This blog comes from our associate coach, organisational expert and former school governor, Ben Gibbs.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile”
Paul Laurence Dunbar – From ‘We Wear The Mask’
It’s fair to say that we have all experienced the COVID-19 pandemic differently.
Depending on our context, our background, our character, and on the set of demands we found ourselves facing as school leaders, we each carry a different set of memories and lessons for our own practice from the last year.
In my work just over the last month, I’ve spoken to a school leader who had 20 children and 2 staff test positive on the Sunday after the June half term, another who was reeling from the COVID-related death of a parent with 4 children at her school, and another whose school has had less than a handful of cases since the pandemic began.
As I reflect back even further on the conversations I’ve had with school leaders throughout the last 12 months, there has been a common theme that has stood out for me. It has been the theme of masks and how Heads have had to wear different ones at different times over the course of the pandemic.
By masks, I’m not talking about the protective PPE masks with which we’re all now familiar, but the metaphorical sort that leaders use to cover-up or repress their own fears when faced with anxiety and uncertainty.
Over the last year, perhaps more than ever before, leaders have had to present themselves in a number of different ways, according to their context : ranging from the “poker face” to give a pretence of being in control, and a “brave face” that suggests one is unaffected by the chaos, and a “calm face” to assure others that all (despite the evidence) is well.
In psychology, ‘masking’ is what we do when we cover up or obscure our natural personality in order to conform to social pressures. It is a sophisticated behaviour learned in early (pre-school) childhood as a way of concealing a negative (socially unwelcome) emotion by presenting another more positive (or acceptable) one.
Much research has focused on the need felt by people with autism to use ‘social camouflage’ to conform to neuro-typical social behaviour, but studies also refer to masking in relation to gender and ethnicity. Indeed, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem (above) relates to his experience as a Black man developing an identity as a poet in pre-1900 America.
Of course, we all camouflage to a certain extent. Erving Goffman’s 1956 masterpiece, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’, used theatrical metaphors to conceptualise human social interaction, showing how we all take the stage every day and work to manage and control the impression we make through our behaviour.
But wearing a mask like this requires an enormous amount of effort and energy. Recently, speaking to a group of Headteachers around this issue, wearing a ‘mask’ everyday was described as “exhausting” and “overwhelming”, because of the possibility of being exposed, or of the consequences of the mask slipping.
After more than a year of this, the school leaders in the group felt “depleted” and had found that their ability to concentrate and listen effectively had been negatively affected. Someone talked about “shaking behind the curtain”; another about the sense they were “about to have an aneurism”.
Of course, the feeling of having to wear a mask isn’t new. One could say that successful teaching demands it. But with the pandemic, this experience has been intensified; the felt need to be seen to be strong, reliable and – most of all – positive feels inescapable somehow. For me, this begs a few questions, such as:
– What does it mean for the wider system if authenticity is masked, and if things are carrying on on-stage as ‘normal’ despite all the inner turmoil and stress?
– If everyone is wearing masks, what happens to reality, or real felt experience? It has to go somewhere, so where does it go?
– What is the impact on children who look to their teachers for authenticity and truths and prompts as to how to behave themselves?
– What is being learned about repression and denial, or self-care? What is being embedded in school and school system culture?
It was the fear of the mask slipping that I found most troubling. One of the participants in the discussion group said:
“Everyone was looking to us to keep the country working and the kids learning. I was under pressure from everyone – my staff, parents, children, the community – to be the one with the answers … to set aside my own and my family’s needs and look after everyone else”.
The pressure I felt just listening to this was intense. I got a real sense that the natural survival instinct to block-out feelings of suffering, plus the energy required to keep the mask up, plus the threats and stresses presented by the pandemic anyway, added up to a very real risk of burn-out, and yet it was being repressed, denied and hidden. As one of the group said:
“I want to drop the mask; lose the filter. Something about the expectations on us made me so cross. I just want to not have to be polite about it anymore.”
All this is particularly worrying in the context of a NAHT poll back in November found that almost half of headteachers plan to leave prematurely, over and above the 70% who said that their job satisfaction has fallen in the past year.
If nothing is done to address this, the legacy of this crisis in our schools will be the exodus of many great school leaders. This is why I believe there’s never been a stronger case for the need to ensure that they are properly supported; strategically, operationally and emotionally.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives routinely have facilitated spaces to reflect on their experiences and what they can learn from them for their work. Yet still, even now, many Heads remain under-supported, without the help they need to consider the experience of working in this pandemic context, or the impact of masking their real needs for so long.
That’s why we are now offering free 1:1 Coaching calls to give senior leaders a chance to:
– Talk through and get support with the challenges they’re currently facing
– Reflect on events and the impact they’re having
– Gain clarity about their current situation and plan a way forward
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!