If we are to examine teacher wellbeing for a moment, we might want to consider that the impacting factors of teacher wellbeing have not changed. The external factors, of course have collected a pandemic along the way, but the fundamental ways in which we can understand the falling apart, or holding together of teachers both individually and as a school community remain the same. However, the way in which this manifests itself is different, not only in form, but in the way that it is now behind the doors of homes and screens of computers. The profession presents with the same concerns, but these are magnified, both with the extremity that a pandemic presents, but also in the way in which we respond as individuals to the pandemic as well.
As Leaders, we must watch the parallel tightropes which we need to walk: the first, the necessary, operative aspects of school life, and the second, the more tentative steps that we make to ensure that strategically, it is possible to, both frequently and with respectful discretion, navigate conversations to take the temperature of how people feel in regards to workload.
From the justification of busy work to validate and affirm to ourselves of knowledge we know is already there, hasn’t gone away, to rapid upskilling to equip ourselves with the technical skills that we feel will act as a buffer for uncertainty, workload has never suffered such fluctuations. Only this time, we need to work harder to diagnose both the cause and the catalyst of unmanageable workload, to be able to ascertain, adapt and retrace our steps to do better next time.
For the child free Maths teacher, live lessons are fantastic; he likes to see his pupils every day and relishes getting to grips with a new platform. Live lessons are killing me, says the Father of two young children trying to balance a Biology lesson with learning how to teach phonics from YouTube. Recorded lessons take all day, says the introvert genius of the department, willing to share knowledge with students yet crippled by the idea of immortalising himself on the internet after doing the sensible thing we all should have done and avoided Facebook for most of his adult life. Recorded lessons are the dream, says the young carer who can work until the early hours, deliberating over explanations and becoming a true Jedi of the editing process.
We need to know engagement; we have no control over engagement; we need to quality assure; we don’t yet know what quality might resemble for us, and our capability, juggling and learning at the same time. Collaborative and connecting dialogue is crucial right now, but we continue to work in isolation, because external circumstances change from week to week, as children are sent home and back again, and home again. Time has evolved beyond the familiar margins of work time and home time, and doesn’t seem to sit still, or coincide with everyone else.
What can anyone managing staff do? To be able to unpick through all of these narratives takes time, of which is ever more precious and feels all the more finite than it ever has. To be able to be met with the honesty needed to move forward in protecting teachers from these blurred boundaries, and in some instance, their own well-intended but unnecessary strive for perfection- that good enough was always good enough, and was never the mediocrity that they might have thought. This work is difficult but essential in ensuring that we know the temperature, and have much needed insight into the ebbs and flows of workload that present themselves at anytime, but particularly now.
- Is this sustainable?
- Does it have an positive impact upon learning?
By returning to these valuable questions, we can then start to think iteratively about both our strategic approach to looking after others, but also what should be given our time.
Communicating the priority and repeating those core messages shifts to the forefront of what we’re doing. Information comes thick and fast when policy and processes change, and the old rule shifts aside for the one which replaces it, as we fight the instinctual urge to revert back, until the new rules becomes business as usual. Wear a mask. Socially distance. Centralise planning. Create mini teams. Have daily check ins. Pick up the phone and actively seek out the knowledge of knowing when it comes to the both subjective and bespoke workload of your colleagues. At each and every layer of the school community, ensure that whatever that priority may be, that it is sung consistently and repeatedly from the same hymn sheet. Staff briefing, then again at subject level meetings, then again within weekly check ins, then again within the microcosms of our wider school community. This repeated dialogue, handled by many is then delivered with a sense of automaticity, and alignment, bringing us back to the priority when we may become distracted by it. This is what we do here. This is what we continue to do here. We are not distracted by the noise of vacuous notion and fleeting fads. It allows for the main thing to remain indeed, the main thing.
Stem the haste. When change happens quickly and the ground seems to shift in more than one place, we have to work very hard not to respond with rapid, forceful decisions which whilst immediately after, may feel rewarding and provide a sense of accomplishment, this is not genuine or accurate, but often a false disguise for hasty choice. Much of the time, we make our best decisions when we bring people together to untangle them, dissect and debate, before moving beyond negotiation to what seems the best way for all. Better still, and a consideration we may not always turn to first, we hold the line. We stand still. Deliberating over whether our first reaction is the one which will be most effective not only in the moment, for the few, but protective of both best bets, but for the people who will be impacted as a result. By slowing others down, we have the important conversations that draw together our best ideas, and we refuse to buy into the speed with which process might change or u-turn over time.
Navigate a balance for each person, so that all remain firmly on the right side of purposeful work that will feel good. That might sound a little simplistic, but getting to grips with technology is not everyone’s bag. Equally so, losing the human connection again, with memories of the first lockdown not yet distant enough, will be a crushing blow to some. In light of change and mastery of unfamiliar software, teachers may not feel any sense of accomplishment, and one day will stand as wildly different to the next. The remnants of work will stay with us longer when home is only shifting to a different room. Find ways to provide a disconnect from the work; open conversations with human condition as opposed to agendas; encourage that the weekend is still, very much the weekend. Carve out what work is when, at times, it might have become all that there is and repeat, as much as you can, relentlessly so to ensure that at the end of this-whenever and whatever the end may be- that instead of reverting, we build upon the climate that we have worked so hard to create.
If you are interested in reading my thoughts around wellbeing, I wrote this book for teachers and leaders, exploring the way in which we can take a strategic approach to improving workload for teachers and help to keep amazing teachers teaching: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-Talking-About-Wellbeing-Howard/dp/1912906481