If leaders were assigned a type of clothing most suited to our role in the current educational weather front, one could argue sou’westers might be the most apt. But it doesn’t have to stay like this.
The best school leaders try to protect children and staff from the inclement influences that are battering our windows, whilst we continue to appear bright, robust and able to do the job that needs doing. Leaders are bravely storm-facing. We are directly challenging and managing serious funding cuts, trying to adapt provision with less resources to support increased levels of poor mental health in children, families and in staff. We navigate the super powered-up external accountability and there is, of course, the rising expectation to tackle social mobility issues in less than a parliamentary term.
Am I slightly over-egging the pudding? The recent State of the Nation report by the Social Mobility Commission and the ensuing resignation of the board, flags up the complexity of the issues the government and therefore, we as leaders face: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/state-of-the-nation-report-on-social-mobility-in-great-britain. This is reinforced by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation report on Poverty in 2017: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2017.
If the information in the reports cited above – along with anecdotal input from that highly reliable barometer, The Twittersphere – and live data direct from sources such as Teacher Tapp are accurate then I think I am not overstating the size of the storm.
Dr Rebecca Allen (@drbeckyallen) urges schools to make the job do-able in a day. There will undoubtedly be a massive national head nodding towards this. However, cultures take years to shift not months. Schools and teachers are no different to this. So whilst we play close heed to this dynamic research and informed observations, consider in the meantime perhaps a strategy to shore up your workforce.
I wonder how many school leaders and teachers have been moved to tears or worse because of professional fear and stress, whether it be managing children with highly challenging behaviour, threatening parents, guilt about their own family, results day, inspection outcomes….. the list is endless. But tis the season to be jolly and it is remarkable our schools and leaders have a prevailing will and optimism to come up with solutions for our communities.
So what do we do to enable ourselves and our team to thrive not survive in the current climate?
Mary Myatt (@MaryMyatt), in her most recent book Hopeful Schools, refers to humane leadership. A big part of the problem with mental health and well-being in schools is that we know much of the theory then we prioritise children. I would argue this is a topsy-turvy low impact strategy. Try turning the tide and build a within-out approach. If you are delivering lessons/assemblies and approaches that aim to develop resilience and emotional literacy in young people without the adults taking their own advice then this is at worst, a crisis in waiting and at best pure hypocrisy. Adults own distress; mental well-being is writ much larger than we believe. Children and young people spot vulnerability from way beyond the school gate. Galvanise and equip yourself, then your team and then the sun may peek out from behind the storm clouds as you and your team model what you hope to see in children.
In order to do this here are some ideas that may encourage us to think differently about professional development:
· If you aren’t ok, your staff and team probably aren’t either. You just might not be able to spot this through your own mental fog. Talk to your governors or Trust or CEO about accessing psychological supervision. Medical staff have clinical supervision, social workers have case supervision. What do we have? Twitter? Other colleagues in the same situation? A Chair of Governors or trustee who may be part of the problem? This can create a negative feedback loop. Having an accredited objective supervisor/therapist/counsellor to provide a safe 1:1 space can be immensely powerful in enabling you focus on some key worries and create space for your own development and support. This enables you to work on solutions to suit your context.
· Try provide reading material and training for staff that encourages them to really learn about themselves and how they can develop appropriate resilience. This is not navel gazing. It helps raise awareness of your own patterns of behaviour, triggers and internalised scripts learned when you were a very young person. This in turn enables you to manage and support others from a more informed, empathetic stance.
· The development of trusting relationships should be a priority. In an increasingly fractured society, we have a moral imperative to do this. Genuinely trusting habits and behaviours will long outlive any government initiative. It takes time to spread this across your school community; leaders to leaders, leaders to staff, staff to children, staff to families. Create time and the culture to do this.
· Consider your corporate view on managing failure – do you thrive on the learning of mistakes or do you sweep them under the doormat printed boldly with your ‘honesty’ value? There is much to be learned from the aviation industry about near misses and the sharing of learning.
· Develop reflective behaviour groups, where a small number of staff/teams can talk through issues and worries in an emotionally safe space. Many schools are well versed in coaching but this tends to be used purely for teaching and learning. Try and use some of the coaching models to explore and solve some of the tricky issues that have tended to fall to school leaders to solve, for example, supporting vulnerable staff members, managing workload and stress, poor staff engagement, passive aggression and managing volatile and threatening behaviours. Reflective groups can be very enabling and supportive way to deal with sensitive and thorny issues that exist in any organisation.
We cannot genuinely expect to manage such complex demands by doing things the way we have always done them. Perhaps as the new year approaches reflect on the balance provided in your professional development offer and whether you as a leader have the skilled support of an accredited professional.
We want to create hope so we can peel off the sou’westers and feel the warmth of sun in our schools.
Binks Neate-Evans is a member of the core group of Heads’ Roundtable and she is headteacher of West Earlham Infant and Nursery School in Norwich.