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Leading in uncertain times – managing the COVID-19 response as a headteacher

Janet Sheriff smiling at a woman who's back is to the camera

Janet Sheriff has been a teacher for over 30 years, holding the post of headteacher at Prince Henry’s Grammar School for the last 10 years. She reflects on what it's been like to manage her school's response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Like all schools, mine is a close community of students, teachers and associate staff. When schools closed ‘until further notice’, we suddenly entered previously unknown territory of distance learning and home working.

In the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in, one of the first major challenges was identifying what needed to be done, and how:

  • What platform should we use for distance learning?
  • What are our expectations of staff in setting distance learning tasks and giving feedback – what is acceptable, what will overload?
  • What are our expectations of students in completing distance learning tasks – what is acceptable, what will overload?
  • How will we continue to provide pastoral support for our students?

Getting the balance right is crucial to minimise gaps in learning whilst also supporting staff and students’ wellbeing by avoiding undue stress and anxiety. In addition, like all schools, we needed to establish how to best support the vulnerable students and children of critical workers. Alongside all of this was the need for regular communication with parents, students and staff to update them as our plans evolved. In the last few weeks, I must have written more (very carefully drafted) letters to parents and emails to staff, than in the rest of the year put together.

Good support networks are vital

In order to cope, as headteacher and CEO, I’ve had to learn to be more self-disciplined. The first few weeks were extremely difficult. Normal routines were out the window and with so many decisions to be made, new procedures to be developed and carefully worded communications to be delivered, my work was non-stop. I realised I couldn’t continue at this rate as I was in serious risk of total burn out. I had to return to some of my normal routines. So, I re-established the weekend, stopped looking at emails after 6pm and created a ‘hub’ for school provision with local schools to share headteacher responsibility.  Sharing the load in times like these is my top tip for all headteachers. Don’t try and do it in isolation.

I couldn’t have got through this period without my support networks. First and foremost, my exceptional senior leadership team, who have been there for each other every hour of every day. Each member of the team had their own areas of responsibility, but each shared their plans with the rest of the team in order to refine and improve them. This way no one felt they were on their own in finding solutions to these new challenges.

My whole school team have been amazing, and they all really appreciate the important role they play in supporting young people and families in these strange times. They know that they are indeed critical workers and they have risen to the moment. I’ve learnt that all members of my team, no matter what the challenges, have a real sense of duty – and will always try their best to do whatever needs to be done to support students and colleagues in our school.

WhatsApp group chats have been a lifeline. I keep in constant contact with my headteacher networks, both for coordination, advice, and updates, as well as the emotional support that’s invaluable in times like these. One group, full of headteachers from the seven primary schools in our area, has become a platform for alerting each other of latest announcements, sharing approaches and, where appropriate, ensuring our response is consistent across our local community. We also use it as somewhere to let off steam when the frustrations and challenges become too much! This group was the first of my new virtual meeting schedule, but others followed. It’s so incredibly valuable to hear how other headteachers are tackling the same challenges, to share ideas and just be reassured that you’re not alone.

Looking ahead

As discussion turns more and more to the daunting task of re-opening schools, I will be using lessons learnt from the past two and a half months to inform my approach:

  • Keep regular communication with parents, staff, and students to explain our decisions and update them on any new information.
  • Continue to share ideas with fellow headteachers and keep those networks strong.
  • Involve my leadership team in draft planning in advance – considering possible scenarios and various responses.
  • Establish structures to gather feedback from stakeholders and set up regular reviews of our approach.
  • Be prepared to change or adapt as we continue to learn from this new experience.


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