Teacher wellbeing – how to balance the SENCo workload
Michael Rogalski shares what he’s learned over the last six years on how not to blow a gasket
Four years into my decade-long teaching career, I willingly took on the role of SENCO from a colleague approaching retirement. “You’re the ideal person, you’ll be great at it,” she assumed, knowing my background working with charities for children with disabilities.
Looking back, if I hadn’t known this colleague well, I would have felt like I was being stitched up. The role of SENCO is certainly far more complex and demanding than I initially expected, but is nonetheless one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
When I say that the role is more complex than expected, I believe this is because of the lack of time dedicated to SEN during initial teacher training.
In particular, from my own experience and hearing those of friends, there is often a misconception about the SENCO’s responsibilities within schools.
Traditionally, SENCOs may have seen as the person to call on if there was a behaviour issue, or a child other teachers didn’t know how to deal with.
But times have moved on, and since the introduction of the mandatory National Award for SEN Coordination, the SENCO is now a strategic leader in schools.
Unfortunately, the success of this heavily depends on how the leadership team is structured and what emphasis is placed on the role.
In my current school, I’m glad to be part of the Senior Leadership Team which ensures SEND is well-represented when decisions are made.
I certainly don’t have a miracle solution to manage this challenging position but I have learned a number of strategies that can help to maximise our time and decrease day-to-day stresses.
Share the load
Learn the art of delegating. As a bit of a perfectionist in some ways, delegating is something that I will admit that I am still learning.
Teachers know the children in their class better than anybody so they are key people to look to support you in your role; use their knowledge of the child to help you complete any paperwork and ask their opinion when it comes to review meetings.
A coaching approach to support staff in troubleshooting issues in the classroom is also worth considering. Coaching can take different forms but the common outcome is to improve professional practice and make staff feel empowered to overcome any issues they have raised.
As a SENCO this can work well because initial support for pupils who have suspected SEN should include quality-first teaching and reasonable adjustments.
Simple, informal coaching conversations can lead to staff coming up with their own ideas of what adjustments they can implement to assist children in their class.
Think progress, not attainment. There is constant pressure to ensure children reach ‘Expected Standard’ but as we are all too aware, there are some children who, not matter how high our aspirations for them are, will find this too much of a challenge.
This is amplified further if they have SEN. I have unfortunately participated in training courses that tell teachers to pitch at the expected standard and beyond for most children.
In my view, we simply cannot do this in the vain hope that children will grasp it. If the foundations of learning are not present, this is highly unlikely to work.
Taking the progress approach ensures that children are building on their prior knowledge and are developing a solid base for future learning. Without a solid foundation, this becomes a significant issue for children as they move through education.
In my experience, the gaps in their knowledge hinder them from making additional progress. A child who is insecure with multiplication tables will no doubt find it extremely challenging to access some of the expected reasoning and problem-solving tasks when they reach Y6.
There is, of course, an argument that children need exposure to problem solving and reasoning tasks, but if they are insecure with the fluency aspects of this area, this is where regular opportunities to practise, intervention and over-learning is required.
I try to overcome this issue with our children with more significant SEN by assessing them on a system that matches their needs.
Some children are able to demonstrate their progress on the whole-school tracking system, but some require objectives to be broken down into smaller steps.
Having children on the correct tracking system for them also ensures that their intervention or support plan targets are relevant and specific.
Building relationships with parents is key. As class teachers will know, if parents are on board, things run more smoothly and this same as a SENCO.
Keep communicating with them, even if the news isn’t always good. Most parents do appreciate good communication and will learn to trust you.
Children with more severe SEN will have your involvement for many years, so you need to build trust to ensure a positive relationship throughout the time a child is with you.
Take social media with a pinch of salt. When I became a SENCO, I joined a couple of Facebook groups but very quickly removed them.
Most people have good intentions, but the variation in posts between heavy rants and the perfect SEN resources was quite mind-blowing.
This is where I decided I would do what works best for our school and search for support when needed. Instead, I attend ‘SEN Update’ meetings run by our local authority which provide up-to-date and relevant guidance about all things SEN.
I often make a list of a few questions I have beforehand so I can ask them at the meeting or discuss them with SENCOs who attend. Networking events like this are a far more reliable source of information and guidance that what can be found on online forums.
As with many things posted online, we don’t fully know the credibility of the person or motives behind what they are typing!
Manage your release time wisely, too. Working from home isn’t always an option in some schools – particularly for SENCOs – with the number of parent/professional meetings we deal with, but it can be a good option.
From experience, productive hours can be dramatically reduced by the time you’ve found somewhere quiet to work and you’ve dealt with the fifth “have you got a minute?” query of the morning!
Managing the workload of a SENCO isn’t for the faint-hearted but would I give up the SENCO role? No. It takes an all-rounder to be a good SENCO; a team player, an effective communicator, a leader, an advocate and most importantly, someone with understanding.
It’s this variety which makes the role so unique and has allowed me to work with some fantastic children and families.
Michael Rogalski is a Y5 teacher and SENCO in Staffordshire. He is also a director of the charity, Our Space (Staffs) Ltd, which provides social opportunities for children and adults with disabilities.