On Sunday I couldn’t sleep, so I was awake at midnight when a reminder popped up on my phone: SATs week, which would also mean GCSEs and A-levels.
I lay there suddenly realising in a non-COVID-19 parallel universe, the major challenges facing school leaders during this usually stressful week would be ensuring proper exam administration, maintaining morale for pupils and staff and, as tests are sealed and sent away, hoping it’s enough to the keep the wolves from the door for another year.
I was utterly floored to think of the difference between where we would be versus where we are.
The challenges facing school leaders are immense at the moment as we seek to maintain the safety of pupils and staff from 1st June, first for a few year groups and then, just a little later, for all primary school pupils. We need to reassure staff, pupils and parents that going to school is fine. We need to think what more we can do for our vulnerable pupils. We need to try to make up for the loss of learning. And those are just a few of the considerations.
Leaders face tough decisions in the coming weeks and months. The world feels unsafe and unsteady. The responsibility and accountability that school leaders are shouldering right now is enough to wear anyone down.
And yet, there are reasons to be optimistic.
For trust and school leaders across the country, there are 5 things to keep in mind as we tackle the challenges ahead.
1. Educators are masters at putting pupils first.
Every educator’s default setting is to think through everything with health, safety, wellbeing and needs of pupils in mind, and to think through how to best support staff so everyone can deliver that together. That has never been a more important skill than now.
Leading with genuine empathy for what every child, family and staff member has been through, and is still going through, will guide us even if decisions seem impossible. Educators are public servants, and the best way to serve the public right now is with heart as much as mind. Luckily, educators know how to do that.
2. We are all doing our best.
Forget about COVID-19 for a moment and think back to all the challenges you’ve handled in the past.
From heart-wrenching safeguarding issues, to a dive in exam results, even to playground melodramas at pickup time. Educators deal with issues of massive consequence all the time. A lot of it involves thinking very quickly on your feet. Sometimes we get it wrong and have to fix it. But mostly, we get it right. That’s because we’re doing our best.
It’s the same now. There is no roadmap for this, no magic fix. No one else can say they’ve got it figured out. But educators are devotedly resolved to doing the best we can for our schools, performing inspirational feats of decision-making every day. We’re talking to each other, learning from each other and, together, we will find a way to make it work as well as possible. We’re all doing our best.
3. Resilience is weaved into the fabric of educators.
As many parents are discovering, teaching is an incredibly difficult job. Engaging pupils, helping them to learn, differentiating based on needs – it takes a lot of skill, patience and time. Yet teachers do that for classrooms full of pupils while juggling workload, safeguarding concerns, tricky parental complaints, and so much more, every single day.
By the time you’re principal, or CEO of a trust, you’ve been through so much that it feels like you’ve seen it all – until the next phone call comes and something else has happened. You’ve felt burdened by accountability measures, exhausted from putting out fires, and pained from tossing and turning as your mind races through your to do list at night.
But you get up every morning and get right to it, because resilience has been built into you year on year and you realise you can do this even if you don’t know how yet. Actually, the challenge with educators being so resilient is that it means a lack of self-care becomes the bigger problem. So we will bounce back from this, but we also have to keep looking out for ourselves, and each other.
4. Opportunities will arise.
There is so much uncertainty right now, a rabbit hole of problems to navigate. But, in the background, there is a growing sense of opportunity.
Leaders want to get their pupils back into school and learning as quickly, and as safely, as possible. But it’s not the old normal they want them to return to. In the initial phases of return, wellbeing will be priority. But what will come after?
Genuine debates are already opening about the future education landscape, about creating sustainable accountability and about a renewed focus on what kinds of people we want our schools to create. It should be a fascinating conversation.
5. Communication is key.
Lastly, remember whatever your reopening plans ultimately look like, and whatever happens over the next few months, communication is key. I realise many may find irony in that idea. Leadership guru Simon Sinek often says that leadership is not a rank, it’s a choice to be the leader you wish you had. You can achieve that with your communications.
Be clear, show empathy, and show determination to do the best you possibly can for your pupils and staff. Reassure parents and be honest with them about challenges. Show your staff you share their concerns.
Share stories. I was struck by a leader who recently spoke about the importance of storytelling your organisational culture during lockdown. Encourage staff to share their stories, collect them in a newsletter and show everyone how your school or trust’s culture persisted even in the face of the extraordinary. It will remind everyone of what team and vision they’re a part of, and how you’ll all be approaching the future, together.