As Germany, France and the UK move into new national lockdowns this week, the decision has been taken to keep schools open. Anxiety among teaching staff and parents has been climbing since the start of the school year, when the second wave of COVID began to build. As COVID deaths increase to levels not seen since May and countries shutdown, staff, students and parents are becoming even more fearful of going into school and anxiety levels are escalating. Isolation from family and friends during a lockdown, is also likely to increase the focus upon schools as a source of emotional support. This will place additional strain upon already struggling school leaders.
In my 2019 post Why is the School Principal’s Role So Emotionally Draining, I outline how school leadership is an inherently emotional practice, due to the people-centred nature of schools, placing relationships at the heart of the leader’s role. The head/principal, plays a pivotal role, acting as a conduit or buffer for the emotions of others and soaking up the difficult or unwanted emotional states of the whole school community. The current crisis has made this more evident and school leaders are facing increasing demands for their emotional support.
In my recent survey of 700 school leaders worldwide, 90% said they feel their work has become more emotionally challenging since the start of the pandemic and 94% feel they are supporting the emotional needs of others more. Two-thirds of leaders report experiencing events or situations of an emotionally challenging nature on at least a daily basis, .
Only 22% of survey participants feel their training has prepared them for the current crisis. Most school leaders receive no training in supporting the emotional needs of others but 41% indicate they would like to receive such training. Only 32% of leaders feel they are receiving enough emotional support from home or school. Even accounting for response bias, this paints a picture of a significant number of school leaders struggling to manage others’ anxiety, feeling unprepared and unsupported.
While the present situation is an unprecedented crisis, which we hope will not be repeated, the ongoing emotional demands faced by school leaders’ call into question the adequacy of headteacher/principal training in this area. It is time to acknowledge the role school leaders play in supporting the emotional needs of others and the importance to school effectiveness of managing this successfully. During my years as a school principal, some of the most valuable time I spent was with school counsellors, observing them in the act of supporting students, parents and staff. I came to understand the importance of the affective in school and learned key skills which improved my leadership significantly. In the first few months of the global pandemic, I witnessed how those with the right training can reassure others, provide clarity and share strategies to help all groups, including leadership, to manage their anxiety levels. Many schools do not have the luxury of school counsellors readily at hand to support school leaders, so it is crucial that headteachers/principals receive professional development, as part of their leadership training, in supporting the emotional needs of others.
This is a longer term goal, however, that does not help with the immediate crisis. In the short term, schools need to consider tapping into external psychological support services. While some wealthy schools, in the private sector, are providing one-to-one sessions with a clinical psychologist for all staff, on demand, this is not an option available to most institutions. However, there are, cost-effective or cost-free ways to tap into services. For example here in Wales, the Regional Education Consortia has employed a clinical psychologist to provide professional development webinars on how to support the mental health of students and staff, while Public Health Wales has developed a free online course Activate Your Life to help those suffering from anxiety. An organisation in South Wales, Reading Well has also developed a “books on prescription” service, providing free access to a range of self-help books on mental health topics. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), provides US-based workshops, and resources, including its PRePARE curriculum for school crisis prevention and response. They also consult and deliver bespoke services to schools around the world, via Zoom, to address more immediate needs. It is well worth exploring what other services are available in your area or online.
In the short term, we also need to ensure that school leaders receive immediate succour in the form of regular professional coaching/counselling. The challenges of the role make coaching a worthwhile investment in the short, medium and long term but there is an acute need for such opportunities to be made available to school leaders now. For those struggling to justify this expense to boards of governors/trustees, please see my article How Can We Persuade School Governors/Trustees to Take School Leader Wellbeing Seriously?