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How to support your staff when schools return

In this month’s wellbeing workshop, Jo Steer considers the wellbeing issues that could be raised by a return to the classroom and advises leaders to tread carefully

Jo Steer

Teacher returning to school after Covid-19

Dear Jo,

After the initial chaos of school closures, I feel as if we’re finally beginning to find some normality amid the abnormality. In terms of staff wellbeing, it feels like we’re on a fairly even keel. But how can I hope to maintain this as we move towards the prospect of re-opening?

Maintaining staff wellbeing as schools get ready to reopen

I think it’s admirable and impressive that you and your staff have adjusted so well to this ever-changing, ever-uneasy situation.

Is it realistic, however, to think that you’ll be able to reopen school, amid a global pandemic, without rocking the boat somewhat significantly? Probably not.

Let’s face it: to those who are vulnerable, have vulnerable family members, have experienced grief or those who just generally haven’t fared well mentally throughout this time, even the conversation about re-opening schools may evoke fear and anxiety.

Combine this with the news that some primary schools will begin a phased reopening on 1 June, and the vehement opposition to this from the teaching unions and much of #edutwitter, and we have a veritable Petri dish of stress, anger and panic.   

Even with the best will in the world, and a solid, strategic approach towards supporting staff, we’re going to encounter problems. That’s perhaps the most predictable aspect of this wholly unpredictable situation.

Perhaps a more realistic goal then, it to make the ride back to shore smoother than it was on the way out.

So… where to begin?

There’s no road map here, no handy procedure to remind us of what we did the last time we attempted a comeback after a global pandemic.

While from one angle this seems perturbing, from another it’s liberating. It forces us to look inward, towards what we’re already doing to support staff wellbeing.

Staff Pulse

What has worked so far?  

And what have we done so far? What efforts have you made both overtly and behind the scenes in order to keep staff connected, calm and reassured?

Can you pinpoint the ways in which you’ve sought to reduce stress, anxiety and workload for individual members of staff and for your team as a whole? More importantly, do you know what has and hasn’t worked here, and how? 

It’s crucial that you’re not going it alone here. Find creative ways to collaborate with your senior leadership team and with staff overall. Whether it's by means of an anonymous staff wellbeing questionnaire, feedback from online conversations with line managers or department teams, or conversations with trusted staff on the front line, make sure that you have honest feedback to hand.

Once you have this, you can decide whether the things that worked in April will still work in June; whether they’ll still be necessary, useful, fair even.

Keep checking in

Beware of over-reliance on the talents of your most experienced and capable staff as time goes on. Just because somebody was happy to commit to extra responsibilities or rota time months ago, doesn’t mean that they’re still coping with it now.

Remember that even the most high-functioning and willing individuals are likely to be worn down in times like these. Keep checking in with them and making adjustments where needed.

Where honest feedback reflects that some things currently aren’t working, particularly if they’re perceived by staff to be out of touch, overly demanding and tick-box in nature, do what you can to adapt or drop those things completely.

Better still, explain to staff what you’re changing and why you’re changing it. Let them know that their concerns have been heard.

Of course, you’ll never be able to please everyone – especially now with emotions running so high. Still, do whatever you can to ensure that your team know that you’re looking out for them, on a personal level as well as a professional one: that your approach to wellbeing comes from a sense of genuine empathy, care and compassion.

Harness shared values

The route back to reopening schools is going to need a whole lot of strategic, logical planning. But it’s also going to be reliant on things like collaboration, respect, trust and goodwill.

Schools that went into this crisis with said values already embedded within their culture are surely now at a sizeable advantage.

More than ever, it’s time to demonstrate to staff that they are heard and trusted, that their talents and time are valued. Keep asking yourself whether the specific tasks requested, the initiatives discussed and the language and reasoning used to deliver them reflect this.

At the heart of staff wellbeing is the strength of your relationships with staff and their relationships with each other. The stronger these relationships are, the easier it will be to support each other.

Creating opportunities for team projects, as well as tea-and-talk type initiatives whereby staff are encouraged to connect on a personal level, may soften the blow of distance and build up team spirit.

Bear in mind that while for many pulling together has been the most natural response to this crisis, some feel empowered to level shame, criticism and judgement at others, especially when communicating from behind a screen.

It’s understandable on one level – people are afraid – but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. Look out for unhealthy cliques forming, changes in the way staff speak to each other, and intervene if there’s the slightest hint of bullying behaviour.

Consider more than just physical health

Lastly, consider that just as we risk assess those returning to work following a period of sickness, so too must we now risk assess all staff, particularly those who have been hit the hardest by the crisis.

How will you identify those individuals? Are your team aware of the warning signs to look out for in colleagues, enabling them to offer support?

Remember that many teachers are sadly pros at ignoring their own warning signs, at faking "fine" until it can be faked no longer. Strive to notice where staff need support, before they’re at the point where they have to ask for it.

Be sure that you have people looking out for you too; people that might offer a helping hand, a break from work or a shoulder to cry on; people that know what you need even before you do.

Staff Pulse

Jo Steer

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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