Let's face it, if the answer on to how to move back into schools safely, meeting the education and mental health needs of students, parents, and teachers was squirrelled away in the Principal's office, not one of us would think twice about creeping in there, full on ninja style, and stealing it. And we would probably find ourselves waiting in a (socially distanced) queue behind everyone else with the same desire for answers. But what if everyone is looking to you for answers and you don't have them? You wouldn't be the first school leader who found out what was happening in your school on the 6 o'clock news. That's not a comfortable place to be.
Despite not having the answers to all the questions, there is still a need for School Leaders to lead in this journey of uncertainty and to do this in ways that are inclusive and build resilience. The first step in this journey is admitting that you don't have all the answers, but that you are doing everything you can to get the right information, and to share that fully with your staff, parents and where appropriate your students. But this is an unfolding situation and you have little idea of when or what you might be facing in the next peak. I travelled the Amazon river in my early thirties, and had a very sage guide called Julio who, when asked what sort of weather we should dress for that day, replied "all of it". And so we prepare.
Be Prepared to Collaborate
In preparation you must collaborate with the people you are leading. And not just to tell them what is happening, but to ask them where they are at right now, where their children, students, parents are at right now. What their biggest fears, worries, and wishes are going forward. And then you need to do the same with the parents, and with the children. They will all bring something different to the story, a different angle, a fresh perspective, a nugget of importance that might just be the key that opens the door to a way forward in meeting education needs alongside mental health needs.
It is tempting to diminish the need to do the ground work of mental and emotional health support in favour of getting back to basics with Maths and English, but we know from years of research that until a child feels safe and secure they cannot work on belonging and self worth. And that until they feel that they belong and are worthy, they will not have the confidence to take a risk to try something that realises their potential. Asking "What do you need from me going forward?" is a crucial question. This is not a promise to deliver outcomes, it is a question to understand needs. "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." as Stephen Covey: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People famously said.
Hold Values Close
Good leaders hold their values close at times of struggle. Get really clear on what these values are. Make sure you have buy in from your team. Make sure your parents, your staff, your children understand what they are. Is it safety? Is it life long learning? Is it safety and love? Is it striving for the best? Is it reaching your potential?
Give Permission and Promote Accountability of Others and Themselves
Good leaders also create safe spaces and permission to share needs and struggles. Now, most teachers, in fact most people, I talk to about the importance of permission do a little eye roll here. "Of course people have permission to speak openly!" they say. But do they really? Think about this. You can have the best model in the world which pushes a permission agenda encouraging you to talk openly about fears, anxieties, upsets and conflict, but if you don't cultivate this everyday, lead by example and hold others accountable when they don't protect the permission culture, you will not only completely ruin the permission, you will actually further dis-empower people to speak openly. I have seen this done with a throwaway comment made by a leader or about another staff member or pupil, denigrating them, dismissing them, or a decision they made. I have seen it done by colleagues and peers and it went unchecked by a leader. This creates fear. Fear to speak out and have your view respected, not just right now, while you stand in the room, but after you leave and are no longer there to defend yourself. And fear as a culture will create more shame and silence than you could ever imagine. Because those people watching and listening to you being denigrated or dismissed or eye-rolled at after you have left the room, will never have permission to speak their truth safely.
Listen, Listen and Listen
Good Leaders organise time to consult with everyone. To seek out the views of everyone, not just the talkers and the confident kids and parents. To find ways to hear what the less communicative students, parents and teachers think. Provide different ways to be heard, publicly, anonymously, verbally, in writing, through text, phone call, the means of soliciting the views of others are many and varied. Two ears one mouth. Enough said.
Good Leaders Are Kind to Themselves
This is by no means the least important. Good leaders know that they have to self care. They know that a burned out leader is as much use as a handbrake on a canoe. Take regular breaks, ensure you have a day when you aren't taking phone calls, writing contingency plans, measuring out 1 metre distanced desks or developing strategies for the toilet run. Whether you have a faith or not, keep one day sacred. For you.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.