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School Leader Voices Tell the Real Story of Pandemic Stress

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 28th November 2020

In my recent study into school leader wellbeing during the COVID 19 crisis 70% of the 721 school leaders who took part say they have come close to breaking point at some time during 2020. Even allowing for a response bias, that figure is worryingly high and is worthy of closer examination. In my article  School Leader Wellbeing Survey Reveals Worrying Pandemic Stress Levels I set out an overview of the quantitative data from my study but it is the qualitative data that tells the real story. This week, I am handing the post over to school leaders themselves to tell their own stories. What is published below are their unedited responses to the question “what is challenging you most at the moment.”

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“Putting on a brave face and leading every day when some days I’d rather stay in bed and cry. Feeling the weight of accountability for everyone’s health & safety. Feeling and being isolated and alone as HT in a small school with no other leaders.”

“I have completely disregarded my own well-being for the benefit of others.”

“Keeping up to date with the barrage of guidance. Supporting EVERYONES emotional needs, being the punchbag for people’s anxieties AND having to manage new educational remote learning requirements.”

“Trying to remain positive or at least pretend it’s all going to be okay for other staff.  I feel I’m doing the most work but teachers and TAs need to be told they’re doing an amazing job to keep going. They are, don’t get me wrong, but as the only person in leadership at our small school, I could really do with someone telling me I’m doing okay too!”

“Everyone…I mean, EVERYONE is angry…all.the.time.”

“Trying to continue to do everything that is normally expected and required while dealing with a significant increase in Safeguarding and Covid related issues. Staff anxiety and workload management, parent and pupil concerns. Bubble closures, staff absence due to Covid issues. There are not enough hours in the day. And the pressure of knowing we are due a full OFSTED and possibly as soon as Jan 21.”

“Making sure we systematically offer the best programme and support for all, from the students quarantined locally, those on campus, those quarantined remotely and those who have not made it back yet. Supporting the teaching and support staff so that they do not feel too stretched by this ‘best offer’ and burn out by the end of Term 1. Supporting our community when SLT chose to cancel the Oct holidays 10 days before it was due to start.”

“The pressure to continue school improvement, whilst managing everything related to the pandemic. Also dealing with disciplinaries, performance issues, appeals and restructuring staff due to budget. With the possibility of an Ofsted / HSE visit too. Completely overwhelming and beyond stressful.”

“Being everything to everyone and my own family (and kids) being neglected.”

“Managing the stress and anxiety of staff, students and parents whilst disregarding my own.”

“The constant uncertainty, shifting guidance and parents taking their stress and anxiety out on us for decisions we have no control over.”

“Staff feeling isolated and suffering with mental health challenges. Staff shortages whilst working in bubbles. Asking teachers to implement a remote curriculum and prepare resources for this alongside working in isolated conditions and managing increased workload. Pupil separation anxiety. Managing space for isolating bubbles during break/lunch times. Supporting pupils/families with no access to online learning. Keeping up with the volume of guidance and paperwork we need to read every day.”

“Reassuring everyone about being safe and supporting the emotional needs of staff and parents when I don’t felt safe myself and I’m also going through this myself. I’m a teacher not health care or h and safety expert. It’s just exhausting and so worrying- what if I get this wrong. Big responsibility! If a member of staff dies – not sure if ever sleep again.”

“Managing the wellbeing and mental health/ anxieties of all of the school community. No one is willing to make any decision about how to do anything which has had to be changed due to Covid so even the tiniest decisions have fallen to me. This is so draining.”

“Parents – not being rational, shouting, much more emotional.”

“Every day being in fear of what will happen if we have someone get seriously sick or die. Feeling a tremendous weight of the responsibility of keeping everyone safe.”

“The fact that the district’s plan is horrible and unsustainable. The fact that I have to do double the work because they couldn’t create a plan that actually works.  Telling me I need to completely reprogram the school because of covid testing. It’s all about communicating and their information streams are severely lacking.”

“Pressure of keeping the whole school community safe (staff, children, parents, governors, neighbouring residents, visitors and all families attached to those people who never even set foot in my school) and feeling like I need to be a COVID expert, whereas in reality I’m just a human being with a family who loves working with children and teachers.”

“Parents not following the guidelines and then swearing at you when they disagree.”

“It feels like you are working 24 hours a day with having to manage and juggle everything to ensure the constant safety of children, staff, parents and their families. No real rest of wind down time as something is constantly happening.”

“Keeping calm when being continually used as a dumping ground for others.”

“All of it… balancing my own life with COVID-19.  Basically, my personal life is wholly compromised, my partner neglected. I want out.”

“Most challenging: the number of high importance tasks which all need to be done at the same time( ensuring wellbeing and academic progress of children, curriculum, remote learning, keeping parents happy, SEF, SIP, updating website, educating , covering staff due to Covid absences, absorbing everyone’s anxieties whilst remaining outwardly calm and positive ).”

“Response from anxious parents and staff . Often they take this out on you as a senior leader. Trying to cope with restraints of guidance that doesn’t suit them. Quite a few have been very aggressive.”

“Living alone away from family and friends but leaving my baggage at the door in order to support my whole school community without any personal support.”

“It’s been very very confusing with mixed messages from government. It feels like I’m planning for something unknown, blindfolded and hand tied behind my back!”

“Parental pushback. The level of judgement and critique our teachers have been subject to and the sometimes threatening behaviour from frustrated, and often desperate families.”

“My workload has gone from immense to unmanageable.”

“Managing constant change, managing a wide range of expectations, managing comparisons, determining what is in fact the ‘best’ next step, ensuring continuity of learning while emotional well-being seems to hang in the balance for everyone.”

“Being understaffed due to having staff down Covid-19 was extremely challenging. Three members of my leadership team had the virus at the same time, leaving only me leading a team of 90 staff with 1100 children as we moved over to home learning.”

“When we returned to school, staff anxiety was high due to Covid having been in the building. At this point, and still working alone, my cup was full and I was not able to deal with their anxiety which I felt at the time was ultimately shifting pressure to other people.”