School leader’s call for COVID-era wellbeing standards

Niomi Clyde Roberts

Currently Assistant Head, teach a Year 3/4 class of 36 and Curriculum Lead. I'm in the process of writing a book for Bloomsbury - which is due out in January 2021. I'm incredibly passionate about Emotional Intelligence within teaching and leading. I've been lucky enough to win two Nexus Education awards for 'Health and Wellbeing' and more recently 'Improving School Leadership.' 

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Current Situation: Headteachers and leadership teams up and down the country are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.

Quite frankly there should be a new job role created in all schools simply called ‘COVID Case Management’, because that is essentially what all leaders are inundated with throughout each working day. It doesn’t stop at work either: dealing with positive cases and emailing/communicating to parents and staff into the evening, ensuring that their school community is safe. I have the utmost respect for those headteachers who are spending their days putting out COVID fires, and I really hope all parents, staff and children appreciate their efforts.

People in general are feeling exhausted and not quite themselves at the moment, so that exhaustion is amplified for people working in schools. This is a result of constantly being driven by adrenaline, because no matter how you much you try to stay calm and focussed when dealing with these daily ‘closing of bubbles’ ‘positive cases’ and ‘isolation’ decisions, your brain will still be activating your adrenaline response from your amygdala and your emotional responses will flood in. At the time of writing, I can imagine there are many leaders who are sleeping their way through half term, mainly because it’s essential to recover but also because the whole country seems to slowly become barricaded by tiers and therefore you can’t really travel too far anyway.

I know from my perspective, as an assistant head, watching events unfold have caused me to feel a little uneasy. I’ve heard of so many schools in my local area and further afield that have had to close class bubbles due to positive cases. This virus is relentless, and no matter how ultra-prepared you are as a school, unfortunately it cannot prevent the spread.

I have been shocked at some teachers and leaders suggesting that COVID cases in schools are down to poor management. Absolutely untrue and unfounded. These sorts of comments are unwarranted, and they should think about how that school leader is feeling right now. They may already feel anxious and as though they have let others down. Empathy and understanding should come before any comments like that.

I think wellbeing and putting yourself first (when you can) is so important at the moment. As of writing (at the beginning of November), I booked in for four shoulder massages in September, one for each week; because I knew I would need them. I also joined the gym and focussed much of my energy on toning up and losing weight. I can tell I’m focussed and want to achieve my goal, as I have managed to lose three stone and feel much better for it. I know of other leaders that have put their all into fitness and achieving new goals. To be quite honest, that seems to be the only controllable factor at the moment.

I think it’s important we all exercise some realistic thinking at this time. I like to make sure I’m ultra-productive, as I’m certain most teachers/leaders do. However there is only so much you can do, only so many hours you can work, before you need to take a break and look after yourself.

With the recent news of another nationwide lockdown, but this time with schools staying open), it’s important to remember to look after each other. Teachers/leaders are pros at pretending to be okay, dealing with situations head on, but they may be hiding how much they are struggling; they may not even be aware that they are struggling.

So check in, be aware and keep other people’s wellbeing at the forefront of your mind and remember we are only human.

So with all of this in mind, here are my recommendations for how school leaders can stay upbeat right now while helping others to do the same:

1. Share the load, you have a team to help share the responsibility/burden.

2. Talk. Rant (to the appropriate audience). Let off steam when you can. Many elements of COVID life are frustrating at the moment.

3. Get out for some fresh air whenever possible during the school day. Breathe in the cold, windy calm.

4. Try and find time for downtime. Just sitting still, drinking a coffee/tea/whiskey - whatever your preferred beverage is - and just relax.

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