The following article comes from headteacher and author James Birchenough, who shares how teachers and senior leaders can maintain their mental health and well-being during this difficult back-to-school phase.
Schools opening their doors more widely was in many ways the right move for our children, but it’s certainly been challenging for the adults.
Senior leaders have grappled with constantly evolving government guidance that, just when you thought you’d got to grips with it, wriggles out of your grasp and changes again. While trying to follow this guidance as closely as possible, they’ve also tried to meet the expectations of parents, colleagues, and governing bodies, knowing they couldn’t possibly make everyone happy. They’ve wrestled with whether it’s safer for pupils to be in school or at home, writing and rewriting risk assessments where the possible severity remains at ‘death’ whatever amazing plans are put into place.
And so many teaching staff have been excited to once again see the young people they care about so much, while at the same time being anxious about leaving the relative safety of their own home, striving to remain two metres away from people who might not reciprocate. Some, already stretched to their limits from the realities of living in a pandemic, have struggled to meet the demands placed on them, while others have felt like spare parts, stuck at home without lessons to plan or children to teach.
Whatever your reality, it’s valid, you’re understood, and it won’t be like this forever. Although we’ve faced a wide variety of experiences, we can all say that at times it’s been tough, and I think it’s likely to be tough for some time to come.
My experience has probably been like yours in many ways, but with notable differences too.
Firstly, as an alternative provision, our normal student capacity is only 12 pupils – perhaps a number similar to what you may have now in each bubble within your school. And like you, we’ve got smaller recently, but our “small” and your “small” probably look quite different: we’ve only got two students at a time right now to help them keep social distancing regulations.
In addition, while I’ve still had to make so many of the same decisions as you and balance many of the same risks, I’m thankful for the flexibility we have as an independent school to do what’s right for each child, especially in terms of how we shape our curriculum.
Use this time to get to know your students
In my day-to-day job, I’ve seen first-hand the amazing opportunities it brings when you’re working with fewer young people, and I’d really encourage you to make the most of the chance to deepen your relationships with your students!
It can be hard to not fall into the trap of thinking that it’s not as worthwhile a use of your time if there are fewer in your group, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to make a bigger difference in each life. Having fewer students in the room, you can invest more time per person and really get to know them as a human being: not just how they learn, but how they think, what they’re really interested in outside of school, what their opinions are on current affairs, and what it’s like to be them.
I’d encourage you to also follow their line of enquiry within lessons and let them lead the learning more. As each child makes up a greater proportion of your class, it’s more legitimate to take the lesson on a tangent if it’s appropriate; plough on with your lesson plan and you risk missing out on a valuable moment.
And consider making more time for humour – in this current climate where they probably have a lot on their minds, it would be so beneficial for them to laugh with you and with each other.
Talk to someone about your anxieties
At the same time, I remember what it was like adjusting from teaching 30 children as a Year 3 primary teacher to teaching only a handful, and it did take some getting used to.
I would recommend always talking to someone about your anxieties; this is good practice anyway, but especially at the moment when there’s so much change and uncertainty. It can be quite intense being in a smaller group, so agreeing with another staff member (perhaps a TA, if you’re lucky enough to have one) that they will lead from the front for short moments through the day would allow you to pause and gather your thoughts when you need it.
Welcome in positive work/life rhythms
I’d also recommend getting into positive work/life rhythms now while you’re teaching fewer students and you have less marking and planning anyway. It would hopefully help you to avoid burnout in this season of stretch, and also get you in good habits for when things start returning more to normal.
A good starting point might be my book, Leaving Work At Work, which has practical tips you can implement right away and transfer over to normal life. Following up from this, you could consider discussing work/life balance with colleagues, or people you interact with on Twitter, talking about what you’ve learned and helping each other to make lasting change.
There are so many challenges about this moment, but it could be an opportunity to relaunch your teaching career come September, better equipped with ways to have a more balanced life.
Check in with your staff
Finally, here’s an extra top tip for leaders: check in with, don’t check up on, your staff. Sit down with them (two metres apart of course) with a coffee and have a chat about their well-being.
Don’t sit down at the back of their lesson and do an observation. They’re already carrying enough stress and anxiety, and they are giving so much for your students and for you. Show them that you value them as people, not just the quality of their teaching; listen much more than you talk; be understanding of their home situations and how they will impact on their work; find ways to ease the pressure on them where possible. At the same time, teachers, don’t forget to be patient with your leaders: they’re carrying a huge burden, learning on their feet, and are quite possibly mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Ultimately, let’s all be kind to ourselves and each other; that’s how we’ll get through this and keep heading positively together towards a new normal.