During a recent afternoon of telephone consultations with senior school staff, I was struck by their compassion and good sense, in a world turned completely upside down.
These professionals found time and space to reflect on the needs of the vulnerable children they support. They maintained the core qualities that drive education – empathy and motivation. Such resources will be needed and challenged more than ever in the weeks and months ahead.
But one question that the leaders found difficult was, ‘How are you doing?’ This is unsurprising, because school leaders are accustomed to putting their own needs aside to focus on others. They are skilled at tuning in while suppressing their own feelings.
But this "emotional labour" is tiring and, currently, school leaders are labouring harder than usual, as they work, in exceptional circumstances, to "hold it together" for school communities.
The kinds of challenges school leaders are facing at the moment include:
- Loss – School leaders, like everyone, are affected by the pain of personal bereavement and the fear of potential future losses. But school leaders also face and have to manage current and anticipated professional losses, such as the loss of educational opportunities for pupils, and of strategic vision and direction for schools.
- Uncertainty – School leaders are good at strategic planning, but the current uncertainty and the prospect of more uncertainty ahead makes this difficult.
- Role confusion – Almost overnight, home/school, and family/work contexts have become confused, resulting in tensions between responsibilities to care for family, and the need to look after the welfare of staff and pupils.
- System failure – Many of the tools, personal relationships and systems that school leaders rely on to be effective are unavailable at the moment. Leaders are having to develop new ways of working and communicating and this may feel unsettling or even frightening.
During these difficult times, psychology may help us to understand and process our responses to the current crisis. I find the following three models particularly useful.
1. Models of grief
Grief is a normal response to loss and leaders may recognise some of these "stages" of grief, even in the context of professional loss.
It may take time to adapt to the implications of loss, but an awareness of these stages may help make sense of the impact of uncertainty and unplanned change.
2. Positive psychology
Focusing on what works well, not on what is wrong, is at the heart of positive psychology. It can help leaders cope with difficult or uncertain situations by building positive aspects into their own daily lives and for others in their school communities. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model suggests the following five elements are necessary for wellbeing:
- P: Positive emotions.
- E: Engagement (getting "lost" in an activity).
- R: Relationships.
- M: Meaning – a sense of purpose.
- A: Accomplishment – a sense of achievement.
Ryan and Deci's self-determination theory may help to explain why concentration and motivation are challenging for some leaders at present. It highlights that, to remain motivated, we need to feel:
- Competent (good at what we do).
- Related (connected to others).
- Autonomous (having control over our lives).
Each of these areas is challenged by the current situation, so finding ways to re-introduce these elements may help.
Lastly, as leaders, the energy required to process information and care for ourselves and others can be overwhelming at the moment. We know that stress can impair reflection, concentration and even empathy.
However, these are the stock skills of school leaders and they remain relevant and important, despite the current context. As such, it is important to give yourself time and space to focus and process everything that is going on.
Here are some tips to help get you through:
- Focus on what you can control, primarily look after yourself.
- Remember that you can’t look after everyone.
- Be kind to yourself. The change you are experiencing is new but you will adapt.
- Try to tune in to your own emotions in a safe way. Consider writing a journal or taking time each day to talk to someone you trust about how you feel. Link up with other leaders for support and to share ideas.
- Notice unhelpful negative thoughts and develop positive self-talk to cope with them, eg "It will pass," or "This is not within my control."
- Seek help if you need it.
- Stay connected socially, in whatever way you can.
- Consider distractions and new challenges You might welcome the opportunity for self-development, but don't feel pressured. The primary goal is to look after yourself and keep going.
Dr Joanna Wood is senior educational psychologist at Real Group