The need for balance in our lives at this stressful and challenging time
For the sake of staff retention and a healthy school we need to dedicate time to well-being post lockdown
James Birchenough Headteacher at Transforming Lives for Good
Six months ago, it would have been completely unheard of to turn up to a team meeting with your 2-year-old, let alone to be at that meeting wearing jogging bottoms and no shoes! It would have been unfathomable for someone to take an hour during the middle of the school day for a short walk around their local park. And you’d have laughed if I even suggested teaching a class of 30 children in your back garden! The world has been turned on its head by Coronavirus, and so have our working practices. However, once we move towards a new normal, senior leaders shouldn’t return to how things used to be, because for many education professionals it simply wasn’t working. Below, I set out three suggestions of how leaders can encourage a more balanced way of working which places staff wellbeing right at the centre of their school’s ethos.
Remember, work is only part of your life; it’s not your whole life
The extent to which our home, family, and friendships are integral to our lives and our sense of self has never been more visible than right now. Those who have been juggling a full-time job with childcare or even home learning, will know this all too well. When a new normal emerges, work and home should become more separate again, so work time doesn’t overflow into home time and leave our families and ourselves short-changed. However, the principle that a person is more than their work contributions should stay in the forefront of our minds. We should remember that work time is not more important than home time; each has its place, and its allotted number of hours, and consistently working too much and starving friendships or relationships of investment will be severely detrimental. In recent times we have seen and experienced the balancing act that’s needed to make our whole lives function well, and we shouldn’t forget the amount of time required to make our home lives work when our responsibilities outside of work become less visible again.
Checking in on each other’s wellbeing matters
While schools have been “closed”, my team and I have had a virtual team meeting most mornings at 8.30am. We’ve chatted about how we’re doing and how our families are, we’ve spent time reflecting and praying together, and then we’ve discussed any issues that are coming up; sometimes that’s been sharing information about students, clarifying who’s completing what task, or me outlining a change in a previously agreed plan and opening it up for discussion. It’s brought some stability and familiarity, and sets a reasonable start time for the working day. It’s been invaluable for being able to gauge how each other is really doing, and has allowed us to have follow up conversations, one-to-one afterwards, about changes we need to make to working practices, or changing who leads on what area if someone has too much work for their working hours. This time to genuinely connect with each other will continue for our team into the future when we are meeting regularly in person, as it was part of our culture before lockdown, but sadly in many schools this kind of rhythm isn’t there at the moment.
I really hope that many SLTs take time in this same way to check in with their teachers and give them space to truly express themselves: staff with better wellbeing, who feel listened to, will be more patient, more empathetic, and therefore better at leading their students. For this to be possible, we also need leaders to be compassionate, able to express their emotions, and to not pretend to have it all together. Unless this is the case, teachers will be much less likely to open up about how they’re really doing, and instead would be more likely to copy the model that they’re presented with. Leaders should be able to admit when they’re struggling, should seek advice on important decisions with those working directly with the students, and should share some of what they’re feeling to show their human side. They should lead with emotional intelligence, picking up on the small signals from their teams about what’s going on beneath the surface, and they should have the courage to ask the questions to get to the deeper issues.
During school closures, teachers and senior leaders have shown an enormous amount of creativity and willingness to try new approaches to fit the changed landscape. With only 2 days notice, schools created whole distance learning timetables so children could continue with their education while school buildings were closed to most pupils. Then, when the announcements came regarding more children returning to school, leaders found creative solutions to make the plans work, even redrafting those plans multiple times as new guidance was released.
In a few months, hopefully on the surface things will look more like business as usual; on the inside, though, this is likely to be far from true. Teachers might be back in their classrooms but they will be different to who they were before, having experienced a collective trauma of living through a pandemic. For so long teachers have persevered through 50- and 60- hour weeks, believing there’s no other way and that the work just had to be done, but after the experience of lockdown and coronavirus, we will likely find ourselves even less able to sustain that. Our emotional wellbeing is likely to be lower and possibly be affected in ways we can’t predict, and we will need even more to be connected to support networks outside of work to sustain us. This simply isn’t possible with a typical teacher’s workload, where you have to sacrifice time with loved ones to get your marking done, half of which your students may never read anyway. So, the landscape will change again even if it has the appearance of normality; senior leaders should show this same flexibility and willingness to drastically change policies and procedures as they have done during coronavirus and lockdown, otherwise many teachers may find themselves unable to continue in the profession, or, worse, stay and watch their mental and emotional health slowly deteriorate to a new low and the outcomes of their students suffer at the same time.
Looking to the future
So, as things change again, we should ditch what wouldn’t work in normal life (maybe let’s not turn up to work in jogging bottoms!) but we should definitely keep what has been working, in terms of making steps towards achieving more of a balanced life. We should remember that our lives are more than just our jobs, and give the right amount of time to family, friends, housework, hobbies, and sleep: work impinging on those areas will cause our lives to be unbalanced again, and we will lose the progress we’ve made prioritising our home lives. We need to keep checking in on how we’re really doing, on a peer-to-peer basis but also led by leadership; this will be key to navigating the challenges ahead, and understanding and validating how each of us has been uniquely affected by this time. And we should keep our increased determination to adapt to meet the issues we’re facing, and at all costs resist the urge to pick up once again the old “get the work done whatever the cost” mentality. Post-pandemic, the biggest issue in our schools is likely to be staff wellbeing, and if we are to avoid a nationwide crisis of education staff choosing to leave the profession or being forced to leave with ill health, it’s imperative that we keep these principles and keep forging a new path instead of retreating to old, familiar habits. Senior leaders have to lead on this and see it as a priority among their many other competing priorities: it’ll be tough, but ultimately if staff are mentally and emotionally healthy, with room for family, friends, and fun in their free time, every area of school life will see more success.
James Birchenough has been a Headteacher at the charity, Transforming Lives for Good (TLG) since 2016. In April 2020, he founded Wellbeing for Educators and Leaders in Learning (WELL), which helps individual teachers improve their work/life balance and helps senior leaders create a school culture conducive to staff wellbeing. He is author of “Leaving Work At Work”.