The start of compulsory relationships and sex education is a perfect opportunity to model supportive practices in these uncertain times, writes Paula Talman

The start of a new academic year can be challenging for both teachers and pupils at the best of times. Add a global pandemic to the mix and it’s hard to imagine a period when the resilience of the education sector was in greater need.

There is another challenge for schools too. Last year I attended a roundtable event with the Department for Education, Ofsted and the NHS to discuss Government plans to make health and relationships education statutory in primary schools, and health, relationships and sex (RSE) education statutory in secondary schools.

It comes into play at a time when the need to protect the mental health of pupils and teachers is greater than ever. So what practical things can school leaders do to promote and model healthy personal and professional relationships?

 

Contact your teachers ahead of term

A warm letter or email to staff before term starts can be a reassuring way to help teachers prepare mentally and practically for the start of term.

As humans we tend not to manage ‘unknowns’ well and fear of what might be in store can build anxiety. Getting in touch in the week before term starts provides an opportunity to let teachers know what you’ll be doing to keep them safe at work, pass on handy contact details like the school counsellor or local NHS mental health team and inform them of any new processes, for example what to do if they or a family member becomes unwell.

 

Let them know you care

Listening to staff is really important but what is even better is reaching out to them. This personal touch shows that you are genuinely interested in their wellbeing.

We know that teachers aren’t going to be coming back into school feeling fully charged so reassure them that there will be time to adjust. Explaining that you understand things won’t be perfect on that first day back but you know they’ll do their best will relieve an enormous amount of pressure and make them feel valued.

Working with your SLT to create a daily affirmation email that goes out each morning can provide a great boost as teachers start their day, while providing a designated quiet place where teachers can go to stop, pause and breathe for a moment shows that you really have thought about their needs.

 

Create a universal wellbeing language

We are all able to talk about physical health because we have developed a common language to explain and describe it. We need to do the same for our mental health.

The best way to create a wellbeing language that gives pupils and teachers the tools to know who and how to ask for help is to use a whole-school approach. That means teachers and pupils using the same universal language.

A universal language is so important as it can turn mental health conversations into normal everyday conversations, thus helping remove the stigma from talking about our wellbeing, which enables people to access support earlier.

 

Provide teachers with tools and training 

Research from the Chartered College of Teaching shows that teachers want additional training and guidance to support pupils with their wellbeing.

Introducing a consistent, progressive and whole-school approach to understanding mental health and wellbeing will help pupils to understand how their mental, social, physical and emotional health influence each other. It will also enable them to develop self-care tools and strategies. Teachers need to be given access to the training and resources to deliver those messages effectively in a consistent evidence-based manner.

 

Remember yourself

The last piece of advice is take the time to look after yourself too. Practice self-compassion at all times knowing that you’re trying your best, get yourself into a good sleep routine and try to eat healthily and stay active. As a leader it’s so important to practice what you preach, so remember that this is a challenging time for everyone – be kind to yourself, too.