An ode to teaching

An ode to teaching…loving and leaving school in 2020

AS the end of this strange year comes into sight, I am minded of all the changes, and endings that have taken place. We have all been uniquely affected – whether it’s the ending of the certainty that if it’s term time, we will be in school…or whether it’s the ending of the certainty that our children will be able to go to school in term time…

There are other, more formal endings that have been prevalent in our staffrooms – teachers relocating, teachers retiring…students leaving as their families relocate…It’s interesting to take stock of all the both formal and informal endings this year has brought us.

This year has seen many changes for me personally and my family. We have relocated from inner-city London to Hereford…swapping urban life for more home-office space as both my husband and I are working from home full time. It has been the ending of having the house to myself! Though I love my husband and daughter fiercely, it has been a huge adjustment for them NOT to leave me to my fiefdom!!

We have stepped away from friends and the rich cultural and culinary resources of London to embrace new friends and adventures in the country. I have had to end my commute to Wimbledon High where I had been doing school-based coaching on day a week. AS my consultancy and coaching practice has grown, I never planned to step away from being based in a school – but I found, reluctantly that this had become a necessity in the face of the impracticality of a 320 mile round trip – not to mention the risks of travel in a pandemic… And so for the first time in 23 years, I will not be returning to school in January as an employee. 

And what a strange ending it has been. No gathering of colleagues over mulled wine in the school hall. No sharing of the goodbyes and listening to the laughter, and occasional heckles accompanying leavers speeches. Instead, leaving via a Teams meeting. Speaking the words of parting into the void that all teachers have now become accustomed to…

So in this newletter – my reluctant last as a teacher  – I am going to reflect on the importance of endings, and community in school life as I depart. 

The first time I left Wimbledon High in 2005 after 4 years as Head of English was a bit of a disaster. I had totally underestimated the emotion of the moment. I’d avoided talking about leaving very much at all – and so was rather overwhelmed at the response of the girls in the run-up to going. You see, WHS girls have always been brilliant at being appreciative. They thank you for lessons! Indeed I was also leaving for a promotion, to be deputy head at another prestigious school. And therefore I was largely naive to what there was to feel sad about at this parting. 

But then the girls left for their summer break, the staff gathered as the wine came out, and I was blindsided by the most amazing speech given by my colleague in the English Department. Largely based on my shoes. I did have a certain amount of fame for my shoes. It was maybe this eloquent eulogy that somehow wittily linked my shoes to my pedagogy that made me realise that I had completely underestimated the moment of leaving my colleagues.

I am rather ashamed to say I teared up and made my excuses, completely overcome. Then had to spend AGES throughout the summer, writing cards and saying the things I should have said at that point to my nearest and dearest colleagues who for sure deserved more than an incoherent blubbing wreck!

I suppose in the moment of this second ending in leaving Wimbledon High (having returned part time in 2011) and leaving teaching now in 2020,  there is something important I want to acknowledge. The support and appreciation of like-minded colleagues when you are in a good team. And in a great school, with a great staff-room or department culture, that cameraderie and belonging can be second-to-none. 

Teaching is a job with a high burnout rate. It often comes in the top 5 of the most stressful jobs. Teachers re more likely to be affected by stress-related illnesses. Teachers often understand the stresses of the job – and we see each other go the extra mile for the kids. That sense of shared commitment and shared purpose can be extremely important in creating belonging and the sort of relationships that will last a life-time. 
 

During the last live, in-person Education Festival at Wellington College in 2019, I was privileged enough to be able to hear Professor Jonathan Glazzard of Leeds Beckett University speak about teacher burnout. And so much of that talk has stayed with me and doubled down my sense of purpose – especially when providing training on personal and professional resilience to Newly Qualified and Recently Qualified Teachers though IStip. 

I am going to – rather clumsily- nutshell what was a much more nuanced presentation of his research. He pointed out the following:


  1. Teachers are not afraid of hard work. Their sense of purpose and vocation makes them withstand a heavy workload.


     

  2. Where things can fall apart is when external stressors that are beyond our control like family illness, separations or personal illness come into the picture – then we find that there is not a lot of petrol left in the tank once the working day, week, term of preparation, teaching, marking, tracking, reporting, extra curricular commitments, pastoral mentoring and risk assessing has taken its toll.


  3. The stress of teaching is compounded and augmented by being in school environments that are characterised by low-trust and low-support. This is where burnout is rife. So being in a school where there is a great sense of community among the staff is a huge cultural asset, enabling teachers to work hard, but perceive stress entirely differently.

  4. Even very young pupils tune in to their teachers’ stress levels. They know that their learning and sense of safety in the classroom is negatively impacted when their teachers are stressed. 

We learn a great deal by negative example…learning how not to lead from bad leaders. Learning what’s not a good department or good school by being in one. But we learn far, far more from being led well. And Dr Brian Marien’s research in the Positive Group breaks this down. Supportive leadership enables people to withstand stress, be more productive, more engaged, and have a greater sense of wellbeing. His research shows that great leaders who are enabling their teams to thrive – both pre-pandemic and during it do these 3 things: 



     

    1. They care for their team as human beings and hold their different strengths different perspectives, pressure points, and vulnerabilities in mind.


    2. They take an interest in the careers and career paths of those in their teams.


    3. Because there are good levels of trust, they can have robust and authentic conversations.

I have been extremely lucky in my school career. I have – of course – had experience of good, bad, and occasionally ugly working environments. But one of the aspects that has helped me feel true satisfaction at this ending point, is the fact that through the last 9 years, I have been in a supportive environment, where I have been able to learn, re-learn, flex and grow as the school and my line-managers have flexed around me and my unconventional career path…(Yup…must sort out the pension that I sabotaged all those yearss ago!).

And in this ode to the 24 year teaching career I have been lucky enough to have – I can safely say that it is relationship and community that I am going to miss and will have to work hard to replace as I step 100% into my consultancy and coaching work.

Days after I started at Wimbledon High in September 2001, the whole teamwork of the staff was almost instantly put to test with the unforgettable 9/11 attacks. To see how the entire staff mobilised so quickly, came together to protect the girls, soothe their worries and manage their fears for parents was something I will never forget.

Then as now, the leadership team steered us all towards community and connection, and the genuine compassion and selflessness of the staff for the girls and the girls towards each other in an hour of real need, and destabilising panic was a key factor in ensuring we could make meaning and hope out of something so destructive and dangerous.
 
OF course now, our society feels no less threatened. Not so much by short sharp acts of terror, but by the stealthy encroachment of germ warfare. But despite the masks, the Perspex visors, the physical separations, one way systems, lockdowns and sporadic self-isolations we always come back to community -and what makes most sense of all – heart.

The heart-felt knowledge that whenever things are bad, we have each other. There’s always someone with a ready laugh, a joke, a smile, a kindness. Whether it’s a duty or a cover favour, the knowledge that someone will leap up to help. In some of my coaching sessions recently, colleagues have spoken of alienation and disconnection – when we look at the poor leadership and models of self interest that also abound in political life in the UK and the US.

So often we sacrifice relationship and connection to the workload. To finish the marking by lunch al-desko. But now staff-rooms are places of potential infection, sanitising, and mask-wearing. They are often places to be avoided.

It is going to be hugely important as we say farewell to 2020, that we make sure we do what we can to preserve and deepen meaningful connection with colleagues. Both in real-life and virtually as we most likely yo-yo between in-school, blended, and at-home teaching and learning until the vaccines are rolled out…
 

As we say farewell to 2020, what have we learned about community, connection, and what we want from each other as colleagues in 2021? How can we double down on the support that we need to give each other to get through the stresses and strains of teaching while social distancing? If you are in a leadership position, what can you do to create and cascade a culture of supportiveness among the staff team? If you are not in a leadership or management position, what contribution can you make to the professional discourse about workload, and the working culture….working effectively, and supportively together. This means looking to work smartly, and strategically, not endlessly saying yes to more, and more, and more.  The quality of our relationships depends on the quality of our interactions – so the quality of how we are able to show up for each other pays forward in enabling us to show up better for the children we work with. The children and teens we are working with are constantly looking to see whether we have the bandwidth for them to learn and grow in our care – both academically and socially/ emotionally. The quality of our relationships is pivotal to our wellbeing. It’s a ‘must-have’ of mental health, not an option. It is key to our health, our optimism, even our longevity. It is THE most effective defense against mental ill-health. With love and gratitude – to my colleagues. And to all teachers everywhere for all you do – in dangerous times – in helping our children grow, learn, flourish, and build a better world.It is not an easy profession by any means – now more than ever. Neither will it bring you riches of the material kind. But in terms of spiritual reward, and fulfilment, it can bring wealth indeed. For those of you at the outset of your careers – may it be as rich, rewarding, and inspiring for you as it has been for me.Wishing you all the best for 2021.Emma. PS Coaching and training for 2021?If you are interested in coaching as a leader in building trust and relationship within your team in the new year -please get in touch.If you find yourself struggling in a toxic team culture, or with workload issues and would like coaching to help explore your options, please email me. I will have some coaching spots coming free in the New YearIf you are interested in training for leaders in developing culture, performance, and relationships via the skills of having crucial conversations that build BOTH trust and accountability, please let me know.

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