Nell Nicholson is the Head Teacher of Gloucester House, the Tavistock Children’s Day Unit and Outreach Service. She talks about the challenge of leading a school during coronavirus, the pros and the cons for teachers, children and parents and the moment of re-opening the school.
Hello, my name is Nell Nicholson, I’m the Head Teacher of Gloucester House, the Tavistock Children’s Day Unit and Outreach Service. We are a specialist provision, a therapeutic school operating across education and mental health to meet the social, emotional and mental health needs of children and their families and networks around children. I’m just going to talk a little bit about the journey that we’ve been on during the time of coronavirus. Like all other schools and services we’ve had to adapt our practice and work. At the end of March as the numbers of coronavirus cases climbed we had to think on our feet, think fast and listen carefully to lots of people’s very strong views and feelings and find a balanced response taking into account the needs of families, children and our staff. Protocols for off-site contact needed to be written and a whole online way of working implemented and adapted to. It was a time to keep our heads and a time in which the role of leader has felt extraordinarily important, easy to be swayed but essential to stay balanced and thoughtful with all the competing demands on time and emotions. Self-caring and kindness must be applied at this time, compassion, starting with oneself.
Staff and families did really well rising to the challenge. We closed the on-site school two weeks before the Easter holidays and started our online service with immediate effect. This continued through the holidays. After Easter, as the peak in London declined, we opened our doors again for face to face work, we held a zoom meeting with parents and found many of them preferring to continue with the online provision. We are now operating a hybrid service with some children in school and some children at home and the staff on a rotation across the two aspects of the service. We’ve given parents, children and staff opportunities to let us know how they doing. It has been a singularly challenging time but, interestingly, some benefits too. Here are some comments from staff about the pros and the cons;
- it feels never-ending
- it can be difficult to find a quiet room at home
- I’m proud and impressed with how we have adapted
- I’ve found that that we are working more as a team with the parents and carers
- it can be hard to connect online
- time can feel disjointed
- It’s hard to observe social distancing when I’m in school
- I’ve learnt to be more of a leader and have greater confidence in my ability
Last week on television I found it difficult seeing children walking apprehensively into school playgrounds to be greeted by staff in full PPE, ready to take their temperature. This was the official reopening of schools. I wonder what memories these sorts of experiences will tattoo on the minds of the next generation. I think of the moment when we reopened our doors after the Easter holidays, some children coming in baulking against the bright light because they been shut in a dark room with their computers and others putting measuring tape to ensure we kept two metres away and a poignant moment with the teacher sitting on a bench in the playground with a child on the other side, she’d asked him to move up the bench to try to maintain physical distance and he had taken himself to the other side of the space unable to manage or understand not being able to sit close to his teacher.
For those just opening their doors it is worth remembering that the thought of it is much more daunting than the actuality. Most of our staff were apprehensive to come back to the face-to-face, but now are all saying it’s the part of the work they’re preferring. For Heads trying to manage the anxiety of the staff, parents and children and make balanced decisions about how to work in everyone’s best interest is a major career challenge. Listening to the demands, expectations and guidance from government and stakeholders and evaluating before acting, exhausting.
It can sometimes feel as if our work and dedication goes unrecognised but the rewards can come not always from external validation but from the work itself. Little moments and comments from appreciative parents and carers, joyful interactions with children and young people and seeing staff adapting in innovative and creative ways, dedicated to the cause of education and care for the nation’s children. I’ve really enjoyed going to Heads’ briefing and other meetings with other staff and seeing how we are all adapting I think we should as a profession be really proud of ourselves.