It’s obvious to us all that the world of education has transformed dramatically over the last 12 months.
We have never seen a change quite like it and, I’m sure like most working in schools across the globe, never before have we faced the challenges that have been presented to us.
An educational year of uncertainty, systematic change, wholesale strategic redevelopment and, sadly, fear and loss within many of the communities we serve. The current educational landscape to which we navigate across is unrecognisable to the one we stood within during the weeks and months prior to March 2020.
The horizon now looks different, reshaping in front of our eyes and the map we follow is evolving and formulating with every step. As schools opened to more pupils on March 8, it was clear to see that the need to have a capacity within our schools, to support those families who had been hit harder than most by the global situation was evident.
However, as we reshape our schools on this journey to the new normal, we must strongly take into consideration the health and wellbeing of our staff. Furthermore, our role in supporting the communities we serve is needed now more than ever before. The next steps ahead should be delicate, carefully planned and, importantly, leave no lasting damage on those around us.
Let us not leap blindly into the new tomorrow without considering the impact on our staff, pupils and parents. Although frailty within our communities might not be evident in all we meet, the stresses and strains of the last calendar year will exist; some clearly hiding it better the others or, perhaps, simply may not have felt it yet.
Teaching and education is, in essence, transactional. From the carefully planned and sequenced sharing of knowledge and skills to pupils in our classrooms, the timely and effective administration of good practice to develop our staff teams, to the successful distribution of information to ensure sustained and positive relationships within our wider school community.
All of these transactions are for the betterment of our schools and, without doubt, our pupils. To reference a cliched metaphor, perhaps over used by many, including myself, the established aphorism states ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and, given the recent 12 months we have all experienced, it’s hard to imagine anyone in our organisations who hasn’t had their cup knocked, emptied or even drained completely more than once during this time.
Critically, as leaders we must make sure that we construct and embed cultures within our schools, institutions and organisations that look out for our colleagues at this challenging time whose cups are not yet full, development for those who don’t know yet how to fill them and, sadly, support those who may have lost their cup completely through no fault of their own or, without knowing, the systems and processes we, or the custodians before us, have put in place.
In the coming weeks, our minds will start focusing on the next academic year and the, even greater, possibility of leading our schools with a modus operandi similar to the pre-pandemic way of life we have lost along the way.
However, as we re-evaluate our strategic planning and discuss the elements of curriculum intent and implementation that may not have occurred, or embedded as well as we wanted, let us use the time to reflect on what we need to do in our schools to support embedded and sustained wellbeing for our staff.
It’s time to reboot the system, refresh the circuitry and reimagine the support we offer to our workforce. This is now not just about workload but a holistic approach to leading people with humanity, with mental health at the forefront.
Opportunities to develop a culture of wellbeing
Developing a culture of mental health support in schools is never easy and, where systems have failed historically, this may have been due to the manner in which these systems of support were implemented.
As leaders, we can, to our detriment, be seen to be reactive to the latest initiative; working on the assumption that adding something new to our school: a scheme of work, an approach to teaching and learning, gestures of wellbeing, will equally bring the success or outcome we are searching for.
However, like other peer support opportunities we may have tried to develop, such as peer mentoring or coaching, these things take time to develop. Staff need to feel that the process they will embark upon will be invested in, delivered professionally by those who have had training and, importantly, not undertaken in the staff room or within their very own classroom at the end of a busy day.
In essence, if staff are going to invest their emotions and feelings, we need to ensure they will remain safe, supported and nurtured.
If we are truly going to convince our staff members that we want to listen and, importantly, offer support for their mental health rather than just an alternative approach to professional development, we need to make sure that we are giving this service the respect and time it needs to develop and permeate across our school teams.
Of course as leaders, we want to make sure everyone is ok, feeling happy, supported and, intrinsically, content in ourselves that we are doing the right thing by our staff.
Unfortunately, this can, sometimes, appear to others like the unfortunate mea culpa of cultural tick boxing. Naturally, due to the pressures on leaders of both an external and internal nature, the need to create visual and tangible support systems can lead to tokenism in our schools.
Remember, the real well-being and staff support offer we create is invisible to the naked eye. It’s invisible because it’s everywhere and nowhere, it’s the culture of the school, it’s the language of our staff, it’s the camaraderie of the team, it’s the togetherness of a family of like-minded professionals.
It’s in the walls of the building and constantly blossoming in the educational ether. As leaders, the best way to create a mental health friendly school is to ensure we consult, invest and, importantly, allow it time to evolve.
Discussions based on trust take time. Many of us, who have seen and felt the impact of the pandemic on our mental health, will not feel comfortable talking about it to our closest family members in the first instance, let alone someone we work alongside.
The stigma is still there and discussions within the workplace are always harder than most.
It won’t happen overnight, maybe not in a week, a half-term or, in some cases, an academic year. The question we should be asking ourselves at this point is this, are we creating the culture to allow the closest and most intimate peer discussions to take place if the need arises?
This is not about gestures in the staff room at the end of every week, but dedicated time to look deeper into our operational procedures, policies and leader-led approaches to ensure everything we do is embedded to allow our staff to feel consulted, necessary and integral to the core purpose of our school.
When our communities have been hidden away, kept behind screens and the regular timetables of our working day placed into such disruption; ensuring belonging during this time is key in making sure our staff feel valued and part of a wider team dedicated to provide the best education for all.
So as we observe the map rewriting itself in front of our very eyes, let us ensure that it leads us all to a school which cares, supports and places the wellbeing and mental health of all staff, pupils and parents at its heart. This is a time to talk and, importantly, now to listen
Three steps for staff support
- Consult and do something with it. Now is the time to talk and listen to our staff. Dedicate time for consultation, focused not on initiatives or reflections on policy but simply a mechanism to allow staff to regularly share their thoughts and feelings. Listen to it, read it and respond to it.
- Invest in the right spaces. Supporting mental health is vital and allocating the right resources is important. Take time to find the right space within your school for consultation. Not the staff room, not an office, but a neutral space which can be dedicated to openness. Build it, care for it, name it and ensure everyone knows it’s there.
- Be aware that you may be the problem. When considering those in your organisation to lead mental health, remember it can’t be you. There will be someone better placed to allow true openness and discussion to take place. As much as you wouldn’t want it to be, the root of the concern may be you. Furthermore, the pitfalls of over promising your time to those in greater need is dangerous. Step back.
Dan Edwards is principal of Woodstock Primary Academy, Leicester.