your ambition to be a headteacher has become reality, but doing so during a pandemic was not part of the plan! Julie Brownlee, new headteacher at Peel Hall, Wythenshawe, explains: “As a young teacher I had aspirations of becoming a headteacher. Never did I think I would take on this role during a global pandemic.”
Julie isn`t alone in finding herself as a new headteacher in the middle of a pandemic yet, at times, it can feel like quite a lonely role. Not only are you navigating through new territory, you are navigating into unchartered stormy seas that even the most experienced Head Teachers have never faced before.
A time for support and advice
One of the biggest barriers during the pandemic has been connection. We value and strive for human connection more than ever, but, the fact that we aren’t currently able to visit other schools or meet up with colleagues does not mean that we can`t seek support or find advice.
Within the education field, there has been a huge outpouring of support for each other on social media, Twitter especially is great for support, advice and the latest information. The popular ‘Coronacast’ meeting, run by headteachers Simon Kidwell and Dan Thomas, has been invaluable in ensuring everyone in education can stay up to date.
Having a good team around you is also extremely important. Ella Hughes was recently appointed headteacher at Chapel Street in Manchester: “Headship can be a very lonely place so I have been extremely grateful for the team around me (both in and outside of school) who I have been able to connect with for support and energy to keep going and advice when I haven’t known what to do.”
For those who have taken the position of headteacher in a brand-new school, it can be hard when you are yet to know your team, but there are actions you can take to help:
- Be honest and open; the pandemic is brand new to everyone and you are doing your best.
- Take the time to get to know your staff. If you can’t meet with them face to face, tap into how tech savvy we have all become, and set up an online meeting.
- Think about the wellbeing of your staff – they are working harder than they ever have. Show you care and that you understand by showing gratitude (a small care package, an afternoon off, a simple thank you).
- Reach out. You are not superhuman and we all need help at the best of times. Virtual networks have recently become the best place for learning. A safe haven for people to speak to others in similar situations. One Education provides termly SLT Network sessions, ensuring that you are up to date with new guidance and legislation from DfE along with topics such as HTPM, finance, governance and critical incidents.
A time for School Development
A phrase that has become nearly as common as “you’re on mute” for Headteachers is “I’ve not got time for School Development.” Rest assured, you are not alone in feeling like this! Many experienced heads feel the same - you are dealing with the immediate impact of a pandemic every single day. Ella said: “I’ve found it frustrating to not have the time and space to dedicate to a lot of the strategic and school improvement work I usually find so rewarding - the demands of responding to Covid-19 have often been immediate, operational and day-to-day.”
The DfE have said that performance reviews should still go ahead yet they ‘would expect schools to use their discretion and take pragmatic steps to adapt performance management and appraisal arrangements to take account of the current circumstances.’ So, whilst objectives are still being set and the processes are still occurring, the content and the context are vastly different to previous years. Every HTPM review that One Education has supported has objectives which relate to COVID, because it is our current reality.
What should still be prioritised is keeping hold of your vision and your values. They might not be as clear as they always are but by continuing to focus on your core beliefs, you will continue to focus on the priorities of your school. You will continue to stir the ship in the direction you want it to go.
A time for you
From working with many head teachers, we know how tough it is in education for leaders. Many of you have not been able to switch off or have a break since the initial school closure back in March 2020. This is not healthy, nor can it continue. You have to look after yourself.
For those who are feeling constantly overwhelmed, please ask for help. If you don’t have an established network of people who can help you then please contact us. We can provide support, help you to build networks and offer advice. Headteachers can also contact Headrest on 0800 862 0110 or visit their website www.headrestuk.co.uk for free support and advice. Remember, you are never alone.
Ella shares what has helped her: “Some of the things I have found most helpful are ‘the power of a pause’, finding ways to switch off and prioritise my own health and wellbeing and seeking help from others when I need it.”
The most important point in this article is to take time for yourself. It could be a short five minutes at lunch time to breathe in fresh air, taking 30 minutes before bed to read a book, or disconnecting from technology for a weekend. Take the time whenever you can find it for your own wellbeing.
A time for dealing with critical incidents
Within our One Education SLT Networks, and in bespoke training, we often cover how to deal with critical incidents.
Our HR Director, Rachel Foster, explains that “critical incidents are definitely something that isn’t ‘taught’ in teaching practice”. COVID, like many critical incidents, is an event where the ongoing flow of information, endless updates and debriefs is far removed from the usual day-to-day practice and one which requires many changes and decisions in high pressure situations.
Few headteachers may have gone years without any critical incident, others are experiencing them within their first weeks as a Head Teacher. No matter where you are in your journey as a school leader, the key to managing these kinds of situations is communication. Having an understanding of roles, outlined in a communication strategy for the whole school community (staff, governors, parents and staff) is fundamental.
The start of your journey into headship may not be how you thought it would be, yet, the steep learning curve means you will be developing skills and an understanding of dealing with highly stressful situations which will help on your journey as a school leader, a decision maker and as a strategic thinker. After all, you navigated your school through uncharted stormy seas without abandoning ship.
My first term as a Headteacher has certainly been eventful, says Julie Brownlee, headteacher at Peel Hall Primary, but here are the valuable lessons that she will take away:
- To know that when difficult decisions have to be made, you do what you feel is right for the circumstances of your school, pupils and staff
- To reach out - if you need a sounding board, some advice or you are faced with a new task or challenge for the first time, reach out to other Headteachers, your SSQA or the teams at One Education, they are incredibly supportive and help you to guide your way
- To be grateful for the supportive team of staff you have, they will help to get you through the most difficult times.
Jo Gray is head of School Development and Literacy for One Education.