I recently had the opportunity to take part in the Global School Alliance Virtual Conference on Teacher Wellbeing, and when asked to speak about what I felt were some of the most significant challenges to wellbeing at present, I thought about the concept of fear.
An article I recently wrote titled ‘Does your school have a climate of fear?’ addressed the two types of fear that show up in our lives more than we might like to think, taken from the book ‘Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself’ by Sports Psychologist, Dr Pippa Grange. These are ‘in-the-moment’ fear and the more pervasive and potent ‘not-good-enough’ fear.
The latter of these types of fear describes the modern evolution of our primal fear of abandonment, which has since evolved into the fear of disappointing others, of failing, of not being accepted or loved for who we really are.
Dr Grange explains that on one hand, fear can occur from inside of us; our beliefs and thoughts, our own minds. On the other hand, fear can also happen TO us, emanating from the cultures and environments that we are a part of. Fear coming from our external world can happen as acute attacks of discrimination, or it can be more subtle, causing a gradual erosion in confidence. Grange explicates that there are 4 types of fear-full environments:
Any of these environments have the potential to grind away at our outer ‘thick-skin’, the layer protecting our self-esteem. The thicker this skin is to start with, the longer one may be able to endure it, but this is not necessarily always the case. This skin develops as a result of our history and life experiences (as well as perhaps some element of genetics) and is therefore not necessarily under our conscious control.
When any of these fear-full environments are created by school leadership (intentionally or unintentionally) they can be devastating to wellbeing. And what happens when you throw a pandemic into the mix?
I recently read the brilliant ‘Your Life In My Hands – a Junior Doctor’s Story’ by Dr Rachel Clarke, which captured the realities of being a frontline junior doctor at the time of the junior doctor strikes in 2016.
In the book, Clarke tells of the political spin-doctoring which criticised and blamed medical staff for the failing NHS system, whilst outlining the ways in which it was undoubtedly a system set up to fail. Sound familiar?
A couple of things that Clarke mentioned that really resonated with me and that I believe relate to the wider social-political context that underpins the four types of fear-full environments listed above, was the idea that ‘morale is built on belief’ and the notion of a ‘trust deficit’. Let me explain a little more.
Building Morale and Trust
When it comes to wellbeing, before schools implement wellbeing initiatives such as free massages, staff socials, Zumba classes, etc., morale must be cultivated through belief and trust. A saying that always sticks with me is that ‘excrement’ rolls downhill.
When leaders are passive-aggressive or possessive, it is often the result of a chain-reaction that started further up, whether from school ownership and management or on a larger scale, from politicians and government directives. This punitive leadership style rushes downhill like one of those boulders in a computer game, where you win by avoiding getting crushed. Yet in the case of education, there is no ‘dodging’ the boulder, which bulldozes over teachers and staff.
The wider context that we’re in at the moment is of course, a huge global pandemic. Rather than the usual rolling downhill, the pandemic is more like a furious avalanche of ‘excrement’. Morale has been devastated. This is a time where teachers need to believe that management and everyone else at the top of the hill has their back. That they will do all they can to keep them safe. They need to believe in their own ability to adapt and do their best in an increasingly impossible situation (no need to call in Ofsted to highlight how little belief in teachers there apparently is, right?) The little trust that teachers had in the system in which they work has been washed away, and the trust deficit allowed to grow. Just like the NHS, education is built upon the goodwill of the people that work in it – it’s not glamorous and it’s not easy at the best (or non-pandemic) of times.
In the time of an enormous trust deficit, it very much feels like a focus on wellbeing is merely a bandage over a gaping wound. Shy of being able to change a political system hell-bent on making things difficult, leaders can foster genuine wellbeing by focusing on regaining some of that trust at a local level.
By fighting for teachers (which many leaders have been doing), by demonstrating the belief you have that they are doing the best job they can, by coming together with them instead of working against them. By not getting caught up in the avalanche, but finding steadier ground to pitch upon. Right now, building morale and trust is the name of the wellbeing game… all other initiatives can come along once this has been restored.