The pandemic has put teachers under relentless pressure – and there’s no end in sight just yet. Lauran Hampshire-Dell considers what school leaders can do to support staff as they continue to combat the mental and physical exhaustion that has become part and parcel of school life
When schools were first asked to swap real classrooms for virtual ones back in March last year, school leaders – like everybody else – had no idea that this would be the beginning of a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns and restrictions.
What’s more, they could not begin to predict the impact that this would have on their staff.
Now, one year on from those first school closures, many teachers could be suffering from what psychologists call “crisis fatigue” – a condition caused by sustained exposure to an atmosphere of stress, uncertainty and fear.
There is a huge range of symptoms associated with crisis fatigue, some of which teachers may view as merely typical term-time concerns, with physical and mental exhaustion, sleep pattern alteration, appetite changes and struggling to concentrate all being typical markers.
However, these symptoms appear to be on the rise. In a recent social media survey I conducted of more than 170 teachers, 90 per cent of respondents reported increased mental fatigue, 82 per cent reported changes in their sleep patterns, 79 per cent said they were struggling to concentrate and 95 per cent said that these symptoms have increased over the most recent lockdown.
All these factors are likely to have an impact on teachers’ general wellbeing and their performance in the classroom – and although lockdown is now easing, the pandemic is far from over, which means these problems look set to continue.
So, what can leaders do to help? I asked a range of senior and middle leaders from different sectors across the country for their advice about how to tackle crisis fatigue.
Teacher wellbeing: Ditch the meetings
Cutting back on meetings, where possible, is one easy way to buy staff a little more time and space to breathe.
Laura May Rowlands, a head of English in Southampton, says that her school has changed its typical schedule, and “cancelled unnecessary meetings but asked people to attend a short one every week”.
Similarly, a middle leader in the North West told me that “meetings only happen now when absolutely necessary”.
During lockdown, some schools have been using department meetings as a chance for staff to touch base with each other, with one middle leader telling me that her “department meetings now start with everyone saying how they are” and another saying their weekly meeting is now being used to “just catch up”.
Leadership teams are also thinking about their communications. One head of year in Suffolk says that her team has committed to sending “no leadership emails in the evenings” in a bid to help all staff switch off, while a head of department in Surrey says that her team is now “actively considering whether or not the email needs to be sent; screen time is high enough without unnecessary communications”.
Drop the data
Even in a normal term, data drops can create stress but, since the start of the pandemic, the chaos of incomplete classes, atypical assessment methods and the general increase in admin that follows periods of online learning has meant that many schools are rethinking their data reporting for the sake of staff wellbeing.
Katherine Childs, a head of English in Dorset, says that her school has “suspended data drops for most year groups, although we are still doing whole-class feedback, so we have an idea of our students’ progress at home”.
Along with changes to how they gather data, some leaders are choosing to change how assessments are carried out across the school.
This is what has happened at one secondary school in Bournemouth. “As everything is taking longer at the moment, we felt streamlining our assessment process would be better: it’s now just final assessments alongside regular assessment for learning, and we are looking at quizzes instead of lengthy written pieces,” explains a senior leader at the school.
One benefit of the recent periods of online learning is that they have given schools a chance to explore remote assessment methods, some of which involve self-marking and can ease the intense marking burden that teachers face.
In fact, 60 per cent of the teachers I surveyed said that they have used the lockdown period to explore new assessment methods that could help their teams.
Resources, blending and booklets
Collaboration and teamwork have proved vital in helping teachers manage during remote learning and there are many ways that leaders can continue to facilitate collaborative working now that more students are back in schools.
For instance, one school leader told me that their school has been “providing adapted schemes of work, booklets and resources to aid workload”, having “collapsed resources days to help staff”, introduced “clear signposting of upcoming units and resources both online and off” and arranged for staff to take over planning for a year group each “to minimise planning” overall.
Keep the focus on wellbeing
The return to a normal school day also shouldn’t equal the end of any wellbeing initiatives started during lockdown.
Rowlands says her department is going to keep its focus on sharing resources and condensing key notices into weekly bulletins. In addition she will not be reinstating meetings unless they’re really necessary.
Her team is also considering using online meetings as a development tool going forwards. “Morning briefings on Zoom would allow us to access interesting continuing professional development, as I could invite guest speakers in,” she says.
Safeguarding lead Chris East agrees that there are plenty of initiatives that have been introduced in lockdown, which could continue to support wellbeing now that schools are open again more fully.
For instance, his team has been focused on raising awareness of how “the lockdown will have impacted people in many ways, so we are signposting the safeguarding team, explaining how and why we can help”.
He is also thinking about how staff may feel about reintegration, ensuring that there are “regular staff check-ins and points of contact available if the transition back to campus is too much”.
The majority of students may be back in the classroom but, with no certain date for a return to complete normality in sight, it is likely that leadership teams will have to continue to offer additional support to staff struggling with crisis fatigue for some time to come.
Flexibility, patience and empathy will not only help staff to feel more supported but allow them to better support students and their families.
Yet leadership teams will also need support: crisis fatigue can affect anyone and steering the ship through the storm is exhausting. It’s therefore crucial that leaders make time to look after themselves and switch off, too.
Lauran Hampshire-Dell is a teacher and tutor
This article originally appeared in the 26 March 2021 issue under the headline “Give your staff a break from ‘crisis fatigue’”