Feeling all at Sea

The last year in education, in particular leadership, has been the strangest we have ever experienced, and hopefully ever will. As a group of leaders we are trained, sculpted and shaped into being strategic beings. Leadership in our schools is about being strategic, having the vision clear in your mind and striving towards achieving it, taking everyone with you, having the ‘right people on the right seats in the bus’.

Covid has often not allowed us to develop the strategic, we have become captains of reaction rather than pro action, excelling at the risk assessment.

In many ways schools haven’t changed as institutions for decades, the school day still broadly nine until three for three terms a year, stopping in October half term for the ‘harvest’ and even though we have new guidance every couple of weeks, in past years, change has been limited. This year new guidance has arrived almost on a daily basis, then been changed after it has been published and needed immediate implementation.

It has brought a significant change in schools this term with us all moving to remote learning whilst being open for, in Surrey, between 30% and 50% of our school population.

I have seen and felt the toll it has taken on us as leaders and it has made me reflect on training I had years ago from an occupational psychologist. Some leaders love the buzz and excitement of an ‘emergency’, the urgency of it all, and while others are equally as good at achieving the desired goal, it takes more out of their ‘resilience pot’ than others. For some of us it is deeply satisfying and for others draining, it doesn’t stop you doing the job, it just takes more of a toll.

We have been strategic, we have considered above all else the well-being of our staff, children and their families and how to keep them safe.

As we are now nearly a year into lockdown in some shape or form it also makes me think of how the trainer talked about role stress. Looking at the three areas; ambiguity, inner role conflict and incompatibility. Ambiguity is around the job description. The difference between the prescribed part of the role, the job description, and how each leader perceived that and then applies their preferred style for the role to materialise, and in practice how we implement that role. Complicated further by how the role is perceived by others, and at the moment the increase in the front-line emphasis from parents and Governors. Our usual day job has changed dramatically, it is now unrecognisable, and while we are able to utilise many of the skills we used previously it is a very different job description when you drill down, leaving us with ambiguity around our successes. Incompatibly, that you were brought in to get a specific job done, and that job has changed, you are not able to take the actions you planned and make the changes you wanted to. The third element is key here, inner role conflict which comes in two forms, role overload where there is an excess of variety and role underload when there is not enough variety but too much of one type. Surely you must all be nodding your heads with that one, we seem to be experiencing work overload and underload at the same time! The new phrase is ‘Covid fatigue’.

I think what I am trying to say if you are feeling a bit at sea, that things aren’t sitting right with you, it’s to be expected within the pandemic and all that has changed in education. That no matter how you have been feeling, you have achieved and are achieving an amazing task, following guidance at the drop of a hat and welcoming children into school. But also take a little time to get to know yourself and consider how you respond, accepting it as okay and building in opportunities to recharge. It’s okay to feel different and know you are responding differently to the Headteacher down the road. We are all getting the job done and done well!

Roll on the summer term…

Elaine Cooper, CEO The Swan Trust

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