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Written by Amy Sayer

Amy Sayer is an associate, consultant, mental health trainer and content writer. She is a Leading Diversity advisor for the Chartered College of Teaching. She is the author of the book ‘Supporting staff mental health in your school’.

I work with many teachers and school leaders today from a range of settings across the country, and I am often reminded of the fact that they have had such little time to talk about and process any tricky feelings they experienced during the pandemic. It’s almost the elephant in the room. 

The emotional impact of the pandemic for teachers was huge. They were having to quickly navigate  setting up online classrooms, complete risk assessments to enter the building if they were classed as ‘clinically vulnerable’, support key-worker children, alongside trying to manage the general fear and uncertainty around a fatal airborne virus. Many were juggling caring for loved ones and making sure they could provide them with enough practical resources and emotional support whilst also carrying the emotional load of reassuring the children they were working with. Not having access to the usual self-care routines and social support due to the lockdown restrictions meant that there was no respite and recovery time in the way that staff would have needed to support their mental health.

Adapting to teaching ‘live’ lessons from their homes, reassuring worried exam classes about their grades, navigating moving between ‘bubbles’ to teach in a number of different classrooms across huge school sites etc. It all cumulatively increased the emotional load that teachers were expected to carry. 

The feelings of powerlessness and fear caused by the pandemic may have ‘triggered’ really painful and tricky feelings linked to previous traumas in teacher’s lives which may not have been processed at the time. Many school staff found themselves feeling scared, unmanageably anxious, and unable to cope with the demands of school life in the way they had been able to prior to the pandemic. They may have felt ashamed of their feelings and alone because things were going back to ‘normal’ and outwardly they had to spend their emotional capacity reassuring all their anxious and worries students and their families. 

Schools were one of the biggest institutions in society to be the victims of the ‘return-to-normal’ narrative, but the day-to-day reality was far removed from this. Protective masks were removed, the existence of the ongoing threat of COVID was normalised, and protective ‘bubbles’ were removed in an attempt to carry on ‘business as usual’. However, for many school staff, feelings were suppressed in order to function and get back to the jobs they loved. That may have been necessary at the time, but it does not work in the long-term. Many school staff today are finding themselves struggling with anxiety and need support.

Schools need to invest time and money into providing training for schools to ensure that all leaders are aware of how they need to talk to staff who are struggling with their mental health. They need to create a culture where asking for support is not a source of shame or embarrassment, but a strength. They need to look after their staff and give them the same time and support they will have given to others. Staff mental health support systems and services must be put in place to help staff who may be struggling to process the events of the pandemic. Those feelings are completely valid, and they may not be quick or easy to process. 

Staff may have different types of support in their lives, but it is important not to assume or take for granted the support they may or may not have. People may feel too ashamed or vulnerable to talk to their partners or family about how they are feeling, and an appropriate and well-considered conversation from a caring colleague may be the first time they have felt able to talk about how things really are for them. A range of both in-school and external support options needs to be part of a staff mental health policy which is discussed openly so it can be accessed when required. Schools and MATs need to carefully consider how they can invest in telephone or in-person counselling services for staff so they will not have to wait for a number of months accessing NHS services. They need to understand the signs and behaviours of staff who may be struggling with their mental health so that they can pro-actively have supportive and caring conversations. The power of a safe space to be heard and validated cannot be underestimated and it is the least school staff deserve considering how much of an emotional load they have had to carry throughout the pandemic.