It’s a good time to turn our attention to the new academic year and the transition back to full classrooms. The variation in how educators will return in September is likely to be greater than usual. Many will come back well-rested and thirsty for time with children and young people. Others are anxious or uncomfortable, concerned about the risks to their health or that of vulnerable family members. The evidence on workplace safety remains unclear and contested: it doesn’t offer clear assurances to those who are worried. This makes it difficult for people to assess the risks they face, particularly if they are on the spectrum of vulnerability. We know that uncertainty is a significant source of stress, so this is likely to be a theme across the sector in the coming months.
The full-scale return of education staff will take place against the backdrop of relatively low trust in the government’s guidance. Public sector employees in hospitals, care homes and primary schools have reported that they did not feel well looked after during the early phase of the pandemic. This matters to individual school leaders because the question of trust will be felt by every staff member. In my view, the best response to this is complete transparency, something I’m seeking with my team. If we can be honest about what we do and don’t know, and what is and isn’t possible, I think we can create a dialogue with staff around how we collectively operate over the coming months.
This won’t mean that everyone can have what they want, but it will help people to understand how decisions are made and feel heard in that process. That, of course, assumes that time can be found for the luxury of colleague conversations, and the very suggestion may cause stress among some leaders. One of the difficulties of the covid-19 context is that it can be hard to stay aware of when it is time for a command and control style of leadership, versus the time for broader consultation and engagement of staff.
As we return to school, we will rightly focus on reconnecting with children and young people, but reconnecting with colleagues ought to be an important first step.
Three strategies might be helpful to us in this regard.
Firstly, making time and space for staff to reflect and share their stories about the past six months. This can’t be forced. For some people, the trauma that they have experienced won’t be something they want to revisit. Creating optional opportunities for people to have conversations and catch up may feel like too unstructured and pointless to some, but the point will be to help people come together to recognise that these months have changed us individually and that these personal changes will aggregate to affect how we reconnect as a group of colleagues.
Secondly, acknowledgement is important. Anyone with line management responsibility in the school ought to be supported and encouraged to make time to meet with their teams to discuss how they are feeling personally – not to discuss pupils, curriculum or hand-washing protocols, just themselves. In these conversations, the role of the line manager is to listen to how people are doing and understand what support they might need over the coming months.
Along the way, acknowledging the experience of individuals, and recognising what is or has been difficult, sends an important message to the individual that it is OK to have feelings, concerns or requirements for reasonable adjustments. In providing this assurance to staff, line managers can reduce the tension that individuals might be carrying, enabling them to let go of concerns that might otherwise occupy their energy. This, in turn, will allow them to focus on their core purpose and positively engage with supporting children and young people in returning to the classroom.
Thirdly, finding ways to give staff voice in decision-making will become more important than ever over the coming months. This is a time for ‘us’ to work together: minimising the tendency to split into ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindsets will help hold the staff team together through whatever the autumn may bring.
It will also be important for everyone on the staff team to look out for each other. The coming term will bring key points of stress, whether that comes through supporting communities of children who have experienced loss, fear, social withdrawal, disorientation, domestic stress or abuse. It is important to support colleagues who may end up carrying an unusually high emotional load over the autumn. Do remember that our free counselling helpline is available 24/7 to anyone working in education on 08000 562 561.
The start of term will be a time of heightened emotion and feeling. There will be a lot of joy, and the simple pleasure of seeing each other will be profound. Schools will be hubs of energy and excitement. For some, that joy will be precarious, tinged with trepidation, anxiety or sadness. The inequality of experience over the past months makes that inevitable. As communities reconnect, schools will be the sites at which this inequality of experience is understood and digested.
Once again, educators will hold the ring while lives are changed and futures are built.
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 10 August 2020