Riding the storm: challenges of leading a school during a pandemic | Education Support
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School leaders in a pandemic - riding the storm

Riding the storm: challenges of leading a school during a pandemic

26th November 2020

It is a privilege to be a school leader: to be able to set the vision, ethos, aims and objectives of the school; to support and inspire colleagues as we collaboratively work towards our shared goals; to have the opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of children and young people for many years to come. As school leaders, we know that the role comes with a lot of responsibility and its fair share of challenges: from juggling the demands of a teaching timetable with leadership tasks, to driving change against a backdrop of financial constraints, high stakes accountability, and a national recruitment and retention crisis. As much as we love our jobs and thrive on having the opportunity to provide demonstrable improvements in the educational services we provide, the truth is, leading a school during a global pandemic has been challenging.

The latest Teacher Wellbeing Index research from Education Support, reveals that an overwhelming 89% of school leaders have reported feeling ‘stressed’ or ‘very stressed’ since schools reopened to all pupils in September.  In addition, 59% school leaders disclosed that they are considering leaving the profession this year due to pressures on their health and wellbeing. While we are aware that that these are unprecedented times, it is important that we consider some of the pressures school leaders are facing as they continue to go beyond the call of duty to support our country’s children and young people during a global health crisis.

Relentless workload

The educational landscape has changed significantly, and the relentless workload has increased to unmanageable and unsustainable levels. This term, while navigating a second national lockdown, school leaders have continued to rapidly respond to the challenges Covid-19 presents whilst simultaneously dealing with the pre-Covid pressures of the job. Whether we are standing at the school gate each morning trying to alleviate the concerns of worried parents and carers, or picking up a thermal thermometer to check the temperature of pupils before they cross the school threshold, the duties of school leaders has expanded exponentially. Never before did we imagine that we would meeting with Governors over a Zoom chat before dashing off to cover a lesson for a teacher who has had to go home to self-isolate.

School leaders are doing their absolute best to promote a positive school culture where staff feel supported and motivated, but find themselves stretched beyond capacity. With limited resources and financial constraints making strategic decision making even more challenging, it is hardly surprising that unmanageable workload levels have been cited by 76% school leaders as one of the main reasons why they feel they can no longer continue in the jobs they love to do.

In a profession where there is a longstanding recruitment and retention crisis, it is clear that an urgent call to action is needed. As leaders, are we able to critically review our policies and procedures, considering opportunities for workload reduction? Is it time to seriously consider offering flexible working patterns so that we can retain loyal, dedicated and hard-working professionals who might otherwise leave the profession? And is it time for us to banish those six little words from our schools: ‘we’ve always done it this way?’

Lead by example

These are challenging times for everyone working in education. As school leaders, we can empathise with our teams who are working tirelessly under difficult circumstances, and encourage our staff to look after themselves so that they are best placed to help our learners. But are we leading by example? Many school leaders offer an open-door policy so that colleagues can readily seek advice and support, but are we protecting the time we need to ensure we are looking after our own wellbeing? As servant leaders, we put the needs of our staff first, but who do we turn to when we need support?

It is important that we, too, look out for any early signs of stress and anxiety, listening to what our minds and bodies are telling us. School leaders need to create the time to prioritise our own health and emotional needs so that we are then best placed to support those that we lead. After all, you cannot pour from an empty cup, it is essential to take care of yourself first.


Education professionals are often driven by an innate desire to make a difference to the lives of children and young people. It is disheartening, therefore, when teachers continue to face widespread criticism in the media. As the country entered a second national lockdown, Boris Johnson commended teachers for their efforts, yet it has since been announced that public sector workers will face yet another pay freeze. Teachers were hailed key workers during the Covid-19 response, and yet the preliminary report detailing the priority list for the Covid vaccine excludes teachers as key workers. The goodwill of educators is rapidly being depleted, and with teachers experiencing greater levels of depression than the general population, it is important that all those working in education are given the respect and remuneration they rightly deserve.

As school leaders, we truly believe in the transformational power of education. We are committed to maximising outcomes for children and young people. We strive to inspire and empower the colleagues we work with. But as the latest research shows, it is time that we give ourselves the same attention that we give to others. Possibly the greatest lesson that the global pandemic may have taught us is that self-care is not selfish, it is essential.

Sarah Mullin is a Deputy Headteacher at an all-through school in the West Midlands. She was named a Rising Star in Education and Academia in 2020 and she is the recipient of the ‘Contribution to Education of the Year’ award. Sarah is the curator of ‘What They Didn’t Teach Me on My PGCE’ and the founder of #EduTeacherTips, a YouTube channel for teachers by teachers.

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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