This blog was written on Wednesday 18 March before the government announced it was closing schools for all but the most vulnerable learners and children of key workers.
In times of national emergency such as the current coronavirus crisis, schools should take their steer from central government because life-changing – and indeed life-saving – decisions should not be made unilaterally. It is simply too heavy a burden to sit on a lone headteacher’s shoulders.
With a current absence of political leadership, therefore, headteachers can be forgiven any missteps and mistakes.
What’s important, is where we go from here and how we learn from this terrible tragedy.
And, of course, crises, though not commonplace, do inevitably happen from time to time.
During my tenure as a teacher, leader and head, I had several crises to deal with including the murder of one pupil by another, the sudden death of a much-loved colleague, fires and floods, bomb threats, and of course the annual ‘snow-day’ decision.
None compare with the current scale of crisis and I have nothing but admiration and respect for everyone working in our schools right now. They are truly public servants and heroes all.
So, what can school leaders do to help manage this crisis as it continues to unfold?
Here are some suggestions you might find helpful…
Appreciate staff, pupils and parents/carers are human and fallible and, like you, are under immense stress. As such, they may not always act as professionally or courteously as you’d like or expect them to do, and they may occasionally take their frustrations out on you. It is not personal; you must not take it to heart. You are a figurehead, a community leader, and it is what you represent, not who you are, that sometimes makes you a target for their vitriol.
Understand staff’s pressure-points and provide help dealing with stress and managing mental health. Be acutely aware of changes in any colleague’s general demeanour and behaviour. Make sure all staff know where to go for help and repeatedly signpost staff to appropriate services.
You might wish to distribute guidance on how colleagues can protect their mental health, such as by:
• Avoiding watching or reading the news if it can cause anxiety
• Sticking to useful information about what to do to stay safe
• Planning when to access information
• Being careful who you talk to
• Avoiding social media
• Maintaining contact with friends and family
• Keeping mindful of work life balance and of sleep
Anxiety UK use the mnemonic APPLE to remind people how to deal with anxiety and this may also be helpful here. It stands for:
Acknowledge… the uncertainty as it comes to mind
Pause… don’t react, breath
Pull back… and tell yourself it’s just the worry talking, don’t believe everything you think, thoughts are not facts
Let go… of the thought of feeling, it will pass
Explore… the present moment, notice your breathing and the ground beneath you
Whilst schools are open, if staff ask your advice about whether to come to work, you should ensure the decision is theirs (to make the decision for them could have repercussions) but you should also reassure them that whatever they decide to do you will support them.
These are not normal times and so it may be necessary to suspend your normal policies and procedures including for managing staff absence. Right now, people need all the comfort you can give them.
Be patient and forgiving
Understand when some parents/carers don’t want to follow the party line. Some parents will disagree with you whatever decision you take, and some will feel the need to vent their anger publicly such as in the local newspaper or on a parents’ Facebook page. Others will simply ignore your advice or direction and undermine you.
Again, try to appreciate that this is a very testing time for everyone, and people need your patience and understanding more than ever. You are community leaders and people desperately need your leadership right now. Good leaders are magnanimous and benevolent. And, ultimately, when this is over, your detractors will need to be forgiven for any poor choices they make in the eye of the storm.
It’s tempting at times of heightened stress to descend to your bunker. And you’ll certainly need time to think through and make important decisions, as well as to craft regular communications to all your stakeholders. But, as I say above, people need your leadership now more than ever and that means you need to lead from the front. So be visible, be available, and be kind.
Whilst schools are open, get out and walk the floor. Be outside before and after school to field questions and concerns. If you can’t be, when make sure a member of the senior team is always visible and available.
People need to know what’s happening and they need to feel informed and involved. Regular, measured communications are therefore vital during this crisis.
You should try to sound human in your written communications so don’t just copy and paste the official line; rather, put it into friendly language that reflects your local context and sounds like you.
Whilst avoiding a verbatim parroting of the official line, do still share useful links to official sources such as, in the case of the coronavirus, the NHS, Public Health England, the Department for Education and so on.
Be aware of the tone and any potential mis-readings of your written communications. Often, it’s best to word lengthy communications as FAQs as these will help to reduce the possibility of any misunderstandings and keep your messages focused.
Be open to questions and suggestions – indeed, use each communication to positively invite feedback. But, having said this, it’s also important to address misinformation firmly and publicly so don’t be afraid to correct misunderstandings and directly tackle unhelpful rumours, and refute feedback that’s simply wrong.
Don’t be afraid to repeat key messages and good advice, and to communicate via a number of different methods including via email, text, on the school website, and so on. But avoid paper copies of letters during the coronavirus outbreak as paper can be used to transmit the virus.
It’s important during a fast-moving crisis such as this to date-stamp all content because messages change quickly, and you will want to make sure everyone is acting on the latest advice.
Regularly review and update information shared via your website to ensure it is kept up to date.
Don’t forget your pupils
Many of your communications will be with your colleagues and with parents/carers – the adults. But you mustn’t forget your pupils because, often, young people are the most in need of regular communications from us. They will probably need a lot of reassurance and guidance right now. After all, they are likely to feed off the anxieties of their parents and others and to be influenced by the misinformation passed around on social media.
Whilst schools remain open, regular face-to-face information sessions such as during assemblies or in tutor time, are essential and preferable to written communications. However, a balance needs to be struck between keeping students informed, and not spreading fear. Sometimes, saying less is more. Perhaps lets pupils ask questions rather than bombarding them with too much well-intentioned information and advice.
Manage the media
Many local newspapers will be quick to criticise your school, whatever you decide to do. And local papers like nothing better than a disgruntled parent – I know, I used to work on one!
It is important, therefore, to liaise with the media to manage the message and to correct any inaccuracies. Media liaison should be conducted through a single, senior source and other staff need to be told not to talk to the media and who to pass enquiries onto. The media liaison needs to be knowledgeable and so should be involved in decision-making meetings so they know the latest thinking and the rationale behind any actions being taken.
Support your support staff
It’s tempting to focus your attentions on teaching staff because, without teachers in the classroom, lessons can’t take place and pupils will suffer. But we mustn’t forget all the other vital staff in our schools without whom the cogs wouldn’t turn.
Of particular importance during this current crisis are the office staff who tend to handle frontline communications with parents/carers, the community and other external stakeholders and agencies.
Admin staff need to be kept informed and involved, and they will need the same support as teachers when it comes to keeping safe and protecting wellbeing.