Changing course

How are you looking after your extraordinary colleagues? 

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary deeds and extraordinary deeds call for extraordinary people to carry them out. Robert Lloyd Williams looks at the needs of teachers and how they might be supported as they switch to online teaching.

Amongst all the dire news stories, the empty streets, shops and cafes there are heroes. Doctors, nurses, carers, shop workers, police, firemen and ambulance drivers to name a few – and teachers. At 8pm on a Thursday evening these ‘heroes’ are being applauded the length and breadth of the British Isles and beyond – and rightly so. 

new teaching environment 

Has there ever been a time for teachers when their working world has been turned upside down so quickly? The move from working with pupils in a classroom to one of a virtual worldof which many will be both unfamiliar and afraid, is monumental and akin to turning an oil tanker in minutes. These changes usually take years not a matter of days. 

The pressure on teaching staff has been growing steadily anyway but has now been ramped up considerably. Lessons are being filmed so that they can be viewed online, the very presence of the camera changing the nature and uniqueness of the special atmosphere built up within the four walls of the classroom and that bond that exists between teacher and student. Written assignments, feedback and even video lessons, in whatever format, lose that intimacy a classroom engenders.

The sense of body language, tone, excitement, atmosphere, rawness, camaraderie and fluency makes way for buffering video, interruptions, staccato answers and death by PowerPoint slides. It’s the equivalent of either watching a sports event live at the venue or by some poor streaming service in your living room. 

Changing relationship 

Pupils are now required to change too. This directly changes the relationship between teacher and pupil. Parents are much more involved than ever before and this third dimension, whilst sometimes helpful, also puts an extra level of scrutiny on teachers who are already, perhaps struggling with the new technology. Parents listening in to your lessons or appearing in the background, lend an air of unreality and extra pressure. 

The well-known American Football coach and player, Lou Houltz said that, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” Many teachers, dare one say most, are over-regulators. Talking to staff from a number of schools they all seem to empathise with this. What do I mean? Staff like to be in control of what is happening and be aware of what is going on around them. They need to be constantly self and socially monitoring both inside the classroom and outside it, picking up on the smallest nuances of how a pupil is performing, both socially and academically, and responding to it. A teacher’s job involves being flexible and working with what is in front of you, adapting to the challenges. It is one of the exciting reasons to be a teacher.  

 Misguided thought 

There are many teachers who are struggling with this new world order – unable to see pupils, react to their body language in live time, talk one-to-one or who are struggling with the technology and thus far from in control. Teachers also often work in silos – in their own departments or classrooms – and become quite independent. Reaching out for help, therefore is not always the default position. This makes the technology issue even harder. Everyone else seems to be coping, but why can’t I do it, is the misguided thought. Meanwhile, lots of colleagues are feeling something very similar. When working from home it is more difficult to reach out for help from friends, IT departments, Heads or Deputy Heads. Thus, Lou Houltz’s words fall on deaf ears as staff rarely carry that burden lightly or well, like an ill-fitting rucksack weighed down with rocks. 

Teachers also work to routines. Their lives are governed by bells or timetables. This might have been thrown up in the air adding to the anxiety levels. That predictable school day pattern that helps most pupils and staff find a rhythm and pace has gone, to be replaced by a stop start diet of mini interactions. 

Teaching from the kitchen table, while also . . . .  

Finally, it is easy to forget that teachers are also parents, siblings and children themselves. They are teaching online lessons from their kitchen tables, whilst managing their own children; they are caring for vulnerable neighbours; they are worrying about elderly parents who they cannot visit; they may face the loss of loved ones; they may be supporting their own children who may be struggling; they may face economic uncertainty. The boundaries between home and work are increasingly blurred, putting additional strain on our teachers. If ever there was a time to put teachers’ wellbeing high on the agenda, it is now. 

Support structure 

There are several ways to do this, from pairing up teachers to act as support for each other, to regular online social meetings, for department heads, heads and deputy heads catching up one-to-one to see how they are doing. Schools are also using online wellbeing questionnaires asking staff to rate their wellness on a scale of 1 to 10, asking what they are struggling with and with what they would like to be assisted.  One of the issues here is honesty. Do they want to admit to be struggling? Is this a sign of weakness? Do they have a faulty self-perception of how they are doing/coping? Will they tell you what they think management want to hear? As over-regulators, staff would want to appear to be in control and on top of things. The TES (Times Educational Supplement) has an anonymous survey called Staff-Pulse to give genuine feedback to the management so that changes can be made, and staff can see that their voices are being heard. This doesn’t necessarily get you round the issue of individual staff members who need help, however.  

Holding up the mirror 

The organisation I work for, STEER, has nine years of experience tracking the social and emotional journeys of pupils in school. In response to coronavirus, STEER has now developed an app called USTEER available to all staff who would like to use it. USTEER reflects back to users how they are navigating, or steering, their own social-emotional journey – whether that is at school, with a colleague, or at home during coronavirus. By answering a series of non-invasive questions, USTEER provides personalised feedback about your characteristics and highlights areas you might want to work on, suggesting behaviours to help navigate the current emotional road you are facing.

A number of staff who have used USTEER have relayed back to us how using the app has increased their own level of self-awareness. They find it enables them to make decisions about how to deal better with issues that are either coming up or are being faced now. You can search for, find and download USTEER from any of the app stores. 

Whatever your school uses to help staff face the biggest crisis most will have known, make them feel that they are not alone, are valued and are supported. Above all make your colleagues feel extraordinary for they are being asked to do extraordinary things. 


Robert Lloyd Williams has taught both in Ascot and Bath. He has been Head of History, Director of Boarding, Head of rugby and cricket, Head of Pastoral Care and Deputy Head. He now works for STEER as a consultant to schools looking at the emotional journey and mental health of their pupils





Feature Image: by Deen Alexey from Pixabay