South Devon College is one of thousands of educational establishments closed due to Covid-19.
In recent weeks, school and college leaders have had to pull out all the stops in order to deal with multiple challenges - to their staff, their curriculum and of course their students. NPQH standards outline the key factors related to ‘Leading with impact’ and the need to ‘Motivate and unite a wide range of people across organisations around visionary or challenging goals’. However, there is little cover about HR Management, despite the fact that around 65-70% of school and college budgets are staffing costs which require financial management and communication skills. Those management capabilities are now in the spotlight more than ever.
Lynn Stephens is the senior head for curriculum, sports, leisure and hospitality industries at South Devon College, and manages a large number of staff. She explains: “we are the third-largest organisation in our area behind the NHS and the Council. As managers, it’s important to remember that our staff are managing groups of learners who are looking at progressing to Higher Education, an Apprenticeship or into the workplace. It’s such an important point in these students’ lives. Now more than ever, it is crucial to support teachers to maintain their high standards, facilitate learning and support the students remotely. This culture of support must start with the leaders in educational organisations and needs to be consistent to be effective.”
One of Lynn’s biggest challenges has been supporting team members who suddenly have to use new tools, or old tools in new ways. Some people work on good laptops and some on hand-me-downs, some are in flatshares or looking after their children so aren’t always available for a last-minute video call meeting. Others who are vibrant in college meetings, become shrinking violets on video conferences, unused to the tech etiquettes of the new online world. Through having developed a culture of continuous development and improvement Lynn was able to implement some quick thinking to address these sorts of challenges and bring people out of their virtual shell.
In uncertainty, focus on one-to-one time
“The team I manage are all teachers in further or higher education, and we are all waiting for confirmation from Ofqual and the awarding bodies as to how students will be able to achieve this year. There is much hearsay and gossip in the student communities about whether they need to carry on working, so my staff are constantly struggling to get the engagement with learners, as well as continuing to prepare, deliver engaging lessons and assess progress for their groups,” Lynn tells us.
Knowing that everyone was feeling anxious about their students and colleagues, she decided to implement regular check-ins with staff members so she could see how they were coping. Some people may not feel comfortable sharing their video or speaking up when the number of attendees is high, so checking in individually is a great place to start. It also offers them the opportunity to raise anxieties or worries that they don’t want the wider team to know.
“From the beginning of the working from home period, we held large MS Teams meetings with numerous members of staff. But some people weren’t as communicative, were reluctant to have their video on, and it’s not a platform that people feel comfortable sharing their anxieties on,” Lynn says.
“So, one day, I decided to come onto the meeting and instead of talk about work, I asked every person to share one good thing that happened to them that week. The contrast was almost unbelievable. People were chatting, jovial, smiling; people who didn’t have video on initially then turned it on. It didn’t matter that the good things were sometimes as small as planting a new type of vegetable in their garden or doing an exercise video with their kids. People were much happier, and happy to talk - so much so that when I had to nip into leave for another meeting, I left them there to continue!”
Members of staff reached out to her after this, thanking her for facilitating stress-relieving conversations with their friends and colleagues. Her adapted management style was working – so on discussion with the HR manager and Principalship they devised a plan for a more holistic cross-organisational plan.
Enable everyone to take a break
At Lynn’s college, they usually host a ‘Fika Friday’ at the end of every half-term. Fika is a Swedish concept that means to have a break - specifically, a break with a baked treat, like a cinnamon bun or a cake. Lynn wanted to see how it would work virtually, where everyone took some time at the end of their typical working day to ‘drop in’ and share a cup of coffee and a bit of cake online - the only rule is, no work chat!
“There were all sorts of different versions of ‘fika’ - some versions even involved beer! - but the nature of it was the same. It was an opportunity for them to feel like a person and not just a college resource. There were lots of genuine, caring conversations happening. It’s trying to recreate that staffroom support network that we've taken for granted.”
“Now we're all working from home, everyone has different challenges - like homeschooling, for instance. Everyone has a story,” Lynn says. “Right now, I see my job as supporting my teams. That’s the most important part of my job. All the data and admin aspects of my role can wait, because if I don't prioritise and support them now, emotionally and mentally, the other stuff won't matter. This is paramount.”
Lynn and her colleagues are very aware of the importance of staff welfare and the need for continual investment in the development of their people - they’re Investors in People Platinum level, the highest accolade offered. Now more than ever, Lynn and her colleagues are putting people first. As things begin to settle down it’s important the government and Ofsted recognise this is an important part of leadership in the world of education.
Lynn Stephens is senior head of curriculum for sports, leisure, and hospitality at South Devon College.
For more articles and insights to help you manage through the current crisis, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.
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