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Education Support CEO Sinéad Mc Brearty looks at some important steps that each school leader can personally take to deal with the unfamiliar feelings and unfamiliar responses they might be experiencing as a result of the pandemic. 

Somehow we are already halfway through July 2020. 

The disorientation of this academic year continues to wrong-foot me as we approach the finish line. The ‘finish’ itself may not feel quite as definitive as usual, and I think it will require creativity and discipline to achieve a genuine rest over the summer. ‘Self-care’ is still dismissed by many as wishy-washy, snowflake psychobabble. Well, if that’s the case, I think this is the year to buy the t-shirt and fully embrace the babble. 

The demands, anxieties and stresses of the past months have been mammoth. Much has been shared across the education sector: the workload, the concern for pupils and families and the impact on our personal lives. But it has hardly been a homogenous experience, with the impact felt differently across communities in terms of the human and economic toll, and the capacity of different schools to respond.  

Irrespective of the details of each school’s situation, we see common themes arising, foremost among which is the extent of exhaustion and burnout among senior leaders. Education Support will continue to work with NAHT and other stakeholders to seek system-level responses to the issues that are affecting our school leaders. But in the meantime, there are some important steps that each leader can personally take. 

Firstly, we need to accept our feelings and responses. As leaders, we are used to being shock absorbers in our systems. Getting through these months has been incrementally exhausting, and the overall effect is more corrosive than we may realise.  

Covid-19 has brought unfamiliar feelings and unfamiliar responses – grief, fear and anxiety. Many of us still try to shrug off these feelings or ignore them. This isn’t a terrible strategy, and in the short term, it can help keep us going. 

But ultimately the feelings will come out. 

The trick is to allow ourselves to recognise and accept our feelings at a pace we can manage, rather than to end up hijacked by a tsunami of emotion and distress that has built up while we tried to keep the show on the road. I don’t write these words glibly. I have been hijacked by my suppressed feelings more times than I’d care to recount. 

Secondly, we need to practice self-indulgence. Oops, sorry. Freudian slip. So many of us dismiss self-care as self-indulgence. 

There is a perception that it is somehow selfish for us to look after ourselves. While there is much to admire in the work of Zeno, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, stoicism may not be the most helpful philosophy for us in 2020.  

Virtue on its own is rarely enough to sustain us. There is plenty of evidence in academic literature to indicate that self-care is related to greater resilience and reduced levels of depression and anxiety. Rest and recovery are critically important. It is worth noting that ‘not working’ is not in itself restorative, particularly if our minds continue to whirr with the stuff of the job. To really recover, we need to allow ourselves to become completely absorbed in something else – a book, music, gardening, swimming or cooking. It doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as we allow ourselves to become fully engaged in another activity. 

Thirdly, and without intending to offer egg-sucking instruction to grandmothers, we need to look after the basic hygiene of our mental health. Take exercise – no matter how little you manage, it will make a positive difference. Eat nutritious food. Avoid excessive alcohol and sugar. Moderate (social) media consumption. Practice gratitude and allow yourself to find and focus on the positives. Talk about your feelings with people you trust. Accept uncertainty, and let go of worries about the things you cannot control. Recognise that distress/anger/sadness/fear/anxiety are all normal responses to an abnormal situation. No one needs to feel bad, guilty or embarrassed about their responses. 

One final plea: do not allow work to dominate your summer. There will be requirements and plenty of things to do. There will be changing guidance and last-minute curveballs. They will fully occupy your time if you allow them. When we are used to running flat out and working relentlessly, it can be hard to stop and switch track. It takes concentration.

Set some boundaries. Take a full and complete break in the early summer. Turn off your phone and email. It will all still be there when you switch them back on. Your ability to deal with it will be significantly improved for some rest and genuine relaxation.  

About Sinéad Mc Brearty

Sinéad Mc Brearty is CEO at Education Support. She began her career at KPMG before moving to the not-for-profit sector. Previous roles include deputy chief executive at Social Enterprise London and director at award-winning social enterprise Women Like Us. Before joining Education Support, Sinéad was an organisational development consultant and a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London and The Royal College of Art.  She is a trustee of The Kaleidoscope Trust and a governor of a south London primary school.  

Education Support is the mental health and well-being charity for the education workforce across the UK.  www.educationsupport.org.uk.

First published 17 July 2020