“I’m OK, you’re OK” - the need to take staff well-being more seriously

How a sophisticated approach to supporting staff is essential both in a crisis and beyond

Co-Headteacher Surrey Square Primary School

“I’m OK, you’re ok.”

Thomas Harris, in his 1967 book of this title, set out an important idea – if we are to be in a state to help others, and respond in ways that enable, support and empower, then we have to be OK in ourselves. Looking after the staff, so that they can look after the community, has never been so important. In other words, put your own gas mask on first.

Why is this so important at this time?

  • Everyone is affected. Never before has an individual’s personal and domestic situation become an area of focus for employers. They vary wildly and impact massively on personal capabilities, capacity and wellbeing.
  • The crisis has triggered underlying mental health challenges for many people, and others who have not struggled before, are now.
  • Schools are places which give out energy – they are of course in reality a group of people, and each of those people has to give out energy. They have to overcome their own issues and be of service to others. That is hard at the best of times, and can feel impossible if you don’t feel ok yourself.
  • The loss of control, with reliance on decisions from central government, is a real source of stress for leaders. We are not able to plan and make decisions for our community, and this loss of control can be a major source of stress.
  • The duty of care to our staff continues; we have a role to play in avoiding isolation and understanding the issues people have

Helping staff proactively to be ‘OK’ has long been a high priority at Surrey Square; after all, our mission of ‘personal and academic excellence’ is for ‘everyone, every day’ – and we take that seriously. So how have we adapted our established practices for supporting, celebrating and empowering our teams at this time? What are our underlying principles and beliefs about this work, and how have we enacted these?

Our principles and underlying beliefs

These are the principles that guided our approach 

  • We need to be in a good state to do our best work. As well as being part of our legal ‘duty of care’ as an employer, it is also directly linked to standards and performance. 
  • Everyone is different – they find different things challenging and need different help and support.
  • It is everyone’s job to make a contribution to the team being ‘OK’ – everyone has a role to play and we train people in those basic skills
  • Developing powerful coaching skills in those who line manage others is essential, so that every individual has a quality line management relationship and space to talk
  • Some problems are beyond the scope of what we can help each other with at work. Being able to refer to other services both internally and externally is really important and is a part of normal life – just like Place2Be has no stigma for the pupils.
  • We use some positive psychology approaches, building in rituals and practices to help people focus on the positives
  • It’s also ok (and normal) to not be ok sometimes – but it’s important to take responsibility for noticing this and doing something about it – asking for help or using other strategies. Taking it out on the children, or each other, is not ok.

Putting our values into practice

So, what did this mean for our response?

Normal practice COVID practice and beyond 
All staff (not just teachers!) have regular, timetabled line management. Agreed approaches and expectations. Training for staff on coaching approaches and proactive development of coaching skills. Staff check-ins – once a week – individually and in teams. 

Seeking to understand personal circumstances/needs. Escalation to heads for additional support when needed.

Non-managerial supervision for key safeguarding leads. Extension of non-managerial supervision to all of the pastoral team and those managing the caseload from our vulnerability matrix.

Any staff member can self refer to this service if they want to

External coaching for Heads. Continuation of this.
‘Freddo awards’ – way to peer nominate those who have gone above and beyond Continues at our weekly ‘Fridays at 5’ virtual social event.
Staff meetings to focus on CPD  Support staff having weekly meeting (more frequent than before) 

HLTA/Early Years Educators having weekly meetings (more frequent than before) 

Focused on well being, support for remote working.

Year group team meetings weekly, including all teachers and support staff Continue with this
Staff feedback

Termly questionnaire and ongoing open door culture

Intense approach to staff feedback – asking how they are feeling, and offering a range of support services and opportunities. Further questionnaire regarding feelings about coming back to work, to inform planning for this.
Social and informal time

Tea and cake weekly after school

Range of social activities as a team

Tea and cake – Thursday at 3pm – informal catch up

Friday at 5 – Friday at 5pm – ‘Freddo awards’ and marking of the end of the working week

Managing endings and transitions – assemblies  Script to support staff having difficult conversations

End of ‘term’ assembly

Ongoing opportunities for staff to connect with children, Zoom calls twice a week with classes.

Open offer to engage in Place 2 Think (Free, self referral service for staff) Still an offer

Also offer of non-managerial supervision to all staff.

Adopting flexible practices to support individual circumstances and choice Giving additional thought to staff in various personal situations and accommodating/supporting that

We are faced with a new set of additional challenges as we consider how a larger scale opening will work. From practical consideration about PPE equipment and hand sanitiser supplies, through to the emotional support needed to recover and re-engage in the world. We will need to support individuals in understanding the long term impact of this experience.

For us at Surrey Square, this experience has made us proud of a lot of the work we do; it has highlighted the ways in which we truly live our mission and values, for everyone, every day. No matter what that day brings.

But it also shocked and saddened us to see the lack of proper strategic focus and skillful management of this aspect of school leadership. This is a moment, through the shared experience we are having, to take stock and rethink.

How to rethink your approach to staff well-being

Where to start with that agenda? 

  1. Agree some principles as an organisation. What do we think is/is not our responsibility? What are the values that underpin our approaches? 
  2. Invest time in exploring what that really means – if we believe in equity, what does that mean for how we support staff in the school? (A personal bugbear – what message does the job title ‘teaching assistant’ convey? Our team are called learning facilitators, a name they shaped, feeling it better describes what they do.)
  3. Get a baseline. Properly listen to your staff. Engage with them in a safe way, with no fear of recrimination. Learn to hear the feedback, even when it hurts. Get in touch with reality.
  4. Make a plan. What are some easy wins? What needs some longer term strategy? Plan for engaging your stakeholders and staff in the journey so that they contribute to and ‘own’ the journey.

For us, it always comes back to mission – unless your team are ‘ok’, nothing else can happen. A focus on personal excellence ‘in crisis’ has to be the most important thing. Going forward this will be the key for making the next phase successful and sustainable or everyone.

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Rethinking school for the post-Covid world

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