Head to Head

Not what I thought I’d be writing

Dear School Leaders  

Six months ago, when I thought ahead to writing this article, I expected to be talking to you during the chaos of summer term. I imagined your copy of ‘Head to Head’ landing on your desk, only to be quickly buried under the evidence of your brimming to-do list. Data spread sheets. End of year reports. The plan for the summer fair. Transition arrangements for children arriving and those moving on. Staffing for next session. Details of end of term trips, leavers’ assemblies, sports day and local festivals. I pictured you grappling with all that and more, whilst also enabling a happy and positive term full of sunshine for children, families and staff.  

Oh how I wish you were.  

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been thrown around a lot in recent months but the impact of the coronavirus crisis on almost every aspect of our daily lives is exactly that. The closure of our schools has changed the way we work completely and the growing realisation that a return to busy, bustling corridors full of jostling children is unlikely to happen for a very long time is extremely hard to accept. In education we are well used to the ground shifting beneath our feet, but even by our standards this is a shift of seismic proportions.  

In this strange new landscape of childcare hubs and homeworking, priorities seem to have shifted as rapidly as everything else. Helping children and families cope with a new, and for many, radically different daily reality has become the mission of many schools. Helping children to feel connected, even as our society must disconnect to keep everyone safe. Through all this, supporting the wellbeing of children, families and staff has leapt even further up school leaders’ agenda than ever before.  

Sparing a thought for your own wellbeing, on the other hand, is likely to be significantly further down your to do list. How can you find the time to look after yourself when everybody needs a piece of you? The answer is both simple and impossibly difficult- you must. Looking after your own wellbeing is crucial if you are to remain well enough to support your school community. Easy to say, not so easy to achieve.  

One of the most exhausting and energy-sapping aspects of the current crisis is the uncertainty that surrounds everything. The defining feature of a crisis is its rapidly changing environment. Leaders have to make the best choices they can with the knowledge they have at the time, knowing that this knowledge is subject to change at any moment.  

Having no clearly defined plan of action and instead making decisions within uncertainty is not inside the comfort zone of most school leaders. By nature, school leaders are planners. Organised people who are skilled at creating road maps for improvement, rallying the troops and striking off for new destinations, map in hand.  

Facing a situation for which there can be no predefined response, no blueprint you can carefully construct for how to handle things, is deeply unsettling when your day job is forging order and structure from chaos, creating rhythm and harmony within the melee of life and emotion that floods through the front door of your school each morning.  

Uncertainty can be school leader kryptonite. If you allow it to it will strip you of your confidence, overwhelm you with doubt and make even small choices seem like mountains. It will bury you in the inertia of indecision, paralyse you from moving forward in any meaningful way or give you a hard push into the swift current of What Everyone Else Is Doing, which is a very bad place to be.  

So if making a solid plan is out the window, what else do you have in your leadership toolkit that you can use to get yourself and your school community through this?  

I’ll tell you exactly what you have got. Your values. Your reasons for being a school leader in the first place. The things you believe are right and true about learning and teaching and children’s entitlement to it. Sit down and think about the things you have built your school on. The defining principles you would go to the wall for, the ‘why we do this’ that you would never sacrifice or turn your back on. What you have in your toolkit for dealing with this crisis is the same thing you carry in your heart every day- what matters most.   

No child left behind. No family overlooked. Doing the best you can to help every child reach their potential.  

When uncertainty has stripped you of everything else, including that most basic connection of being together, know that it cannot take your values. What you believe to be important is the keystone of your school community and nothing can break or shake that, not even a pandemic.

Holding true to what matters will help you stay the course. The course that is right for you and your school, not necessarily what everyone else is doing. Strip back all the noise to what matters most and you will find your compass starts to work again. The needle will stop spinning hysterically and steady itself, just as you will steady your school.  

You may not have a plan but your internal compass, guided by those values you have fought so hard for, will provide you with a direction of travel.  

This has been a term like no other and who knows what lies ahead? The challenges we will face in the coming months as we seek to negotiate a ‘new normal’ may prove harder than what we have faced so far. The demands and pressures for your time and attention will increase exponentially as your school community looks to you to fix everything, put it back like it was before, however unreasonable a hope that may be.  

All the more reason for you to take time now to draw breath, steady yourself. Step back when you can. Use your own support network and trust your loved ones when they tell you enough is enough. Please, please use the next few weeks to restore and centre yourself because you will need all of your resources to get through what is coming next.  

When the winds begin to howl and the panic merchants start peddling their wares, hold true to your direction of travel. Hold your line, drawn tight along your values. If you believe it is the right thing then it will be and others will be buoyed by your faith and confidence. Listen and adapt. Tweak what you are doing with each new chink of daylight that appears through the fog of uncertainty, but don’t panic and dramatically change direction. U-turning or speeding up through pressure to be the same as others or to keep up with the frontrunners will not help your children, your families, your staff. What is keeping you together right now is your shared belief in what is right, what matters most. It was through your hard work and skill that you forged those bonds and it will take that same hard work and skill to keep them strong when external forces seek to break them apart.  

I wish I could have written to you as you dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on another happy, busy and fulfilling school year, similar to so many others that have passed before it. That was not to be and the familiar landscape of that life seems a very long way away now, possibly changed forever. But we are where we are and we have been given a unique opportunity to do good at a time of national crisis. To make our mark and be there for families who need us like never before. A new landscape will emerge and as school leaders you will do what you have always done- your very best. Your energy, commitment and dedication will power the next part of this journey, wherever we may end up.  

So rest when you can. Draw breath and hold your line. Keep true to what is important. Your school community is extremely lucky to have you and you must remember that when the going gets tough. They might not say it often enough so hear it from me, for everything you have done so far and for everything that has still to pass- thank you.