This much I know about…leading a school during a pandemic

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about leading a school during a pandemic.

Put staff first: Having the right people in front of the right classes at the right time is the most important thing you can do for your students, so do everything you can to protect your colleagues from catching the virus. As someone who teaches 6 lessons a fortnight, I am nowhere near as important as members of the 44/50 club.

Support staff matter: I know you know I know this, but this pandemic has emphasised to every teacher I know just how crucial our support staff colleagues are to our endeavours.

Don’t become a contact: This mantra has resounded around our school. Treat everyone as if they have the virus and there is less chance of catching Covid-19.

Be more visible than ever: Our SLT average 20+ duties a week. Every time a colleague sees you in the corridor, it makes a positive difference to their day.

Poor student behaviour is unacceptable: Our students need to step up during the pandemic to support their teachers; deliberate classroom disruption has to be dealt with swiftly and decisively by SLT.

The soft stuff matters: Whilst being there to support colleagues when they face poor student behaviour remains the best wellbeing intervention, looking after them with some of the soft stuff – like a mini bottle of prosecco and a pack of four Ferrero Rocher individually wrapped by SLT for every single member of the 212 strong staff team – is more important than it has ever been.

You are running a microcosm of society: Amongst your staff, student and parent communities you will have individuals who are beyond terrified by the virus and others who deny its existence. Every policy decision needs to take into account this diversity of viewpoints.

Students do not know what social-distancing means…which is why the adults have to insist upon being socially distant from students and each other all the time, whilst acknowledging the impossibility of this in primary schools.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate: My weekly up-dates to colleagues and parents have been worth every minute of effort to produce. Fear swiftly occupies a vacuum.

Some people just want to survive: In first week of November I published a paper entitled, Let’s thrive, not just survive, and it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. I learnt that some colleagues are just getting through, and, right now, just getting through is enough.

Some things are better: We have been working as a whole staff to plan for getting back to “normal”. It has been a positive, hope-full activity. There is a list of things which colleagues unanimously want to retain, post-pandemic. Like medical innovations on the battlefields of World War One, in adversity, we have found ways of doing things more effectively.

Kindness rules: If you cannot decide what to do, just do the kindest thing you can. It is a rule of thumb whose time has come.

It’s no-one’s fault: It is all too easy to get frustrated and fed up with what is happening, but it is no-one’s fault. We work in a school where we officially recognise “the fallibility of the human condition”. If kindness rules, forgiveness comes a close second at Huntington.

Spend (even) more time talking to people: Being around the place more than ever, I have had more conversations with colleagues than ever in my career. It has been a joy. And what has struck me is just how, when I have asked colleagues how they are, the most frequent response has been, “Fine. How are you?” In so many ways, we are a closer-knit community.

Standards still matter: Whilst this is maybe 18 months in our career of so many years (33 for me), for our students it is the only shot they have at getting an education and securing the grades which enable them to progress successfully onto the next stage of their lives. We have to maintain the highest possible expectations of our students throughout this pandemic.

Collaboration beats competition: In York, our schools have supported each other like never before. It has been one of many silver linings to the Coronavirus cloud.

Good, old fashioned competence is massively underrated: From being on bus duty to making decisions about how to reopen the nation’s schools, genuine competence is what we need in such uncertain times.

This too will pass: Keep looking forward. Provide your colleagues with a vision of hope for the future. Remain upbeat. The sun will shine again. The next few weeks promise to be challenging, but If Winter’s here, can Spring be far behind?

A Final Day Email to hearten any member of SLT, and one, I suspect, which has been replicated in one form or another in every school across the country:

Dear SLT

I just wanted to say a huge thank you to all of you, both for the very thoughtful gift (the Prosecco is chilling ready for tomorrow), but also for your relentless support for all of us over this term. The thoughtful gestures do make a big difference, as does knowing that if we need support with pupils we will get it – that makes a massive difference. 

All our jobs have been difficult this term, but yours don’t bear thinking about. I hope you get a proper break over Christmas, and that dear Mr. Williamson’s sudden lobbing of a hand grenade into the start of next term doesn’t ruin it for you.

“Wenfell” is a term used by the people of Frat, Ethiopia. It means “when one has problems, we all help”.  I think you have managed to create that spirit in school pretty well, which has probably contributed to morale remaining remarkably high.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
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