Tackling the loneliness of teaching in a pandemic

Teaching has never been more lonely than it is now – but schools can do a lot to fix that, says headteacher John Tomsett
4th November 2020, 12:00pm

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Tackling the loneliness of teaching in a pandemic

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/tackling-loneliness-teaching-pandemic
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One of my biggest fears about the new academic year was that school would no longer be a social place for staff, that some of the joy would disappear from the job.

That fear has been realised.

We have strict year-group "bubbles". Students remain rooted in their chained-off section of the building while staff commute. I see my colleagues rush from one side of campus to another between lessons, trolley-baskets in tow, with barely time to say hello, let alone share a coffee or have a communal lunch.

Coronavirus: The impact on teacher wellbeing

Offices have strict limits on the number of people allowed inside at any one time. There is no such thing as a staffroom or a department workroom. Colleagues eat lunch with the students in their period three teaching class. We don't have Friday briefings or whole staff gatherings. Subject meetings are socially distanced affairs.

And teaching behind the two-metre tape means we cannot adequately support our students as they struggle beyond our reach. Behaviour management is so much more difficult. With windows open, classrooms are cold and likely to get colder.

Live-streaming lessons for those students self-isolating at home has added a whole new layer of complexity to an already complex job.

We are faced with being unable to do our jobs as well as we want to, as well as we used to do pre-lockdown.

Lonely in a crowd

Over 1,700 people gather every day at our school, under one roof. In classrooms and corridors - some of which are a metre wide - social distancing from students is impossible. We all live with a nagging fear of contracting the virus. We are constantly steering clear of each other, repelled like two same pole magnets.

Despite all this, my colleagues have shown remarkable resilience.

Our short-term absence rates have never been lower. No one wants to have to self-isolate as a Covid-19 "contact". Every single colleague - and there are 212 of them - is demonstrating a dedication to our students' education way beyond anything I could have possibly expected. We are united by a common moral purpose.

My colleagues made it to half-term. I tell them regularly that we are lucky. We are not working down a coal mine. We do not face being furloughed. We have been paid all the way through lockdown. We have jobs.

But they are horribly tired. They are working harder than they ever have done, as we educate our students in - as far as we can make it - a Covid-safe environment.

And my SLT colleagues average 20-plus duties a week. Our single priority is to remove every barrier that gets in the way of teachers teaching. Indeed, teachers' wellbeing is surely best supported by senior colleagues intervening when students misbehave in class; after-school yoga classes are an irritating irrelevance.

At least that is what I have always thought. But not any longer.

How we fix it

We always intervene when behaviour is poor; that is a given. But the thing is, school is a lonelier place now. The weather is closing in. The second national lockdown has been announced; a traditional family Christmas looks increasingly threatened.

In these pandemic times, as we all feel ever more isolated, there is, perhaps, a role for school leaders in helping to overcome a growing sense of loneliness.

Since 1997 the number of people living alone in the UK has increased by over 16 per cent to 7.7 million. A 2019 Office for National Statistics report found that "one-person households have the lowest wellbeing of all household types". A recent Danish study found that "men and women who feel lonely had a two to three times higher risk of reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and they had a significantly poorer quality of life compared with those who did not feel lonely".

So many of our younger colleagues, along with those in their fifties, live alone. School is a social experience for staff, and in normal circumstances that sociability helps us get through the toughest of days. It makes us all feel less alone.

With collegiality a victim of our bubble-rigid, socially distanced school, over the next few weeks and months we plan to respond in a number of ways.

Positive action

We have begun already by giving every single member of staff a small gift, individually wrapped by SLT, to mark the achievement of reaching the autumn half-term holidays.

Furthermore, we provided flapjacks to begin last week and breakfast bacon sandwiches to end it. A local deli offered luxury cream teas at a knock-down price for people to take home for the weekend.

With the blessing of our governing body, we have committed a significant budget to staff wellbeing for this year.

Immediately after the holiday, our assistant headteacher who leads our Workload Monitoring and Wellbeing Team will be asking our whole staff what would make their working lives more bearable. She has a number of ideas already, including:

  • A subscription to HeadSpace;
  • Subsidised subscriptions to online fitness classes.
  • A virtual Christmas get together instead of the usual 120-strong staff party.
  • Free flu jabs.
  • Cover for "catch-up on my to-do list" lessons.
  • A session with a resilience professor on how to find the resilience to accept that, in these odd times, things beyond your control are preventing you from doing your job as well as you want to do it.
  • Sessions on how to sleep effectively.
  • Cut-price offers to our school staff from local businesses.
  • And, importantly, a range of career development opportunities, because this, too, shall pass.

The current effort to keep schools operating feels unsustainable. School runs well when the right teachers are in front of the right classes at the right time. It is difficult enough staffing school when we have so many Covid-19-related absences. We can, perhaps, avoid non-pandemic absence by looking after our colleagues with compassionate wisdom.

We need to rediscover the joy of the job. If our students are going to benefit from being educated face-to-face in school, then we have to go out of our way to make our colleagues feel more valued than ever; at Huntington, we want all our colleagues to feel truly special.

Indeed, mid-pandemic, there has never been a more important time for school leaders to put their staff first.

John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School in York

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