How can SLT effectively support staff wellbeing in these challenging times? | Education Support
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Supporting education staff amidst coronavirus - headteachers and school leaders

How can SLT effectively support staff wellbeing in these challenging times?

11th November 2020

Emma Kell looks at what school leaders can do to support their staff at this difficult time. 

It's November. In ordinary times, I’d be writing a piece about the primitive compulsion to hibernate, the impact of the lack of daylight, the long term and the advice to avoid making any crucial decisions about life or work at this time of year, which is so challenging for so many of us.

Only we’re in the middle of a global pandemic with no end in sight. There are so many unknowns, so many factors outsider our control, that the vast majority of people are struggling.

It’s important not to sugar-coat this. In my work with school staff on wellbeing in recent weeks, I have heard from a seasoned deputy head who sobbed in his car for half an hour before he could set off for home; a head who has to stop to vomit on the way to work most days, teachers who are finding their bodies freezing without apparent reason.

If you’re struggling to come up with lesson ideas, feeling that you lack your usual creativity, just feeling generally as if your mojo has gone into hiding, waking up in the night, wanting to sleep for a week… none of these mean that you’re a bit rubbish at your job. They are all completely understandable reactions to stress, trauma and uncertainty.

If you’re a school leader, you’re not immune to these kinds of reactions. We operate in a deeply hierarchical system in many schools and it can be that school leaders are perceived as distant superheroes – the fixers and tone-settters who are responsible for all that is good and bad in the world. And that’s tough, because, whilst many of you are absolute heroes, you’re not superhuman either.

So, what, realistically, reasonably can school leaders at all levels be doing to support their staff at the moment, given that it’s exceptionally tough for everyone.

Like most things wellbeing, it all comes down to control – with so much outside our control, identifying and acting upon the things that we can actually do is key.

Micro-kindnesses

As people get more exhausted, there will be countless niggles and irritations in a school community, so the tiny gestures of kindness and consideration will be hugely appreciated. A quick call from a leader to someone isolating at home. Making time at leadership meeetings to note who might be struggling with financial concerns, sick relatives, their own children, and a structured plan to drop by and check how they’re doing and if they need anything. If your H&S procedures allow for it, a cup of a tea or a cake can still go a long way. Saying thank you – saying please – saying sorry. Crediting those who’ve gone the extra mile with shout-outs or quiet mentions. These may seem like trifling details but they will make such a difference.

Reliability

Reliability is a vastly underrated quality. Promising only what you know you’ll be able to deliver on – and ensuring you are seen to deliver on it. Being very clear and strategic about what you agree to do – how does it benefit you, the children? What are the consequences going to be if you don’t do it? I love the image of juggling balls made of glass and plastic from the author Nora Roberts. You’re going to drop some balls at the moment – of course you are!  You’re dealing with a uniquely challenging set of circumstances. But you can take some time to calculate whether they are made of glass or made of plastic before you drop them. (Credit to my line-manager, Eleanor, for reminding me of this just yesterday!)

Role models

Like it or not, as leaders, you are role models. Behaviours are contagious. Fear and stress and anger can run through a staffroom like wildfire. And so can laughter, compassion and generosity. It’s hard, we know, when deep down you’d like to get back into the car and start sobbing, but if you can explicitly demonstrate the behaviours you want to see from your colleagues and students, it will make such a difference. This could include:

Being seen to leave at 3.45 on a Friday to be with your loved-ones (remotely or in person).

Letting others known you’re not made of titanium. I–  don’t mean howling at staff briefing (though I thoroughly sympathise with the urge to do so) but dropping in a small personal anecdote about what you do to look after yourself, about your own children, about the challenges you are facing will effectively give permission to your colleagues not to try to be superhuman.

Make it clear that colleagues should be supporting in all directions – some of the best school leaders have trusted confidantes all over the school, from the site staff who know their fishing habits to the bursar with the daughter the same age and with similar struggles.

Finally, the best way you can support others is by doing your very best to look after yourself – by giving yourself permission to give yourself what you need. This could be time chatting to an old friend, a coach, a group of local leaders you can vent with regularly or simply getting into your pyjamas the second you get through the front door. Or giving Education Support a call and letting one of our trained counsellors help you through. You are valued. Thank you for all you do.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching.

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

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