Vic Goddard looks back on how a family bereavement helped inform his approach to supporting staff coping with traumas of their own…
I know I don’t need to tell you that teaching is a tough job! And it gets even tougher if our own emotional intelligence is lessened, because we need to have some capacity to handle the ‘baggage’ our students sometimes share with us.
So the question is, what are we supposed to do when something is happening in our personal lives that is making us less emotionally resilient? This is an issue that can sometimes be overlooked by the people who lead us, whether that is a line manager, a chair of governors or the Secretary of State.
Shocked and numb
Just before Christmas in 2014 my brother, Malcolm, died unexpectedly because of a thrombosis. He was a fellow teacher (I come from a family of them) and, though I am obviously biased, a lovely man. It left me numb and certainly made me less emotionally resilient.
After the initial phone calls and rallying around of the family, I was left in that shocked and numb stage but could do nothing more to help. So I went into school as normal – well, as normal as I could be. I got one of the SLT to share my news at briefing with the staff, and to let them know that I was going to carry on with business as usual, so please don’t be too nice to me.
Later that day, as I was doing a climate walk around school, I was stopped by one of the long serving staff and asked, very supportively, why was I in school? At the time I just did my usual smile and said, “This is where I am supposed to be today.” She returned my smile and we got on with our days.
However, it did really make me think about the message I was sending, as headteacher, to other people who may well have to go through similar traumatic events. I was left feeling guilty that I was in school, and guilty that I couldn’t help my mum and sister-in-law more to cope with the heartbreaking things they had to deal with. I didn’t, then or in future, want any of the staff I work with to feel that they had to do the same if they were in such a dreadful position. I didn’t want them to be thinking, when they were at their most vulnerable, that they had to be in school when they knew that they were not able to function in that environment in that moment.
I can’t speak for other establishments, but I am of the opinion that schools must respect the fact that staff will have a full range of life events to face, from birth to death and everything in between, whilst also trying to serve the school community with care, humanity and professionalism.
That means that we need to give people time to deal with these events, and therefore be set up as a school to not let it impact on the progress of the students. I know that there will be people wanting to say that ‘being professional’ means you don’t let these things affect you. I am afraid that my response to that would be quite short. I am fully aware that I expect the staff of Passmores to help our young people cope with the challenges – sometimes hideous ones – which they face. I am also aware that leaving these issues at the door at the end of the day is often incredibly difficult so it impacts on their home lives too.
Therefore, shouldn’t the staff expect support and care in return? I think so. We have tried to set up the school to allow flexibility for staff; for departments to look after each other if someone needs to be out of school to deal with a family situation. However, like any arrangement that relies on people being honest and not taking advantage, there are tensions. We cannot forget our core responsibility to the students we serve – but I have seen how much better staff are at fulfilling that responsibility if they feel happy and able to meet their own family needs.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about what I did regarding the Passmores staff, and the message I sent by being in school – well, I wrote to them. I always try and send a personal Christmas card to each member of staff with a brief message that is relevant to them as an individual, but this year I sent a letter. Here is a little excerpt:
“No time of year is a good time to lose people you love or to hear bad news, but it really feels that it shouldn’t happen at Christmas. We are a school of well over 1300 people (young and not so young), and life is happening to each of us every day, so births, deaths, marriages etc. are part of the journey of every year for some of us and we will deal with these things in the way that we cope best.
As you know I have continued to be in school, in body at least, but when I was asked ‘Why are you in?’ it made me stop and think about the message I was sending to each of you. I chose to be here. I chose to be here as it was what I needed to do, not because I felt that anyone here needed me to be here. I am lucky to work with amazing professionals that strive every day to improve the lives of the children we serve and I know that this happens whether I am here or not.
The reason I am writing about this is that I don’t want any of you to feel that you would need to do the same as me if you are sadly in a similar position. I am sure that people know that I always try to support staff going through challenges outside of school, and we all cope with these things in our own way; if being in school is best for you, then great – but if it isn’t, and you need to sort things out differently, you would get my support also.”
I think the staff appreciated it. I know I felt better for writing it.