The rules have changed, but the values are stronger than ever | Education Support
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Teacher wellbeing - school closures and coronavirus

The rules have changed, but the values are stronger than ever

26th March 2020

The rules have changed. This is a line I find myself using again and again. I’ve used it with my kids, having dramatically abandoned the rigorous and coloured ‘work from home’ schedule designed to regiment every minute of the day. I’ve used it with colleagues worried their absences ‘going on their records’ or about impact on their performance appraisals. And I’ve used it with myself, as, like everyone else, I grapple with the new ‘normal’.

Wanting to help

The thing with educators is that interactions with other humans and the profound desire to ‘make a difference’ are our very essence. I had a huge reality check last week. I was desperate to get into all of the schools I possibly could to help for as long as I possibly could. Then, over a period of hours, I came to three realisations:

1. Every other teacher was doing the same and student numbers were falling fast, so, in short, I wasn’t needed.

2. That actually, by coming into contact with lots of different people, I was increasing the risk of my transmitting the virus, and

3. That this is not about me. The biggest favour I could do everyone was to keep away.

School staff all over the country are going through a version of this.

Those who are still in schools with key workers, we salute you. As a result, your health is at higher risk. The reality of the school experience, with anti-bacterial spray and constant distance reminders is far from anything you were ever trained for.

With pupil numbers in schools apparently dropping, in many cases to single figures, an increasing number of staff find themselves at home; some alone, others with their own families to care for.

According to the many educators I’ve been in online contact with most of us are expressing some or all of the following emotions:

  1. Guilt – I should be helping! It’s selfish to put my own wellbeing above that of others.
  2. Anxiety – for loved ones we can’t be near; for vulnerable students who, at home, are more vulnerable than ever.
  3. An inability to focus on anything for more than very short lengths of time
  4. A sense of uselessness – what’s the point, if I can’t be of any help?
  5. Lack of energy – change is exhausting!
  6. … interspersed with bouts of ambitious and energy-intensive planning which may or may not be realistic.
  7. Genuine grief at what has been, and what could be, lost.

Many of us are experiencing all of these several times a day – or even an hour! What I’m learning is that it’s pointless to try to resist them. To coin a truism of this crisis, this is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be loads of time to get into routines – for the lucky ones, they may fall into place naturally. And if they don’t? If one day you get eight hours’ productive work done (hah! Pie in the sky here!) and aother just half an hour? It really, really doesn’t matter.

The rules have changed

Many of the things that used to take up our time and energy just don’t have any significance any more. I asked some teachers about the things that no longer matter. These included the following:

  1. Bras
  2. Data
  3. Pants (?!)
  4. The to-do list
  5. Performance appraisal
  6. Having a tidy home
  7. Laminating
  8. Deodorant
  9. Trying to be in five places at once
  10. Brexit

But whilst the rules have changed, the fundamental principles which, through Education Support, we share with teachers in all of our work on wellbeing and resilience, are more crucial than ever.

Control what you can

Anxiety can be increased hugely when a person’s zone of influence reduces in size due to the number of factors influence on their lives over which they have no control. This is why anxiety is so rife at the moment.

You might find it useful to do exactly what we do in our wellbeing sessions – draw two circles. In the outer one, write down all the things that you can’t control at the moment that are taking up your thoughts. Use it as an opportunity to get down some of the blacker fears that we all have at the moment (the power of journaling or simply scribbling something down is something we also share with educators). If you’re anything like me, there will be loads of these and it might be quite an overwhelming exercise.

Think about how different the list of things in your circle of concern look to how they might have looked two weeks ago. When I did this two weeks ago, it was lesson observations, inspections, books scrutinies, exams… do these matter (or indeed exist!) anymore? This is the big stuff. The literally life-and-death stuff.

Now turn to the inner circle. When I tried this last week, I literally ended up scrawling ‘NOTHING’ and hurling the pen away in a mature and adult sensible way that I am proud shows great role-modelling to my ever-present children.

Give it a few hours – or days – and look again. Think about nature; breaks; food; entertainment; reading… I read for half an hour with both my kids last night – uninterrupted. I may even learn to cook. Share with us some of your ideas @edsupport on Twitter!

You are not alone

This is a strange one, as I know many people have been on their own for longer than ever before y in their lives, but the sense of community is huge. We are speaking to loved-ones more than ever. Educators all over of the world are sharing their worries, their resources and their research. You don’t have to look more than a few seconds to find a place to howl in company; practical advice, resources for home learning or just the most ridiculously silly thing to make you laugh. Laughter is good. 

There’s something else that we find oddly reassuring and calming about the fact that everyone – almost everyone in the world - is in the same boat. As our eldest daughter put it earlier:

‘If all my friends were out together, it might me sad, but I know they’re not, so that’s ok.’

The sense of a collective effort to just do one thing to help humanity is actually a profoundly powerful one. You may be bra-less and stinking and achieving nothing, but you are actually doing the most useful thing of all: Staying At Home.

And this old chestnut that has emerged as a theme:

“This too shall pass”

We don’t know when, or what kind of world we will be venturing back into when we are eventually allowed to do so. During my darker moments, I feel very afraid, but then I wonder. In our house, we have stopped taking food for granted. I’ve just learned that the shout NHS volunteer responders has vastly surpassed its target within hours. Our education system has been totally challenged on the things that just don’t matter, and we may well have grounds for an overhaul, for the better.

This article is the only piece of work I will have achieved today – and that’s ok. My daughter wants me to read with her, but first, I’m off to the garden. The birds are having a party out there. And at night, you can see more stars than ever.

Take care of yourselves and each other. It turned out they were right about kindness.

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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