Yesterday I was interviewed by the lovely Andy Hodgkinson for his Best Practice Network Podcast. We were talking about the way the education community has handled the Coronavirus (Brilliantly, IMO) and the different initiatives which have sprung up as a result.
During our discussion, we reflected on the importance of providing a listing ear for leaders and teachers. This was something I’ve valued throughout my career, particularly as a headteacher. A trusted colleague to run ideas past can make the world of difference. It’s something I try to incorporate into all my work as an Improvement Advisor and Education Consultant. The need to be heard without judgment is crucial to headteacher wellbeing, in my opinion. So, in the early stages of the crisis, before lockdown, I made it clear to the school leaders I know that I was available at any time to discuss their thoughts and concerns.
Did I have all the answers? No, of course not. No one did and in a complex situation like the current crisis, there is often no single answer to a single question. Every school and setting is unique with its own unique set of circumstances. Each requires its own unique response based on the best information we have to hand at the time. Those first few weeks were filled with phone calls and emails to leaders, managers and teachers who just wanted someone to listen and offer support and ideas from an external perspective. It was a privilege to be able to do this. Education professionals, in my experience, tend to be naturally collaborative, they thrive on working with colleagues sharing a common goal. This has never been more apparent than in the last few weeks.
So, moving into lockdown, we found ourselves living in a very different world. Headteachers organized rotas at lightening speed, which meant that some staff would be in school, but some would be working from home. People like me used to spending the day talking to hundreds of people, or in a school surrounded by children and adults, suddenly found themselves at home. I am lucky, I have my husband and children with me, but some people were facing lockdown alone.
There were lots of webinars that were springing up in those early days, to explore particular topics and challenges. The “Coronacast” set up by a group of leaders in Cheshire has been a vital source of information and ideas for me, and for many other people who have joined in. Unions, organistations and universities have provided numerous webinars and discussions to support strategy and decision making, but the social aspect of education wasn’t really being catered for at that stage. The day to day conversations about what was on the telly last night, or what the children are up to, or how annoying someone is being! As far as I could tell, there didn’t seem to be a regular social space for educationalists which was open to all, so I decided to make one, and the virtual staffroom was born.
I have been asked on several occasions about the staffroom. Is it an Early Years thing? Who can join? Is there an agenda? So I thought I’d share some information about it, in case you were thinking of joining but were too afraid to ask!
We went live on the 23rd March with a zoom chat. I put a shout out on Twitter and asked people to send me a message to get the code, I thought we’d give it a whirl and see how it went. In that initial meeting, there were eight of us, all of whom I’d met sometime in my career. We caught up on news, chatted about how we were dealing with the current crisis and just generally enjoyed each other’s company.
Since then I have opened the doors to the staffroom every day at 12.30 and we’ve had lots of different people join us. Some of them I’ve never met or barely chatted with on twitter, some come every day, some come as and when they can, we’ve even been joined by people on the other side of the world. Everyone joins in; students, NQTs, supply teachers, heads, childminders, retired academics, teaching assistants, teachers, nursery nurses, consultants and lecturers. Sometimes people pop in and have their lunch, most of us have a cuppa. There was prosecco and gin and tonic on my birthday and even a banner in someone’s home!
Everyone is welcome. It’s not a primary thing or a secondary thing or an EYFS thing, it’s a social thing! There’s no agenda. The rules are that what we talk about in staffroom stays in the staffroom, just like in a school or setting, so I can’t go into details, but what I can reveal is it’s sometimes really silly and I’ve laughed until I’ve cried and sometimes we talk about pedagogy and politics and it’s we can be quite serious. Sometimes we veer between deep and meaningful and daft in the space of 5 minutes. Some people just come in and listen, and some are very chatty! There’s a fair bit of friendly, gentle teasing and real friendships have been formed. I’d hope that once social distancing is a thing of the past, whenever that may be, we might have a real virtual staff meeting!
Lots of people have told me that it has given them a real sense of structure to their day as they’re working from home. It makes them stop for 40 minutes. It’s also an opportunity to connect with people outside work and home, during a time when our social relationships are limited. We are essentially social creatures and hopefully, this fulfils our need to connect. Regardless of our experience and our current roles, we have a lot in common. It’s always fairly lively and there’s a lot of laughter. There have been a couple of times when I felt we were on the verge of starting an educational revolution. If nothing else, it means I get dressed and try to control my hair every day!
So, if you were thinking of joining in, but were too afraid to ask, or didn’t know if it was for you, I hope you’ll give it a go. You’re free to come and go as you please, but please don’t be lonely at home during this crisis. We’re here every day at 12.30. Send me a message on Twitter. The kettle’s on!