Within education, few of us were fully prepared for the reality of the last academic year.
In many cases, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, panic and confusion arose, be that from concerned parents, staff members, teachers or pupils, as we all tried to keep on top of the daily Government announcements and the changes in which we all needed to live our lives.
Following the partial closure of schools, parents were trialled with the task of home schooling and teachers continued to work and provide vital care for children of ‘key workers’, vulnerable children and later, children in other year groups Alongside this, wider staff members rose to the challenges faced with making school facilities fit for purpose in response to social distancing measures.
As the newly appointed deputy chief executive of a multi-academy trust, last term I saw first-hand the incredible dedication and commitment shown by those individuals in question who rallied to adopt new and innovative online teaching tools for those who were homeschooled, while also looking after and educating those children – including many of the most vulnerable - who were still coming into class. They did this without quibble, and it has been truly inspirational to watch.
So now, as they return to work following a much-needed Summer break, we need to be able to support them in the difficult task of reconnecting their primary school aged children, some of whom have been away from the classroom since March 20th.
As part of this, we’ve recognised the importance of ensuring that staff themselves can continue to engage and connect with each other as they return to a sense of new normality – which might be quite different from before.
The strain on them – and as is no doubt the case for all of the teachers and support staff across the country, and indeed the world – while trying to juggle it all is intense. From making sure our children understand the situation while keeping them on track with the curriculum, to caring for colleagues and protecting their own families.
Protecting the mental health and wellbeing of our staff has never been more vital. Luckily, as a Trust we had already placed considerable emphasis on this as a key concern long before the world had heard of Covid-19, and we are therefore very fortunate to have some tools and tactics in place to keep our staff connected and supported; although needless to say our efforts have ramped up somewhat.
During the latter part of the summer term and the summer holidays, we encouraged everyone in the Trust to be mindful of their mental and physical health. We had three virtual ‘Therapeutic Tuesdays’ with a yoga teacher, looking at the benefits of yoga, alongside nutrition and wellbeing advice.
On July 1st we launched #OneTrustOneChallenge for July and August where all staff, governors and families were encouraged to run, walk or cycle. By the end of the campaign we travelled at least twice around the world. Not only are we encouraging improved physical health through the initiative, we have also raised money for the NSPCC and kept our communities connected over the Summer.
It is our belief that in doing so, this will equip our teams for the challenges they may face in this new academic year – from alleviating children’s concerns of returning to schools and to, where necessary, taking the time to bring pupils back up to speed if gaps in learning appear.
That is why we have scheduled across each term a number of meeting opportunities for our staff members across our 15 primary academies to meet up remotely, to share their ideas, learn from one another and implement different ways of thinking. As we think it is incredibly important to stay connected with one another.
We are also embarking on a Trust wide oracy project with Voice21 that will enable us to reconnect with our pupils and bring our staff together as they work collectively on becoming great teachers of oracy.
This gives our staff the opportunity to share their experiences, how different ways of working are affecting them both positively and negatively, and how they are communicating with the families of the children now that they have returned to school.
It builds on the work we did at the end of last year, where staff were still given these opportunities over Zoom. We received a lot of positive feedback from the sessions which produced a breeding ground for common action, best practice and best advice. It also builds on the significant work taking place across the Trust in using digital technologies e.g. Microsoft Teams and the wider Microsoft 365 package to enable collaborative working and help us move towards a new, more blended approach in developing and supporting staff.
This is all feeding into our ‘Learning Together’ online portal that teachers have access to. Not only this but it is helping us continue to produce regular newsletters to parents with information on the support that is out there as well as the learning facilities we think are best for their children.
This Summer, we encouraged principals and headteachers to take time to recharge their batteries and ensure that the whole staff had time away from the building. There have been no expectations from the Central Team or Trustees for leaders to carry out tasks or planning during this time to enable them to return refreshed and ready for the challenges of the Autumn Term.
What was made clear last term was the benefits of social media in ensuring key positive messages stayed at the forefront of our staff’s minds.
Therefore, we are spending time each week researching what support is out there in respect of finance as well as mental wellbeing and continue to send this information out on Twitter and our website.
Our continued efforts to support one another over the last six months, will hopefully mean we will return stronger than ever this year, ensuring our children are given the best education possible.
I know that many of our pupils, families, teachers and staff are excited to rejoice with one another in person, to reconnect and feel grateful for the new relationships and working ways given to us by this pandemic.
Donna Tandy is deputy CEO/academy improvement partner at Focus Trust