A headteacher’s pandemic diary

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Clare Campbell writes movingly of life under lockdown in school.

Keeping a diary is always a good thing. But we usually need a carrot (or stick!) to keep up our good intentions. When a friend of mine encouraged me to start a daily diary of my life as a headteacher during 2020, I had no idea that this would essentially detail the spread of a pandemic and the effect it had on my school and its children.  

 Just recording the tiny encounters that I have within my mission as head of a Catholic school has refocused my mind towards my vocation as an educator. I have found great pleasure in looking back on my day and pinpointing the small, wonderful details which give me hope in an increasingly difficult job.  In this article, I have picked out the most poignant moments of a year like no other.

January 2020

As I begin the new year, I have been thinking that when you become a headteacher, your teachers and staff almost become your new class. You worry about them and want to encourage them and love them just as much as a teacher wants to love and encourage the children in their class.  

We have been particularly affected by staff illness and family illness this year and every time a member of staff comes to me with their health concerns, I worry and want to support them as much as I did when I had a sick child in my class. This term, though, has been especially trying , as we have faced cancer treatment, miscarriages, health difficulties and bereavements.  

I try my best to take the pressures off and reduce the workload of my staff when they are facing personal problems, but obviously the children are my main concern, so we are always walking the tightrope of making sure that the children are getting the best possible education and that my staff aren’t overly stressed when they are feeling unwell. I have found a checklist for staff used by the NHS which I have rewritten for teachers to support their mental health and wellbeing:

Going Home Checklist

Take a moment to think about today.

Acknowledge one thing that was difficult in your classroom today and let it go.

Be proud of the care you gave today.

Consider three things that went well.

Check on your colleagues before you leave.  Are they OK?

Are you OK?  Your school family are here to listen to you and support you.

Now switch your attention to home. 

REST AND RECHARGE.

February

Today I had loads of work to do, tons of paperwork; reports to governors, the website to update, and planning for our learning walk with governors and a Religious Education consultant on Monday, so the last thing I needed was interruptions. Famous last words! 

Cue Adam, one of our Special Educational Need pupils with ASD and ADHD kicking off in the hall ripping up all his books. The only thing that seems to calm him down at the moment is our school dog Charley, who is a mini sausage dog. I took Charley to see Adam and he told me that he felt like Charley was his only friend. Bless him. The good news is that he is starting to calm down a lot quicker now. It used to take at least an hour for him to recover after a ‘meltdown’, but now Charley the dog can calm him in a matter of minutes.  

So my quiet day getting work done didn’t turn out the way I planned, as Adam worked with me for the rest of the day, meaning that his work took priority, not mine – but it has been a good day, to see him settle quickly and to see the power of a connection with a therapy dog is beautiful. I will never stop being surprised and delighted by the children that I teach. 

Teaching is a real work of heart (even more than a work of art). You cannot come in to this profession half-heartedly: it is a true vocation.

But for this, teachers also have to be taken care of too. As the education specialist Julie Hasson put it: “Schools can’t become the best places for students to learn and grow unless we make them the best places for teachers to work and grow.” 

March

We are living through an historic moment. For the first time in my memory, we are closing all the schools in the country today, except for the children of key workers. The government announced a list of key workers in the early hours of this morning.  We still have the issue of how to staff them safely and keep everyone safe. There is so much unknown and we are going to have to face this on a day by day basis. 

I have just had a lovely meeting with my senior leadership team who are so together and on board. Whatever happens we want to do the best for our community and help our country face this crisis. Our frontline staff are so important and we will do all we can to help them and support them. We need solidarity at times like this. None of us will know until this is all over whether we did the right things and took the right actions. We will simply know we did our best, and that needs to be enough. 

I have an ancient log book in school from the very first opening of our school. I am going to write my first entry in it, the first entry since 1926, because this is history in the making.    

As Dr Emily M. King has written: “For parents, what we are being asked to do is not humanly possible. There is a reason we are either a working parent, a stay-at-home parent, or a part-time working parent. Working, parenting and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time. It is not hard because you are doing it wrong, it is hard because it’s too much. Do the best you can.”

April

This morning I attended an Easter Sunday Zoom Mass with my parish (which is also my school’s parish). It was so lovely to see the children’s faces and check in with the parishioners, many of whom are elderly and are considered an ‘at risk’ group.  It is such a special way to keep our Church going. The Church is the people, not the building, and this crisis shows that more clearly than ever.  

The first Easter found the disciples scattered and hiding in their homes and unsure of the future.  But the risen Christ found them, despite their failure to remember his promises to them.  Perhaps, in this time of quarantine we too feel like those first disciples; alone, anxious and confused. We must try to be confident this Easter that the risen Christ will find us, giving us the strength to overcome any difficulties we may be facing. 

May

All my colleagues are going the extra mile to care for our pupils remotely. I have been trying to phone all the children in the school who are not attending at the moment. This is no mean feat as we have 233 pupils, but I am working my way through them all and it is such a joy to hear their voices.  

Hearing that they are healthy and safe and telling them that I am thinking of them and caring for them even though we are apart is very special.

The parents have been lovely, they have all asked after me and my family and of course Charley our school dog. We are all fine, but missing everyone like crazy.   

June

Some teach from the lesson plan, but I know that the teachers in my school teach from the heart. I have been in daily contact with my staff and honestly they are all working so hard. I know that teachers are getting a hard time on social media: one headteacher posted a tweet from a ‘friend’ who asked her if she was enjoying her long holiday! I can assure you that this is not a holiday for any educators.  

Schools have remained open this whole time for children of key workers. Teachers who are ‘shielding’ at home are delivering online lessons, contacting vulnerable children and are in touch with their classes and their families daily. They are working to tailor personalized learning remotely on online platforms which they have little or no experience of, and they never stop worrying about their school families. 

I have never felt more respect for my teachers and I have never felt closer to them, even though I haven’t seen some of them in person since the end of March because they are shielding. 

July

This virus is unscrupulous, no one is immune, everyone is at risk and it targets the most vulnerable. Our stay-at-home heroes may not feel like they are doing much to combat this virus, but they are, they are saving lives. Our school is built on nurture and care, and it is so hard to do this remotely, but we are all doing our best.  

August

C.S. Lewis said, “Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.” 

Today I have spent the day playing board games with my own children, cooking with them, doing household jobs with them, gardening with them, watching TV with them and, as the daylight began to fade, we lit a fire in our new fire pit (lock-down panic buy!) and toasted marshmallows. It was a blessed day.

September

I am giving my worries to God. There is no point stressing about scenarios that may never or can never happen. 

I just pray that the Lord looks after us and points us in the right direction with the decisions that we make. Trust is at the core of the next few weeks. I think that my community trusts me to do what is the best thing for them in these difficult circumstances. That trust is so precious to me and I do not take it for granted.  May God help me to stand strong in my decisions and support my children, families and staff as best as I can.

October

Parents were sold the idea that you can judge how good a school is by results alone. Now without any results to go on, they are finding that they have an even better way of judging a school – by the kindness, care, professionalism and dedication that they show to their children and families day in, day out.  

All I have ever wanted was for my school to be a kind school.  

November

Headship can be very lonely, and many people are frightened of being sacked or exposed.  We need to create a structure in which the challenges of a school’s context are recognized and heads can be autonomous.  I pray that we will come out of this more strongly demonstrating that it is love that matters most in education. The relationships, the social connections, the sense of family and community.  

In my city, Salford, as in the rest of the UK, austerity has hit out families hard. Cuts to social care, mental health provision and housing mean that our children are exposed to trauma and this has massive impacts on their mental health, wellbeing and education. Our school closures could risk exacerbating the attainment gap and the economic shockwaves of this pandemic may deepen these inequalities for years to come. 

What we need is a healing curriculum that will help us to build our children and our communities into the society that we want to build – what the theologians call the Kingdom of God here on earth.     

December

This morning a staff member was telling me that she had lost a good friend over the weekend after he had been ill for a long time. The Assistant Head came in and told me that she had lost her aunt early this morning. All I can do is pray with them and for them. It just reminds me that whatever plans I might have had for the day ahead, they can be undone before 9 o’clock in the morning because of big life events which we have no control over. It also reminds me that we always need to treat each other kindly, because we have no idea what might be going on in other people’s lives. 

2020 will be remembered as the year when we all missed somebody, and when we also realised how many ‘missable’ people we have in our lives.  

January 2021

Welcome, 2021! We opened on January 4 at 8am when we were told that schools were safe, only to be closed at 8pm on the very same day. I pray that one good thing to come out of this pandemic is a new found respect for people who keep our society running. That we all think again about the true worth of our beloved key workers. School staff are currently providing them with childcare so that they can save lives. This is our small contribution to our national emergency.  

I hope that when schools do come back, there will be a change of tone for all of us and  that the new world will put children and staff first. I pray for a new way of being.  

My prayer is that teachers will become better trained, better treated and better respected. And above all, be better loved by all in our society.

To all the head teachers, up and down the country, who are working your hardest to ensure your communities are safe, thank you. Your love, dedication and care is heroic.  

To all the teachers working tirelessly to ensure that children are cared for and still feel part of a community while they are accessing their education remotely, well done, you are truly amazing.  

To the teaching assistants, welfare assistants, office staff, support staff in schools, you are the glue that holds us all together and you cannot underestimate your importance throughout this crisis. You are valued so much by your schools.   

To the governors who have worked hard to support head teachers and understand guidance for the safety of your school community, thank you. Your voluntary role is often neglected, you are a very important critical friend.   

I am an optimist by nature and I am encouraged by the knowledge that all of us in education have always risen to the challenges that have faced us. Whatever they may be, we have always done whatever it takes to help our children and families.  We are called now as public servants and in church schools as faith leaders to help with the challenge of a lifetime. It is a call that we have all been made to face head on. 

Nothing beats teaching in person. No amount of online learning, remote learning, zoom meetings, videoed lessons can ever replace the face to face contact with your class and the bond between a child and their teacher and their classmates.

In the words of the author Michael Morpurgo, “It is the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.”

Dear children,

Please know that your teachers are not enjoying this time away from the classroom.  

We think about you.  

We hope you are healthy and safe.  

We miss your stories, we miss your smiles and 

We miss our classrooms with the energy you bring.  

Love from, your teachers.

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2 Replies to “A headteacher’s pandemic diary”

  1. […] of the past year, Dr Clare Campbell, the headteacher at St Charles’ Primary in Salford kept a ‘pandemic diary’ for Adamah Media in which she focuses on the small wins and joys of the past […]

  2. av says:

    i really enjoyed reading this, well written, thank you for the insight into your life!

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