This has been a punishing year, and we need to keep strong as winter takes hold. Here are some excellent strategies, writes Sarah Mullin
Each new half-term, it seems, is a half-term like no other. Since the summer, teachers have worked tirelessly in innovative ways, from covering the lessons of absent colleagues to teaching live classes while in isolation themselves. Staff have completed additional break duties, dealt with mask-related concerns and supported children with an increasing number of social, emotional and mental health issues, all while navigating these worrying times for themselves.
Sadly, this new half-term is likely to be another uniquely challenging one, given the second national lockdown. This time, the days are getting shorter and the weather wetter and colder and pubs are closed even for takeaways! The plan is for schools to remain fully open, but the frisson of a possible government U-turn will only add to the stresses.
Despite the innumerable challenges, there are some simple things school leaders can do to make sure everyone makes it through to Christmas.
First, the educational landscape has changed significantly and this presents us with the possibility of critically reviewing our policies and procedures for workload reduction. Could the content of some meetings be shared by email? Is it time to embrace flexible working to retain loyal, dedicated and hard-working teachers? Could working more collaboratively be more effective and more efficient?
Teachers are incredible, yes, but the truth is that we are not superheroes
Second, while the often-negative media narrative about teachers surely doesn’t reflect the reality in our schools, we do have an unhealthy tendency to push too far the other way. Teachers are incredible, yes, but the truth is that we are not superheroes. Praise is always appreciated, but no amount of it will make us one either. We need to take care of ourselves so that we are best placed to help our learners.
Teaching from home during lockdown blurred some of the boundaries between work and home life; it is important to re-establish routines so that we are able to physically and mentally separate our responsibilities. When we make those boundaries clear, we can spend the guilt-free time we need to enjoy the little things in life that put a smile on our face.
Third, never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep for positive physical and mental health. While the half-term break may have provided the time to catch up on some of the sleepless nights endured over the previous few weeks, it can’t and shouldn’t be expected to carry us to Christmas. Encouraging staff to rest can pay as many dividends as praising them. Establishing predictable routines will help much more than ensuring ready supplies of caffeine in staffrooms.
Fourth, praise and kindness may be related but they are not synonymous. Our most valuable resource is the skills and experiences of our staff, and it is finite. Relying on praise alone can lead us to use it irresponsibly, while kindness will be central to our success being sustainable.
Gone are the days when we could reach out and offer a hug to our colleagues or pop to the pub at the end of an exhausting week; social distancing has put a stop to congregating in the staffroom and it is becoming increasingly unlikely that teachers will enjoy a staff social together in December. It is therefore essential that we show empathy for one another, acknowledging each other’s concerns and recognising that each of us is responding in different ways to the challenges of the times we are living in.
Last, we must all recognise that self-care is not selfish. It is OK not to be OK at any time, but not least when educating during a global pandemic. Teachers give so much of themselves and often deal with feelings of guilt when they aren’t at their best or are unable to attend. We must realise the importance of investing in their mental health and wellbeing and not allow ourselves to be tabloid-pressured into submission. There are excellent support systems for our profession – the charity Education Support and the free app Headspace For Educators are just two excellent examples we can signpost to our colleagues.