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Being a middle leader during a global pandemic

2020 has been a very interesting year! We started the year hearing about a new disease that started in China. All sorts of rumours went around about what caused it, what it was and the shock about a full lockdown in Wuhan and in early February I was co-opted onto the National Executive as PT Representative.  

Then other countries started locking down. Schools around the world started moving to online learning. Having seen comments about remote learning in different parts of the world, I approached my Head Teacher and suggested we set up Google Classrooms, just in case, never actually expecting to use them. After all, I’d lived through Swine Flu and Bird Flu during my teaching career, little did I know we’d be in full lockdown later that month.  

As March progressed we realised things weren’t as simple as before and the last few weeks of March flew by, creating packs, supporting teachers getting ready for a new way of working, just in case. Pupil numbers in our classes dropped dramatically, and then the announcement on 19th March that schools would be closing. I remember trying to pack everything I might need for remote learning. A box that didn’t actually get used!  

Being a middle leader is a balancing act at the best of times, but during a global pandemic it became even more so.

  • I was available for my class: trying to provide an interesting mix of lesson, finding my way with online tools I’d not used before, encouraging children to be active, upbeat while not overwhelming them.
  • Contacting parents to support their children getting online, trying to work out what devices they had and what the challenge was for them.
  • Supporting staff: to teach in a whole new way, to explain how to post assignments so everyone can get their own copy, creating quizzes and arranging “Guess who” games to keep them upbeat.
  • Supporting senior management: by contacting parents, resolving access issues. 

All the while I was shielding, which was probably the toughest part, not being able to leave the house for 4 months. I went from 10,000 steps a day to barely 1000. Not getting that break from work by leaving the building. Having a desk at home facing green grass helped, but like other shielders across the country it involved a shift in mindset. Keeping others motivated certainly helped keep me going.  

My first meeting of the Executive came, not in-person, but as a series of daily online meeting, discussing our position to report back to CERG. There were more National Executive meetings during lockdown than most members attend in five years. It was exciting to be at the table and I’ve learned so much for having these discussions and reading so many policy documents.  

Moving forward to late June, having spent days planning a staggered entrance and exit for all our bubbles, I think we had 18 bubbles on any day. trying to ensure siblings across those bubbles were able to enter at roughly the same time, while ensuring that bubbles didn’t cross paths as they entered. Mr Swinney announced that we should be able to return fulltime. So back to the drawing board and planning how classes could enter and exit without crossing paths and re-writing evacuation procedures.  

August came, initially I wasn’t allowed to return until Occupational health signed me off, but it was agreed I could return. Mask and shield ready to start, balancing teaching and supporting staff in person.  

As a teacher, I’m planning like a probationer, constantly thinking and questioning if I can do something or what can I do instead, how can I keep children active, but in their seats, constantly making adjustments to ensure that pupils get the best out of learning in school. Adapting to different levels of lockdown and how that impacts my teaching. Double layers in the classroom as winter approached.  

As a leader, supporting other teachers to adapt to the constant changes, trying to reduce their stress by putting procedures into place, listening, listening, listening.  

One of the most important skills I’ve used since August is listening. Listening to staff, parents and pupils’ concerns, supporting them or suggesting solutions when appropriate, but mainly just being a sounding board and giving them an opportunity to vent their concerns.  

December 20th, the day after we closed for the Christmas break, came the announcement that we’d once again be doing remote learning until the 18th of January. I did my best not to think about work over the holiday, I’m not saying it worked but I tried.  

The first week back was interesting. I went in on the Wednesday, helped finalise things and support SMT to prepare. Lots of decisions and plans were made that day. As I was still on the shielding list, I wasn’t allowed to help in the hub or work in the building. The person I shared a class with was going to work in the hub, so I was asked to manage the class full-time. Those first few days were a blur, preparing a training session to support staff using Google Classroom and recording lessons.  

I have never had so many calls and texts as I did that week, at all hours of the day and evening. Trying to support colleagues while teaching full-time was a challenge, but it helped me focus on prioritising and time management… although I may also have worked longer to ensure I did everything.  

The last six weeks have been challenging, trying to upskill staff to deliver live or recorded lessons, trying to ensure my classroom is as easy to navigate as possible, trying to make lessons active, interesting and not always screen-based, while not overwhelming pupils and families, but giving enough work for them. All the while, still trying to evaluate and report on tracking data.  

The balancing act of a middle leader is never perfect. Balancing class commitment, with management responsibility is never going to be an easy task, there will always be conflicting priorities, but throwing in a global pandemic makes that balancing act even more tricky.  

All leaders have experienced an increased workload this session. Including an ever-increasing workload on evenings and weekends due to contact tracing, and firefighting during the day. And I’m sure, I can talk for all middle leaders, we are here to support senior leaders.  

I also wanted to end with a thank to all leaders for everything you’ve done to continue to support staff, pupils and parents through an ever-changing and very challenging situation.  

It’s been a tough year, but it’s also been an opportunity to learn, to learn to be a leader and to lead. The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter and although we may still have a stretch of challenging times ahead, we will come out the other side.  

Jay Smith-McKnight

PT Representative on AHDS National Executive    

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