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Three practical steps for school leaders and teams to help process 2020

This year has been nothing short of extraordinary for all Australian school leaders, teams and school communities. It has required an extraordinary level of resilience and energy.

It probably comes as no surprise that staff wellbeing is one of the priority topics rising across the national education landscape: with each school community having had its own unique experience, and each staff member of your team having had their own unique experience.

As we roll into the conclusion of this year, there is a national and shared fatigue across education. One thing is certain though, Australian educators and school leaders have demonstrated a profound and extremely deep capacity for resilience, coping and empathy.

As we reach the final stages of the year it’s important for teams to undertake some practical steps and processes to help punctuate 2020 in a strengths-based, positive and considered way.

It is also important to consider the toll a crisis or event can take on a school team and activate strategies and supports to assist with the recovery and growth post these experiences. Over the coming weeks, it’s critical for leaders and teams to rebalance, recalibrate and recover.

This is one of the most critical times of the year to take stock, anchor, ground and balance.

This means processing the experiences of the year, processing the impacts, processing the disruptions, and ensuring we celebrate the gains and the incredible, sometimes less apparent, achievements.

Most educators would be aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for humans. One of the highest priority needs is the need for safety, connection and belonging.

People want to experience order, predictability and control in their lives. All humans require emotional security, financial security, social stability, and stability of health and wellbeing in order to function and perform.

These needs can be fulfilled by a range of things; predictable and habitual routines every day, clear roles and clarity of priorities, positive relationships, clear and frequent communication, and opportunities to be positive and reflective.

This article highlights some key steps and practices that your leadership group and whole school team might consider undertaking before the end of the year.

Step 1. Privileging the opportunity for reflection before the end of the school year

After school communities have been impacted by an event, be it short term or prolonged, it’s important to go through an articulated and guided stage of reflection.

This allows teams and more importantly individuals the chance to explore their experience and sit with it. It also allows teams to recalibrate, re-energise, rebalance, and re-focus on the future.

Leaders shouldn’t underestimate the power and the importance of these opportunities. It allows teams to breathe out, pause, and breathe in with new oxygen.

This should be architected and not accidental. This should be privileged as a priority step to conclude the year.

Internationally, across many disciplines, the process of reflective practice is used to help teams process experiences, create language around that experience, and offset the accumulation of stress caused by the event. It lays the foundations of healing and the ability to move forward in a resilient and optimistic way. These principles apply to any event or impact including, grief and loss, natural disasters, and in response to COVID 19.

Going through a process of reflection supports teams to create a helpful and shared narrative. Leaning into what happened and allowing them to move forward, both in culture and in performance. Otherwise, it is possible that the experience is left “undone” and may have longer term residual effects on your team. Some might say it aligns to the “pay now (by reflecting and processing) or pay later” principle.

Essentially, pay attention now to staff wellbeing, recovery, and resilience, or you will pay attention later.

This is a prevention and early intervention strategy. It can be done with individuals, leadership groups, across teams, and for your whole school staff.

Recommendation 1:
Create an opportunity for shared reflection for your entire staff. It’s best to do this in small teams and share back to the entire group. If possible get an independent facilitator to help guide this group reflection in a safe and contained way.

  • Ask focus questions such as: What has been your experience of 2020 professionally?
  • What have you learnt about yourself?
  • What have you discovered about your team?

Please remember: If individual members of the team feel too raw to share its critical they are provided with an opportunity for an individual reflection through EAP or an independent counsellor.

Step 2. Celebrate the achievements of 2020
It seems simple and obvious, however it’s often forgotten and it is probably the most important step of the recovery and healing process. This step doesn’t need great explanation. It’s simply allowing leaders and teams the space to consider what has happened, what we can take away, how we can grow, and a chance to reframe a potentially negative narrative into a positive and optimistic one.

It is this step that separates teams and organisations from post-trauma slump to post-trauma growth.

Recommendation 2:
Spend an entire staff meeting exploring the following focus questions.

  • What are you proud of this year?
  • What has helped us get here?
  • What made things easier?
  • What did we learn about our organisation as a whole?
  • What do we need to go forward in 2021?

Step 3. Consider the VUCA antidote and do a team-wide SWOT analysis for 2021
After a reflection and achievements opportunity has been afforded to teams it’s OK to look to 2021 and optimistically frame the future.

It’s often helpful to do a SWOT analysis. This requires the understanding of VUCA environments and the concepts of SWOT.

Typically, ‘VUCA’ is a military term. It refers to ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous’ environments. This has over the years evolved to apply to business and large sectors. VUCA describes perfectly what many Australian schools have experienced in 2020.

Harvard business school and the global leadership community view the solution to VUCA environments as Vision, Understanding, Courage and Adaptability.

Vision: Leaders and teams need the ability to see through the chaos to have a clear vision for their organisation and team. This vision however needs to be shorter and sharper than at other times. Therefore, only look to the next three to six months. Avoid looking or planning too far into the future.

Looking too far ahead can not only overwhelm people it can reduce your school’s ability to remain adaptive, fluid and malleable which is important right now.

Understanding: With a shortened and clear vision in hand, school leaders and teams need in-depth understanding of their capabilities and strengths. This helps to take advantage of rapidly changing circumstances by playing to their strengths and minimising their weaknesses.

If there is one thing that I have learnt in my time in education and now mental health, it is that nothing is more important than relationships and communication. There is no greater capital in a school community than the social capital.

Courage: School leaders need the courage to step up to challenges and make decisions that may feel risky or out of the norm. Prioritise people, prioritise safety, prioritise wellbeing, prioritise engagement and communication. Everything else will fall into place once these are back in place.

Leaders need to be bold and have a good sense of the “temperature or pulse” of their school. They need to be visible and cannot afford to be avoidant or passive.

Adaptability: If ever there were a need for leaders to be flexible in adapting to this rapidly changing environment, this is it. Long-view plans that we set for 2020 probably became obsolete halfway through the year. Leaders and teams need flexible tactics required for rapid and sometimes urgent adaptation.

You cannot trauma-proof your school no matter how well you lead or no matter how many protective qualities your school community holds. Trauma and incidents strike out of nowhere like lightning, throwing up clouds of confusion, dust and debris, and it’s very tempting to, as a school principal and team, to be reactionary.

A golden rule in the response phase is to slow down. Take time in the most acute window of trauma to stop and be considered about how you are about to respond.

When it comes to communication during this period the following has to be highlighted. Communicate often and in various ways. High repetition, high frequency, in a variety of modes. This helps keep people feeling informed, safe, contained clear, and moving with you as a leader. You can’t “over” communicate at this point.

If possible allow your team to explore and undertake a SWOT analysis during a meeting before the conclusion of the year. It’s also ok to do this at the beginning of 2021. Please note the reflection and achievements opportunities MUST precede this. Otherwise you have not processed the experience and you are just barrelling forward, and again, you will see the effects potentially later.

A facilitated SWOT analysis (activity) brings out all shared views, perspectives, and enhances understanding and collaboration. It’s not complex, and it can be incredibly revealing.

Recommendation 3:
Simply spend 60-90 minutes exploring the “SWOT” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) for 2021.

Perhaps do this again in small team groups and share common themes back to the entire theme. This helps plan for 2021 and reveals the things that staff, students and families need to thrive in 2021.

Thank you Australian educators
Headspace would like to thank all of the Australian teachers, school leaders and staff for your hard work in 2020. Thank you for everything you do to take care of the 4 million children and young people that you educate, and please don’t forget it’s just as important to take care of you.

Thank you for the work you do in improving the mental health and wellbeing of so many Australians, both right now and for the future. Our gratitude for educators is so deep and full of so much respect and appreciation.

Kristen Douglas is the Head of headspace in Schools, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. Her focus is the synergy between education and mental health, combining her experience as an educator and principal, with her passion and experience in education and mental health and wellbeing.
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  1. Thankyou very much for this article. It has come at a good time as we see the year out. It has given me a framework to work with staff and somehow bring closure to the year that it has been at the same time looking forward. I am very proud of our organisation, our teachers, our students , our parents and our local community.

  2. Thanks Kristen. This is sound advice for reflection as 2020 comes to a close. Many of us have learned a lot about ourselves, our colleagues and our organisation. In what seems the longest year ever, we have grown in so many ways and come through ready for the next challenge.

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