We’re back at school and doing our best to remain calm and positive, amidst the myriad of changes afoot. Staff seem to be on board and taking things in their stride, but I am aware that some may be struggling behind closed doors.
How can I take a proactive approach to supporting staff wellbeing, at a time when we’re all, to some extent, going through the motions?
Coronavirus: Back to school 2.0
The first fews weeks back in September are always a shock to the system for staff, particularly teachers.
Having finally (hopefully) managed to "switch off" and slip into a slower pace of life over summer, it’s inevitably jarring to find yourself discussing the ins and outs of trauma-informed teaching before 9.30am. Back to school in 2020, though? This is on another level entirely.
Aside from the fact that, for some staff, holidays may have been closer to breakdown than break, back to school this year is all about the "new normal".
This year, it’s all about the staggered lunches. Year group bubbles. Keeping to the left. Teaching at the front. Books in quarantine. And, of course, a whole lot of hand washing. Less of a splash of water to the face-type shock and more of a jumping into an ice-cold lake kind of ordeal.
Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe. Or maybe it only seems so because, in teaching, we have such a high tolerance for coping in times of chaos.
Teacher mental health and wellbeing
In fact, I think you’d be hard-pushed to find a group of professionals so able to adapt to change, so well-practised at projecting calm confidence, no matter what feelings may lie hidden beneath the surface.
This "no fuss, back to business" attitude can offer a wellbeing boost in itself, given that many staff find it easier to feel positive – or at least distracted from difficult thoughts/feelings – when they have students and colleagues to focus on and support.
We just also need to keep in mind that teachers are often adept at hiding their feelings. In a profession all-too-familiar with stress and anxiety pre-Covid, we can’t allow mental illness to become a normalised part of the job description.
The challenge, of course, is that over the past year, millions of people around the world have felt an increase in their daily anxiety levels. On the back of the latest measures and the threat of a second national lockdown, it may be that this is going to get worse before it gets better.
What’s the solution here? How can we empower a person wrestling with mental illness to seek support in a climate where not feeling OK is seemingly more common than coping?
Get things out in the open
The most obvious place to start is by actually talking to staff about mental health.
Communicate to your staff that whilst getting to grips with the current, ever-changing situation will undoubtedly be challenging, your door is always open (quite literally) for them to come in and chat if they are struggling.
There is a caveat here, though, because we’re working under the assumption that staff will actually recognise when they are struggling mentally, which some won’t.
Teaching being the profession that it is, it’s all too easy for staff to fall into a tunnel-vision-style approach to term time, consciously or unconsciously ignoring their own internal warning signs.
So, too, is it difficult to spot a colleague in crisis, given that in schools they frequently appear to be high functioning and hard-working professionals, inner struggles masked by the pervasive "busyness" of the job role.
It’s important, then, to talk about what struggling may actually look like; to redefine what kind of physical, mental and emotional changes may inspire one to seek help; to offer professional training and support where needed.
We’re not looking to panic people or to magnify problems, only to reduce the risk of people suffering in silence, downplaying serious problems and deteriorating further.
Although everyone has their own individual sense of how it feels to be OK, staff need to know to look out for changes that feel more unusual, intense and/or more long-lasting.
We’re talking about sensations that go beyond the anxiety we feel after seeing the news; beyond the mood swings that seem typical for most of us these days.
Now we’re in the territory of loss of appetite or appetite changes, problems with sleep and insomnia, persistent nervousness and feelings of deep-seated dread, feelings of disconnection and apathy.
As we’re still working at a distance from each other, it’s especially important to watch out for members of staff becoming isolated and to create opportunities for staff to talk, if only to a line manager.
Ideally, we want to create a school climate built upon strong relationships, whereby staff continuously look out for each other; where they’re quick to notice when someone is withdrawn or behaving erratically, in a way that is out of character.
Empathy is paramount here. We need to remember that whilst we all have a shared experience of this past year, we also have an entirely unique one.
Contrast the experience of someone who has been in and out of school since March to someone who has spent months at home in isolation; the attitude of someone who has pre-existing medical conditions or vulnerable loved ones, to someone whose partner has lost their job.
The point is that we can’t assume anything. Now, more than ever, we can only listen.
Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant