This 'annus horribilis' demands that we focus on staff well-being
Helen Jeys reflects on the huge challenges of the past 10 months and calls for a focus on staff well-being and a sense of positivity about the future
It was back in October when I read a Guardian article in which Richard Sheriff, ASCL president, noted the pressure on heads as a result of leading schools through the Covid pandemic. He said:
“It’s taking over evenings and weekends, and it is a lot to shoulder. You will see some crumble, and others decide to leave a few years earlier than they were going to, and we can’t afford to lose them.”
Sadly, October seems a very, very long time ago. Since then we have had the introduction of tier restrictions, contact tracing which continued over the Christmas break, guidance for mass testing in schools and more recently a further national lockdown. There have also been huge changes to this year’s GCSE and A-level examinations.
There is the frustration around vaccinations for school staff and many primary schools are being overwhelmed by key worker children and other vulnerable pupils who require supervision. By the time you read this article, there will have been further changes for heads to absorb and I do fear that Sheriff’s prophecy may well come true.
"Never before has there been a time when our personal lives have impacted our attitudes to working so much."
I have always felt that one of the reasons why this situation is “unprecedented” (apologies for citing this already over-used word) is because this situation is incredibly personal. Never before has there been a time when our personal lives have impacted our attitudes to working so much. Indeed, I have the utmost respect for all those staff who have continued to attend school, despite worries about their own health or that of their relatives. I do feel that these fears have been underestimated, nationally.
Alongside such pressures, school staff have shown themselves to be exceptionally adaptable. Indeed, before March 2020, I did not see myself as a public health official or risk-assessment expert, employment lawyer or someone overly familiar with the intricacies of furlough arrangements.
For others, it has been the speed with which they have had to adapt to the pressures of remote learning that leaves me so incredibly impressed.
There has never been a time when I have done more self-reflection – yes, possibly in the middle of the night – about the most challenging time in my career and that of thousands of other staff across the country.
"If we do not prioritise staff wellbeing, then we will have no staff or the goodwill needed to do the job."
I have been reminded, if I needed to be, that staff well being has to be central in every school.
There are those who have struggled with being furloughed and others continuing to teach remotely while managing the home learning of their own small children. And let’s not forget those supervising children in school and support staff who keep schools running administratively and financially. The cooks continue to cater for our pupils and cleaners continue to clean, clean and clean again, day after day after day. All of these deserve our unwavering respect.
If we do not prioritise staff well-being, then we will have no staff or the goodwill needed to do the incredible job that we are expecting of them at the moment. The problem is that there is very little we can do to improve staff wellbeing at the moment.
But I have learned that there are strategies that can help. Clarity of message is key. If we can provide clarity to our staff and be transparent in our decision making – this goes a long way. We have had, and continue to have, regular meetings and briefings for staff to express concerns about risk assessments, remote learning, mass testing etc. and I know that staff have appreciated knowing that their voices are heard.
I can’t thank my staff enough – in fact, I often feel like a broken record in thanking them. They are incredible and I feel fortunate every day to be surrounded by such positive and inspirational people. My wellbeing would be far worse without them.
"We need to keep looking forward with an attitude of hope and positivity."
And what about our pupils? When pupils returned in September, I spoke to many Year 11s about my concern that their enjoyment of school might be impacted by Covid restrictions. However, they reassured me – “You know, Mrs Jeys, we are together and that’s the most important thing. We are just happy to be back with our friends.”
Keeping pupils in touch with each other is incredibly important to their own wellbeing too – particularly during yet another period of lockdown.
I am, nevertheless, left with the knowledge that we need to keep looking forward with an attitude of hope and positivity and what I have tried to do, throughout, is to keep an eye on future strategy.
Our ability to use technology has been fast-tracked and we need to think about how we could harness this to improve teaching and learning for our students in the long term.
So, without a doubt – we continue to navigate our way through this ongoing annus horribilis – but it will pass, and educators will be ready with an improved toolkit that will continue to inspire and support the next generation of exceptional young people.
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