As previously reported, teaching during the pandemic has been stressful. The challenges compounded especially for school leaders, like Headteachers who have been going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure smooth functioning of schools and teaching. The media has been teeming with stories of Headteachers’ wellbeing crises as they navigated the pandemic and the subsequent pivot to blended learning. All this while, they were attending to concerned parents, accelerating safeguarding efforts to combat online learning risks, and ensuring an equitable response within the new normal in education.
Even prior to the pandemic, the pressures of educational leadership were demanding, points Peter Crockett, Volunteer at Headrest,
“These pressures included anticipation demands where school leaders were trying to foresee such things as the direction of policy, the future focus of inspection or future budgetary threats. There were also time demands in terms of managing workload, prioritising tasks and a plethora of unexpected events that necessitate reactive leadership. School leaders also had the situational demands of leading a complex organisation that required the effective delivery of educational provision, oversight of premises issues, budget management, staff recruitment/retention/well-being, and ensuring safeguarding duties are effectively met.”
Their leadership skills, personnel management skills, change management, and often firefighting on social media were always on the test.
Then came the pandemic, making headteachers’ jobs even tougher. Long work hours, hurdles in engaging students remotely, repeated pivots from the physical classroom to remote or hybrid instruction, increased cybersecurity concerns, management of bubbles, staff absence due to self-isolation, long-Covid, and more. All of this, in addition to the fear of loved ones contracting covid. This is why, as Crockett adds, it wasn’t unsurprising to find that school leaders were reaching a point of “physical and/or emotional overwhelm” and even, on occasions, “facing an abyss of self-doubt.”
Gemma Scotcher, Head of Communications and Public Affairs for Education Support, shares,
“Covid-19 has hit a profession already suffering growing levels of stress and pressure over recent years. Education Support's most recent research showed that half of all teachers have suffered at least one characteristic associated with work-related burnout ‘all the time’ since the start of this school year.”
Another report that provides a comprehensive insight into the mental health and wellbeing of all educational professionals throughout the UK, the annual Teacher Wellbeing Index, echoed similar concerns. Over half of all teachers (51%) and 59% of leaders said they had considered leaving the profession this year due to pressures on their health and wellbeing.
I haven’t been in the classroom since Christmas. At the end of January I had a breakdown due to work related stress and working in a toxic school. I’ve had 6 months off and taken CBT therapy. Today I had a meeting about returning to school. I cried. #MentalHealthMatters— Tim (@timgriff88) June 25, 2021
This wellbeing crisis is now being addressed through many resources, community-led initiatives, and other tools. Department for Education also announced an allocation of £800,000 on “tailored mental health and wellbeing support” to school leaders across England. The service will aim to deliver
"a programme of professional supervision to a minimum of 2,000 school leaders who are experiencing mental health and wellbeing challenges. The service shall be delivered, as a minimum, through facilitated virtual or telephone-based peer support and one-to-one counselling."
In the next section, we spotlight some other support resources available to school leaders.
Co-founded in October 2020 by Ros McMullen and Andrew Morrish, two former headteachers and Multi-Academy Trust CEOs, Headrest offers a FREE daily wellbeing telephone support service for headteachers and school leaders.
It works as a rapid response and professional advice and mentoring helpline for headteachers, by headteachers. There are a number of ways to contact them for free. You can call them and leave a message on 0800 862 0110. The team is available to talk every Monday - Thursday from 7pm - 8pm. During all other times, they arrange a time to call back at your convenience.
When the volunteers attend a call, their endeavour is to give colleagues the chance to articulate their concerns to someone outside of their school setting. Headrest, therefore, acts as a safe space for school leaders to address issues facing them. Empathetic and reflective listening is at the core of this service.
What does this look like in practice? Crockett explains,
“The issues are unique to the individual. Sometimes, we just offer reassurance that decisions or actions leaders have taken, or plan to initiate, make sense. On occasion, we need to reassure or change the focus so that one problem or error does not become an all-consuming issue. At times, we need to encourage colleagues to ‘look down the mountain’ and be kind to themselves about the progress they have made. Sometimes we need to signpost the colleague to other sources of support that are better placed to offer them the expert advice they need. Occasionally, we need to tease out the conversation and in doing so often find that the issue that triggered the call is not the main problem but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The volunteer’s supportive responses are informed by their own time as headteachers. Even if the pandemic was unprecedented, the volunteers understand some of the emotional pressures and stressors of school leadership – including that lonely sense of accountability that can, at times such as these, feel exceptionally daunting. Often, headteachers sharing their concerns on the call find solace in shared experiences. From there, the call can move on to explore approaches to manage the issue at hand.
The website hosts many free online resources for teachers, school leaders and other staff including top tips, videos, blogs and guides. They’ve also launched a new website offering free wellbeing resources for teachers and school staff in Wales: Taking Care of Teachers: mental health and wellbeing hub. Check out their Teachers’ Hub. ‘Taking Care of Teachers’ is the place to look for information, tools and guidance on school staff mental health and wellbeing in Wales. This resource by Education Support is made available completely free, with the support of the Welsh Government.
Education Support also runs a free and confidential Helpline that allows anyone who is working in or who has worked in education, talk to a trained counsellor. If you’re struggling financially, whatever your role in education, they also have a confidential grants service to help with emergencies.
Additionally, they also have a school leaders’ wellbeing service, a dedicated space aimed at supporting and improving the mental health and wellbeing of senior staff. They offer limited free spaces for school leaders to take part in four sessions of peer support in a small group, led by a qualified facilitator.
Education Support addresses the teacher wellbeing issue holistically. This is why they were able to identify the issues facing supply teachers. “Many supply teachers have suffered the termination of their contracts at very short notice, losing vital income. Many told us that their situations meant they were not entitled to apply for furlough. Long periods of limited numbers of pupils being on-site has also meant demand for supply teachers has been considerably lower over many months. The majority of those we have supported with emergency grants during this period have been supply teachers who have not needed financial assistance previously,” shares Scotcher.
Mental health issues and stressors don’t exist in a vacuum. Many school leaders are capable of designing solutions; they just need funding and systemic support to implement them. If school leaders feel that their involvement in education policy can help alleviate the issues facing them, the listening sessions can provide them with a space to voice their concerns and present their solutions.
For school leaders who want to be able to influence education policy, the Headteachers’ Roundtable provides a platform and space to impact change.
In order to provide support to Headteachers in the form of resources and community, Founders Lucy & Jonathan set up HeadteacherChat.
They have created very useful School Leader Planners, and provide an incredible Edu-Business Network of recommended edtech companies, to help narrow down the search for suppliers and relieve purchasing stressors. SCR Tracker is proud to be on this list as a preferred supplier for online single central record management, and we very much enjoy our continued collaboration with Lucy and Jonathan at HTCHat.
Headspace, the guided meditation app offers free access to all K-12 teachers, school administrators, and supporting staff in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.
As a part of the free subscription, school staff can access guided meditations on themes ranging from stress and focus to the workplace. They can also access sleepcasts, sleep sounds, and sleep music to help create the conditions for a better night’s rest, and videos, quick workouts, group meditations, among other gentle wellbeing resources.
The Well Schools initiative aims to help improve education outcomes by placing wellbeing at its very heart to support school staff, senior leaders and young people. The Youth Sport Trust, a children’s charity, (along with Bupa Foundation) supports this movement that believes teacher wellbeing to be a prerequisite to great teaching.
At a Well School, Staff and Headteacher wellbeing are actively supported and championed ensuring the whole school is well-led and connected with the wider school community. Effectively, by joining the movement, you become a part of a community that drives change, shares challenges and solutions and helps find support.
One of the stressors of a school leaders job is their responsibility for record management. Keeping the single central record up-to-date and compliant requires constant audits and checks on the headteachers’ part, often proving to be an arduous task. SCR Tracker removes that pain point by providing an immediate overview of school compliance, notifying users when their records aren't compliant – slashing workload and time spent on single central records, and increasing peace of mind. We also suggest using tools that make your life easier — whether it’s lesson planning, blended classroom management, or messaging apps.
Staff wellbeing underpins great education. If school leaders are constantly dealing with high levels of stress, it will have a negative impact on many aspects of a school’s functioning. Therefore, it is important that they have access to the right emotional and practical support and can in turn support children.