“It may be that this emergency will offer the space and time to focus on our interior world”
After a week of self-isolating and not getting any better, this was very much the case for me. When it was confirmed over the phone, by my doctor that I had contracted Covid-19.
The diagnosis didn’t surprise me. For a week I’d felt awful; sore throat, persistent cough, aching limbs, no energy and loss of appetite. By the time my family made the decision to call the doctor, those symptoms had intensified, along with stinging headaches, that seemed to go on for hours and Paracetamol had little effect.
Self-isolating in my bedroom and with no energy to even read a book or watch TV, the only thing I could do was face my own interior world of thoughts and feelings.
My family were worried, particularly my 93 year old mum (who struggled to understand why she couldn’t come over and take care of me) and my eldest son, who despite his best efforts, found it difficult to mask his anxiety and worry.
As I slowly came back to full health ( a process that took slightly over three weeks) I realised that the sense of connectedness that I had with myself and others was a key factor in protecting my mental health. It helped me to retain a sense of hope as my body sought to recover.
The illness meant that I had difficulty talking. Even trying to speak for just a few moments led to bouts of coughing that drained every ounce of energy from of my body. So, with my family I communicated mostly in whispered tones or hand signals; thumbs up ‘yes’, thumbs down ‘no.’ It was much harder though not being able to talk to friends and members of my extended family on the phone.
So, they used other means to communicate with me. In various WhatsApp groups, friends and family members posted both hilarious and uplifting video clips. Some related to the virus, others not.
There was also a flurry of recommendations of things that I should do to assist my recovery. My mum was determined that I should drink numerous cups of Comfrey, a herb that in Jamaica is known as a ‘cure-all’ for its supposed ability to cure all ills. Even at the best of times, Comfrey makes me feel ill, so I haven’t had the heart to tell her that it was not a part of my recovery regime.
Throughout all of this, despite being distanced from my friends and family, I felt connected and supported by people around me who cared.
Acts of Kindness and Compassion
My fears and worries were significantly reduced by simple acts of kindness and compassion. The research evidence is clear, when we feel connected, supported and cared for, our mental health and well-being improves.
In this current time of crisis, all of us in the education profession must not lose sight of this simple fact. Whilst our teachers and school leaders are doing their utmost to take care of their pupils, families and communities, we must do our utmost to take care of them. If not, their mental health will suffer and society in turn will bear the brunt for years to come.
A Lesson of Kinship
It is my belief, that as Marcy Jackson (co-founder of the centre for Courage and Renewal in the US) states, ‘ This pandemic seems to have at its core a lesson of kinship.’ The pandemic has caused us to see just how connected we all are.
For many of us, a first step towards a deeper connection with ourselves and others, will be dependent upon the degree to which we are attuned to our own interior world and our responses to the world’s events.
In this current climate, it can be all too easy to feel weighed down by negative thoughts and emotions. Many of which can lead us to catastrophise the situation. If we find ourselves in this place (and it’s understandable) we simply have to demonstrate self-compassion. What we are going through, what the whole world is going through right now, is not normal! Anxiety, worry and fear are going to be common feelings and emotions shared by us all at this time.
However, a certain amount of emotional and psychological resilience is required, if we are to emerge stronger on the other side of this. We all need to be able to isolate the things that we have no control over and let them go. So that we can focus our energies more wisely on those things that we can control.
We are all living in a liminal space at the moment; a space between what is known and unknown. A space which for many can feel extremely uncomfortable and disconcerted.
Psychologists will tell you that one measure of psychological maturity in adults, is an ability to tolerate the ambiguity created by times of transition.
“Our maturational process is directly linked to the capacity to progressively handle ambiguity, discomforting as it may prove.”
How can we rise to the challenge of this time?
Those of us who care passionately about this sector must consider how individually and collectively, we can demonstrate our care and support for our amazing teachers and school leaders.
To help protect their mental health, I would offer these three suggestions:
1. Be prepared to do your own inner work. The impact of our work will be greatly increased if we have addressed our own anxieties, fears and worries. When our own inner space is clear, we can then create the necessary space (physically, emotionally, mentally and virtually!), for others to share their concerns with us.
2. Be prepared to engage with the questions that arise from within: As is customary for many, living life in the fast lane means that there is rarely time to consider questions that bring us back to our sense of vocation and purpose. If ever there was a more opportune time to engage with these questions, then it is now. This crisis is asking different things of us and the only way we will know how to respond is if we pay attention to these deeper questions.
3. Accept that this is a time of transition: In this new world there are limited certainties and a huge range of unknowns. If we are to succeed in providing adequate emotional and psychological support for our teachers and school leaders, then we need to be comfortable being in this liminal space and finding a point that grounds us from within. If we can find this place in ourselves, we will be more effective in helping others to find it within themselves too.
Support in times of Challenge
As a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, the challenge and complexity of the Headteacher role has grown exponentially.
Every school leader in the country has witnessed an enormous amount of change in terms of what their life, their role and school now look like. Today, like never before many Heads find themselves having to sail previously uncharted waters.
These are unprecedented times, for which there are no rule or guide-books. Everything has changed! As a result, there is understandable anxiety about the current situation we are all in. Feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, isolation and stress are prevalent.
Relationships with families, pupils and staff have changed. The speed of change has been swift, with little or no time for school leaders to make sense of both the here and now and also what the ‘new order’ might bring.
In times like these, we need to be deliberate in pressing the pause button and finding time to reflect. Leaders need safe relational spaces to explore, question and reflect on how events are impacting on them, on others and their school.
It is a time when we can be explicit and openly address the fact that we are all in a time of transition. It is a time that requires open and honest discussion about what this period signifies for us all and with support, find ways through to the other side.
Without such spaces or the proper support, sadly we know that this crisis can prove to be both overwhelming and isolating for those who lead our schools. Leaders also run the risk of emotional ‘burn out’.
When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating, but we also can begin to derive less satisfaction from our lives.
Having been a Head myself and experienced burnout, I know all too well what this feels like and equally what must be done to prevent it!
It is for this reason, that I now offer free “Coaching for the Soul” calls, for Heads who feel that they could benefit from a confidential space that will allow them to:
– Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
– Receive support and encouragement in their current situation
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
– Gain clarity around their thoughts 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!