Kat Howard is Founder of Litdrive, the wonderful platform that Mary Hind-Portley so kindly lent her to write this blog for you. She is an Assistant Principal at Duston School, Northampton, and really wants to help teachers to stay in this amazing profession. Her first book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing: A Pragmatic Approach to Teacher Workload is available to pre-order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-Talking-About-Wellbeing-Howard/dp/1912906481

Through the midst of these crushing whirlpools the little mermaid was obliged to pass, to reach the dominions of the sea witch; and also for a long distance the only road lay right across a quantity of warm, bubbling mire, called by the witch her turfmoor. Beyond this stood her house, in the centre of a strange forest, in which all the trees and flowers were polypi, half animals and half plants; they looked like serpents with a hundred heads growing out of the ground. The branches were long slimy arms, with fingers like flexible worms, moving limb after limb from the root to the top. All that could be reached in the sea they seized upon, and held fast, so that it never escaped from their clutches. 

Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson

The polypi are perhaps one of the most terrifying of characters, because they represent what we could become; they are not monsters, or supernatural beings, but simply echoes of human beings, withered to a shadowing version of their previous selves. We all have the potential to be one, which is what makes the existence of the sea witch’s garden so harrowing; they are a reflection of us, at our most tired, our least 

They are not weak, or vacuous, or repulsive, but just a result of what it means for someone to sap all the energy, life and purpose from someone, and leave them with nothing but the shreds of themselves to attempt to function. And when I think about toxic schools, and teacher burnout, I return to this passage, and that image over and over. 

Jesus Christ Kat, it’s new year! Why haven’t you written a ‘top ten back to school resolutions’ blog? Because it wouldn’t be honest, or true, or holding up nonsensical practice to the scrutiny it deserves. Because teachers going back into schools next week have sent me anxious, self-doubting messages about the anxiety they are already suffering at the idea of going back into school, and because I know what that feels like, to drive into work, rehearsing conversations or mentally preparing yourself for situations that have kept you awake the night before. I wonder sometimes what the right thing is to say, or if I can even say the right thing. If the narrative that ‘it’s just teaching’ is one with some validity, and one that we should settle in with, because our workload isn’t going anywhere. If those chanting, ‘think of the holidays!’ have a point, or actually, we would like to enjoy the other 39 weeks of the year as well, thank you very much.

I don’t have all the answers. I can only share my experiences, and the mistakes I have made, and the lessons I have learned. And from that, I’ve managed to figure out a few ways to dodge that garden, for now at least.

We need to support one another. 

There are so many incredible, kind, generous people in my circle, and most of them are teachers. Sometimes, only a teacher will get it- as I have found on numerous occasions when talking to my non-teaching partner about work!- but beyond the people that you surround yourself with, there must be a professional facet to your support network. We need to work for people who care about us deeply, and we need to care about those that work for us. To understand that work is not the first time, and nor should it be. That we already manage to pick out all the things we managed to get wrong that day, that lesson, and sometimes a compassionately critical conversation may be hard, and honest, but it is exactly what we need to move forward. That we work better when there’s a safety net provided by those that perhaps in other workplaces, we would have once been afraid of. Support for colleagues must move beyond impromptu chocolate gifts (still appreciated) and a smile in the corridor; we need meaningful relationships with people to know that they have our back. 

We need to work collaboratively

Those on Twitter know the power and instantaneous nature of Twitter, but it can at times be a limited slither of the profession as a whole. Alongside social media, I have learned so much from getting out into local schools as a result of seeing their work online, and through these conversations, have always gone away with not only a great deal of food for thought, but a new sprig to my network for when I have questions, or ideas that I want to roll around with someone. It is these conversations that I find so valuable, and have been known to jot stuff down afterwards, for fear of floating about. Litdrive is of course another example of collaboration in action; earlier in the year at ResearchEd Northampton, I was so delighted to be approached by teachers who had not only used resources, but adapted, improved or taken ideas away from our CPD events which had consequently shifted their practice. As a learning profession, we are humble enough to know that there isn’t an endpoint; if we are standing still, it is either to pause for thought, or to see who is nearby. 

We need to seek out those getting it right

I am a firm believer that for the small minority of schools struggling to maintain a standard of treatment for staff or students, there is an abundance of schools doing phenomenal work to move forward, getting better with every year because they reflect, collaborate, move forward, and move forward together. Sometimes it is complex to find those schools, and this is yet another reason that collaboration is vital to the profession’s improvement. When I wrote #StopTalkingAboutWellbeing, my biggest worry was to ensure that teachers knew it wasn’t solely down to them to improve the conditions of schools. Wellbeing is just the end result of decent policies, thoughtful strategic planning but above all, people that share a sense of purpose and know that it will only be achieved if they support one another. 

You see, the polyps got it wrong: the sea witch was never the threat. She was just a broken system, a disappointment, but not without tenacity at least, right? I like to think even Ursula had it in here to sit across a table, put her jealousy to one side, stop the toad from eating out of her mouth and listen to the polyps talk through solutions. Ok, probably not, and we are an extended metaphor too far. But when all is said and done, we’re not quite at polyp status, and our leadership teams are not sea witches. No one sets out to do a poor job. No one drives into work to create polyps. And so, if we are to change the narrative, we have to start by looking around at the schools that are full to the rafters with staff, and ask them the questions that we haven’t managed to figure out answers to just yet.