Space for reflection?

You have a choice... we can easily find enough things to do to fill every minute of every day during this period. Or, we can take the opportunity to dial down the intensity and take some pressure off ourselves.

In Mental Health Awareness Week, headteacher Darren Morgan urges teachers to use this time of school closures to look after their own mental wellbeing.

Over the past few weeks of lockdown and school closures, I have been trying to think of ways to find some positives in this situation and some space for reflection to reassess how we do things in teaching. However, as I began writing, I became more and more worried about being perceived as trying to look for good news at a time of utter tragedy and chaos.

A recent YouGov TeacherTrack survey of 820 schoolteachers and senior leaders, commissioned by Education Support, found that over half of primary school teachers (59 per cent) and 49 per cent of secondary school teachers had expressed higher than usual levels of stress and anxiety at the beginning of this summer term.

This isn't helped by a barrage of questions in the media about when schools are 'getting back to normal' and accusations that teachers are not showing enough courage. It is this kind of lack of understanding and empathy, from those not in the profession, that has led to the current climate in teaching: a climate full of stress and anxiety in the noble profession that I cherish and feel proud to be part of.

Darren Morgan began his teaching career in 1998 and has been a headteacher since 2010. He was shortlisted for UK Headteacher of the Year in 2017. He is currently headteacher at Kings Road Primary School in Stretford, Manchester.

Time to take stock

Last week's announcement by the prime minister about the potential re-opening of schools has created a mountain of anxiety for teachers. Nevertheless, I suspect that we would all prefer to be back in our usual routine, with children in our schools (beyond the few that are currently attending). However, we are not. Each day, we are all either working from school or working from home. But there can be no denying that, potentially, this period of time for teachers is less intense than it would have been, had Covid-19 not reared its ugly head. This is an ideal opportunity to take a breath and re-assess our mental health.

If I had a say on national policy, I would suggest (as some countries have for some teachers) a sabbatical every seven or so years. I think this would energise and reinvigorate an always dedicated, but sometimes tired, profession. But I would posit that the current situation provides us all with the opportunity to gain some of the benefits of a sabbatical.

Below are five areas that I encourage you all to consider.

1. Intensity

I have been a teacher for 21 years and a head for 10. I love my job. Each Monday morning, I am greeted at the school gate by hundreds of enthusiastic, positive and unique little people. I then get to spend each day with them and the most wonderful and dedicated set of adults that I could possibly imagine. However, there can be no denying that our job is also very intense.

I believe that we have a duty to ensure that we are working to support the children of key workers, and children who have social workers assigned to them, in school, as well as delivering a really strong learning package to help those trying to teach their children at home. But there are many other aspects of our roles that it would be foolish not to work on during this time.

You have a choice.

In our profession, we can easily find enough to do to fill every minute of every day during this period. Or, we can take the opportunity to dial down the intensity and take some pressure off ourselves. I believe that is a choice that we can all make. By making this choice, we can significantly improve our mental health, which will benefit not only ourselves, but also those around us.

2. Time

Currently, when I am on rota to work from home, I wake up and read in bed. I follow this with a run on my treadmill, before I even shower (which is very much needed after my exercise!) and then venture upstairs. There, I focus on working very hard on school work. I stop and have lunch, following this with my daily permitted walk. On my return, my time is usually devoted to various online meetings. The evenings are my own! (I am currently trying to work through the top listed IMDb films). Obviously, during term time, this is a routine that I could not follow.

I know that this routine is specific to me and my circumstances and that many of you have other challenges, such as home-schooling your own children. However, I believe that a shared commonality between us is that, whilst we are all working purposefully, the hours solely concentrated on school are reduced, affording us time to focus on other things.

3. Stress

There is no denying that teaching is a stressful occupation. I wrote an article for Education Support entitled Time to re-humanise headteachers. In this piece, I argue that for headteachers, there are many anxiety-driving factors that, for various reasons, are not being addressed. These include aggressive parents and internal staffing issues. These are in addition to the well-talked-about factors that are causing all teachers immense stress, including workload and pressure.

Whilst there are undoubtedly other pressures, it is true to say that we are now in a time when these are not impacting as they would have before the Covid-19 outbreak. We need to accept and embrace this, spending time to re-assess and put into perspective the aforementioned stress factors.

This is an ideal time to speak to friends, colleagues or supportive agencies, such as Education Support, in order to strengthen ourselves for when we are back in school with all our children, staff, governors, neighbours and parents.

4. Strategy

I never quite understand how I strategise. I don’t think I have ever turned the lights off in an empty room and sat there until the metaphorical light bulb has lit my surroundings with an ingenious thought. Strategy comes when we least expect it! Now is a time when the restrictions forced upon us have created space and time to exercise, walk or DIY (not that I ever DIY!) and these are the times when you will get your best ideas.

5. Guilt

This is the area that I have struggled with most. Do not waste this time feeling guilty that you are not in school in the same manner that you ordinarily would be. This is a different time. Take the opportunity to develop your resilience and do not destroy it by filling it with unnecessary duties due to the guilt-driven obligation to work your socks off.

Take a moment for mindfulness

During my daily walks, I have found a place where the sun shines on a patch of river that makes the perfect sound. (I’ll put a clip of this on my Twitter). I can either enjoy this mindful and peaceful place each day or be stressed at my desk completing irrelevant and meaningless tasks.

I urge you all to use this time to invest in yourselves, and to equip yourselves for the next phase of your journey. By doing this, you will help and strengthen even further your schools, your children and primarily, yourselves. Maybe even find your personal perfect place of mindfulness?

Education Support

If you're a teacher who is stressed or worried about anything you can call
Education Support. Talk to a trained counsellor on our free, confidential helpline on 08000 562 561. It is available 24/7 and open to anyone working in education.

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