Uncharted waters. Unprecedented situation. Kookoo bananas. I think I’ve heard (and used) these phrases more in the last week, than perhaps throughout the entire lifetime preceding it.
Like senior leadership teams (SLTs) across Britain, I am still fully processing the news that schools will almost certainly close their doors, for all but key-workers’ children, until September. To say things are uncertain does not really do it justice.
What is certain, however, is that staff, the bulk whom will be working from home, will need support.
Will it present challenges to support colleagues from behind a screen? Sure. But it’s far from impossible, especially once you’ve all had time to find your feet. After all, aren’t we simply applying what we already know about staff wellbeing to this altered mode of communication?
Really, it’s this that has changed more than anything, so this is what we need to focus on. In matters of morale – workload, relationships, routine and boundaries – we need to ask whether our communication with staff promotes mental wellness or illness. Does it support work-life balance or burnout?
Here are my tips for how we can ensure these messages help, rather than hurt, teachers during this unprecedented situation (there, I’ve said it again).
1. Keep things inclusive
First off, with staff moving towards email, WhatsApp and whatever Google Classroom-type service you’re opting for, you must consider whether the software and services are appropriate for all of your staff, inclusively.
If the answer is no…what can you do to change that? Is online training required? Could you “buddy up” staff who perhaps aren’t the most tech savvy with those who are, so that they at least have someone to call if they just don’t get it? Have you a back-up for staff who don’t have access to specific means of communication?
Ensuring that everyone has a means of interacting with SLT/colleagues needs to be priority number one. Not only is this vital for people doing their job, it’s this that shows people they’re not alone, even if they are physically isolated.
2. Triple check the message
Once you’re set on the means of communication, consider how you can get information across effectively to staff…because miscommunication poses further threats to wellbeing.
Of course, misunderstandings are par for the course, especially in the early days. Let them become the norm, however, and you’ll likely see workload rise and wellbeing sink, especially from the most vulnerable among your staff.
The answer here is to take a thorough, methodical approach to what you send out, checking everything thrice and preferably getting a second opinion from another member of the SLT before new directives go out.
Put yourself in the mind of your most acronym-illiterate, self-isolated newly qualified teacher, who doesn't really know you, your tone of voice or how you like things done. Ask yourself whether what you’re sending out is straightforward enough for them to understand, whether the links work, whether what you’re asking is within their current skill set.
If not, change it or consider sending out different/more detailed messages to those who need it. Even better, utilise the “buddy system” mentioned above, or give vulnerable/new staff a phone call/video call to iron out any creases.
3. Support a structured routine
I know it might seem like over-egging the pudding, but consider that you might have some staff virtually bubbling over with personal/professional anxiety. Receiving instructions that they don’t understand will only exacerbate this, causing more worry.
Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest challenge for staff at home will be finding ways to switch off, with their work and home lives merged so dramatically. The last thing you want is a team glued to devices, checking correspondence all day long – that’s anything but healthy. Endeavour to support healthy routines and boundaries in all interactions with staff, directly and indirectly.
If you’re expecting people to log on and off at certain times, make sure that this is realistic and reasonable, accounting for regular screen breaks, break-breaks and lunch breaks, and that it’s flexible where it needs to be.
It goes without saying that at a time like this, micromanaging is not OK. Nor is emailing at 9pm. Strive to role model boundaries within your own interactions; to “walk the walk” when it comes to work-life balance.
Better still, make it clear from the off that you’ve thought about this issue and decided that staff should only send emails between certain hours.
4. Find time to get personal
If there’s any silver lining to be found in these troubling times, it’s that it forces us to re-evaluate what’s really important. And it isn’t data or initiatives or exams. It’s connection – friends, family, colleagues and students – which brings me nicely to my last point; relationship building and kindness.
In times of discomfort, when everything we know appears to be crumbling away, comfort is found through kind, caring conversation. Make time to call/video call your staff, or heads of department in larger schools, if only for a chat.
Make it your business to find out how people are coping on a personal level; to ensure that everyone has at least one person checking in with them regularly, and that any real concerns reach you quickly. If ever there was a time for care and compassion, it’s now.
And that applies to self-compassion for you, too. As does all of the above. You can’t pour from an empty cup, after all. Look after yourself as well as your staff.