The school we return to will be different post COVID-19 and it’s up to all of us to ensure it’s for the better.
Isolation has given me some rare opportunities to stare out of the window and wonder. Wonder what school will be like when we return. Wonder what I want to return back to. How will COVID-19 impact the culture of the school? And what culture do we need to adopt in order to nurture our students going forward.
When googling ‘school culture’ I was quite surprised to see that a lot of the definitions related it to the culture among staff, rather than students. Having worked at 5 schools I can honestly say not in a single one did the student and staff culture not mirror each other exactly. Test it yourself, what is your school culture? Is it only demonstrated by your staff or also by your students?
One of the definitions I loved most is by Anthony Muhammed where he defines school culture as ‘the environment needed to cultivate the characteristics necessary for student growth and learning.’ I would add to this to include not only student growth but staff too.
I recently tweeted (@secretVP ) asking people to share their thoughts about school culture. It’s beautiful so see the steps heads have taken to develop a strong and positive school culture. The beauty of the twitter community came to the fore as colleagues recommended peoples blogs or even schools where they had witnessed a wonderful culture.* Yet, however positive the cultural norm at our schools we will return back to a slightly different landscape and one we have not faced before. So here are the key tenants of the school I want to return back and build.
Being kind and showing value
I hope with every core of my being that we all come out of this experience as more kind.
Being kind means that we value the other, and to me that is golden. Being kind means we take responsibility for our behavior because at every stage we have the option to be anything less than kind. Showing kindness means showing power. A kind act in the right place changes the course of actions to come.
What does this look like in practice when we get back to school?
I hope every senior leader in the country takes the time to commend their staff and how they have embraced the challenge of COVID-19. I know in our school we found ourselves changing from a face to face institution to one entirely online within three days. This is no small feat and it certainly isn’t possible without staff buy in.
I can’t wait to get back and tell staff how incredibly proud I am to be part of a staff body that has embraced change when it mattered the most, that have adapted in difficult circumstances. That have shown kindness towards each other covering each other on the face to face rota system when we needed to get things done.
This is why I find it both shocking and embarrassing when I hear stories of leaders asking their staff to fill in time sheets or all staff to come into school so numbers of teacher outweigh that of students because I believe kindness will get you so much further ahead than the desire to control will. It’s how we show our staff we value them. At the school I am currently at we have operated a completely voluntary system of face to face provision and not one person has let us down.
And here’s the thing about kindness, you don’t get to do it part time. You don’t get to be kind to a few, show them how valuable they are and call yourself kind. I’ve seen many leaders have favourites over the years and I’m sure I have subconsciously had some myself. But being kind is not an opt in opt out choice and I hope when we get back we reach out to the quieter ones, even the disengaged.
One of my favorite activities at school has become the Fuddle. Every Friday before a half term we now have a fuddle. Food has been a big part of my life. My mother is an incredible cook and to share food is to say I want to sit with you and talk about what’s on your mind because I value you. Further, staff show how much they value each other by cooking for each other. It also gives us an excuse to eat cupcakes for breakfast 😉 I hope to be having a lot more of those soon.
Every teaching member of staff I know is short on time. To give your time is the greatest gift in education. And I hope as our staff return, with stories of what they have experienced during this lockdown, we take the time to be kind, to listen and to show how much they mean to us.
For our students
This is going to be incredibly important. Many people have already spoken about the need to support students who may have lost someone during this time or experienced trauma whilst away from school.
On a more subtle level we know that students’ access and engagement to online resources will vary. We know some will have engaged more than others. We know some will have grasped more than others. And as teaching professionals not only is it important to show kindness to those students who will undoubtedly be left behind but also foster a climate of kindness in our classrooms so that we can support those struggling. I know that many of my higher ability students can sometimes be quite impatient with those who are struggling to grasp a concept and although I need to make sure I am planning for them when we return I also need to ensure they are kind to their peers.
How do we show our children kindness and that they are valued when they return? I hope that we take a moment not to ask our kids how much they got done but how they were kind to those who needed it. Whether it be by face timing their grandparents because they couldn’t visit, babysitting siblings, baking cakes etc..
When we get back we will be in unchartered territory and will need resilience to get us through. We have all shown resilience in bucket loads recently but I think this is something that will be tested once again when we get back to school. We will find ourselves in a situation where we are in front of children who have not been in a school routine for possibly 4 months. This is not only likely to test the resilience of teachers but also our students.
For the teachers, getting students back into school habits is likely to be a challenge, we will need to be resilient as we figure out ways to ensure that all of our kids, with various levels of engagement with home learning are on the same page. We will need to be resilient as we battle with the challenges of teaching the national curriculum on what is less time in the classroom.
I breath a sigh of relief that I have built a culture of honesty in middle leaders meetings over the past year, where we not only share our successes but our failures and ask each other for help, because middle leaders will need to be collaborative in their approach to bridge the learning gap and resilient as they figure out their approach to each year group.
Students too will be required to be resilient. How do we build the resilience of the child who knows they haven’t been able to access the work at home, either because they just didn’t get it without you there, were babysitting siblings or any other reason? I have spent the past year trying to get rid of the fear my students feel when it comes to any form of testing and I know that a big part of our return will need to be lots of low stakes testing to see how much they remember, know etc… I know this work will need to continue as we move forward.
Reestablishing routines is another challenge staff will face. Caroline Spalding (@MrsSpalding) speaks extensively about this and building in quick wins to motivate students to want to follow those routines. This links to the social ties we have built with our students and how they will need to be reestablished once we return. The trust we built with those difficult to reach students will be tested or need to be reestablished.
Some students will have been resilient in ways we can’t imagine and we will be expecting more of that in the classroom. Therefore, we need to take the time to think about how we will celebrate their first day/lesson back? What will we want to reiterate, establish and celebrate? I can’t wait to tell them how much I have missed them and how I can’t wait to get back on the journey of exploring history with them.
Honesty and open mindedness
A common saying I use with my students is ‘Let’s reach for the stars at the very worse we might hit the ceiling.’ I want my students to know they are limitless. But the other part of the coin is being exceptionally brave and honest about where they currently are.
For staff this means admitting that we are facing new circumstances, not one of us has all the answers but collectively we will have suggestions we can test. What we can’t do is get tied down to any of these ideas at the risk of seeing what works.
Honesty to admit when we are stuck, losing some students or just plain tired and the open mindedness to try something different will be paramount in our ability to adapt to the new landscape we return to. Senior Leaders should encourage it, model it and nurture it.
With students I intend to get inquisitive and try and take the pressure off. Rather than say ‘I wonder how much you learnt’ I will be asking them to let me know how effective the online resources were at teaching them X and checking that. Taking the pressure off of them and allowing them to be honest about how much they do or do not know/remember. Again, the wonderful Caroline Spalding talks about the effectiveness of self-testing here to remove embarrassment and give students a quick review of how they are doing so they can move forward.
Needless to say there will be a whole host of other skills teachers will soon be asked to pull on but we only have to look online at twitter for a few seconds to the level of commitment this group of wonderful individuals has demonstrated over the past few weeks and there is no doubt they are up for the challenge.
*a particular shout out to Chris Foley @HT_StMonicas and Mark Chatley @MrMChatley