Taking on a headship during a pandemic

Joanna James Acting Headteacher, Redriff Primary School

2nd July 2020

Redriff Primary School in South London is my second home, it is where I have grown and flourished as a teacher since 2005 and currently as its leader. I took over the headship of this school back in March and I can honestly say it has been my colleagues who have seen me through these uncharted waters and who I owe for still having a smile on my face. What a journey it has been.

Redriff is a close knit community that I feel so privileged to be a member of. We are a mixed community, with children of all religions and none. We have strength in our diversity. We reference and learn from them all. Our school wouldn’t be what it is without the hundreds of enquiring minds that come to learn day in, day out, the smiles and laughter that fill the corridors, the classrooms, the playgrounds and lunch halls and make every day at Redriff a joy to be part of.

In March we stood together looking over a rather large precipice with a future that was unclear. It was certain that we should expect change and when all said and done, actually demand change- we should want a different future for our education system. Education is for all and access to it has been, and is at the moment, limited.

Over these troubling times I have listened to many and tried to learn quickly, always trying to reflect on whether I truly believe the changes are right for the children. I trained as a teacher and no one ever prepared us for teaching through a virtual online platform, or indeed leading a school through this medium either. We are not mental health specialists and so we must learn and we must hear the experts and trust our moral compass. The pandemic has demanded a certain type of leadership- a flexible and adaptable one where you have to be okay with unpredictability. Not least of all it has called upon us to be empathetic, compassionate and kind. One of the things I’ve learnt most is how important it is to value and depend upon the strength in the team around you.

It has been a time when we have needed our family, friends, and our community the most and we must reinforce and reforge this connection and sense of unity. We need these attachments to support our wellbeing, it is human nature, and as a leader this must be an important consideration otherwise how can we too make staff and children’s wellbeing a priority.

Beside me throughout these turbulent months I have been fortunate to have a whole support network and I can honestly say that is why I have survived. An Executive Head who has been my mentor and guide; a superb coach who has helped me to be more assertive, create space to do the things that matter, has made me have perspective and essentially given me the scope and time to reflect and to focus on me; immensely supportive colleagues around me at school; my network of leaders from the London South Teaching Alliance and The Big Leadership Adventure. Not least of all my family- at a time when our professional and personal boundaries are blurred they have kept me grounded.

I have been authentic and honest. Knowing that as leaders we are in this together, that we are all experiencing this, that no one has more experience of this situation than any other (there is no ‘evidence-based’ approach we can take) has helped hugely in feeling more connected and having a shared drive to support one another. We are all living through a pandemic and our role couldn’t be more important to our communities. I have found strength in the great leaders I have surrounded myself with.

We are slowly but surely returning to school, be it in ‘pods’, and I know this is where I belong when I see the children smiling as they enter our school gates once more. It is honestly one of the best feelings to welcome a child back and let them know how much we have missed them and how pleased we are to see them. We need them and they need us. As we return to our old beloved Redriff things will feel familiar as we will always build on our best traditions and practice. However it is also my job to ‘stitch a new garment’-  one that fits us all and one that embraces innovation and takes what is good from this global situation. One that will hold the old values for a new time and I believe we have strength, passion and expertise to do this as a school.

When we reopen fully in September we will do what we do best, to nurture those enquiring minds, to put their wellbeing at the forefront of everything we do. We will recover those connections we lost. We will show them our strength and they too will feel strong.

I hope that when this is over I can reflect on what has happened and truly believe I did my best for the children.

At the beginning of our SLT sessions each week we start with a building entry activity. I have made these wellbeing focused and last week we looked at affirmations. One has really stuck with me, and I think of it often, ‘Lift up your heart, look up and look out. This too will pass.’

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