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Crash and burn: The impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of school principals and teachers

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Mike Russell is the retired head of Bridge House School in the Winelands of the Cape. Prior to that, he was head of Redhill in Morningside, Johannesburg. For a short period, he worked as an education consultant and adult trainer in the publishing world, and he kicked off his career as an English and French teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

It’s perturbing to hear of the stress and burnout school principals and teachers are experiencing as a result of Covid-19. It’s extremely worrying to learn of a noticeable increase in the frequency of teenage depression, suicide ideation and actual attempts by youngsters to end their lives, with the wonderful future ahead of them that only they can’t see.

The government has declared October to be Mental Health Awareness Month, and Sunday, 10 October, was World Mental Health Day. It was also the day of the Cape Town Cycle Tour around the Cape Peninsula.

We went down to the route to cheer on the thousands of colourful cyclists, many of whom shot past in massive pelotons, while others eased on by, some in outlandish costumes. Both sides of the street in our neighbourhood were lined with cheering, clapping spectators, bopping and jiving to the strong beats emanating from a popular local eatery. It was a wonderfully, cheerfully, brilliantly normal day. It filled me with a mixture of longing and optimism that we might, just might, regain some semblance of the life we had prior to March 2019.

Later in the day, however, around lunchtime, for no obvious reason, I slumped into a dark, quiet, withdrawn, irritable and tired state. (Baudelaire would have called it “spleen”.) It happens from time to time. Hormonal, I guess, but I couldn’t help attributing the mood to the relentless but subtle stress we’ve all been under, and how, I suspect, it has impacted on me.

The doldrums passed, thankfully, but it was a reminder that, even as we catch glimpses of that old normality, even as we vaccinate, even as the Covid-19 numbers decline in this particular trough between waves, this prolonged pervasive anxiety hasn’t gone away.

I feel as if I’m noticing more aggression on the roads. People are ridiculously quick to hoot when a traffic light turns green. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many vehicles nonchalantly — aggressively, even — running red lights, or overtaking on the left, or tailgating and bullying other vehicles out of the way as I have in recent weeks. I’m convinced that persistent stress (as well as the seemingly endless examples of disregard for the law by our leaders) is behind this – and I can’t see us reverting to a more considerate road culture if and when we get beyond this period. Bad habits set in quickly.

But that’s a slight digression. In the work I’m currently doing in schools, and in the conversations I have with people on the front line of education, it’s perturbing to learn of the stress and burnout school principals and teachers are experiencing. It’s extremely worrying to learn of a noticeable increase in the frequency of teenage depression, suicide ideation and actual attempts by youngsters to end their lives, with the wonderful future ahead of them that only they can’t see.

It’s like putting a full stop before the end of a sentence, to paraphrase Carl Jung. How, in this murk of anxiousness, do we provide the light of hope and a future worth hanging in for? Certainly not by telling them repeatedly that they’ll never catch up academically.

My question in Mental Health Month, then, is: What is being done in our schools to look after the mental health of their people? Do they have the resources and personnel to provide guidance and help? Are they being reactive or proactive? Are they making time and giving space to address these issues? I believe that should be a priority – and not just in Mental Health Month.

Yet we hear, almost daily, about how we must “make up for lost time”; how we need to complete the syllabus; how we must comply with the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement or the adjusted learning programmes. Our teaching force very nearly lost an already inadequate October break, so as to (somehow) catch up with the syllabus.

Right now, in Mental Health Awareness Month, our Grade 3s, 6s and 9s are tackling what are called “systemics” – diagnostic tests aimed at feeding back useful information to schools on the effectiveness of their teaching. The systemics always bring with them a sense of tension for heads and teachers. It’s easy to feel that these results reflect on them personally and that reputations are at stake. This time around is no different, but it stands to reason that the disruption of the pandemic will have a massive impact on the 2021 cohorts’ results. They are obviously likely to be poorer compared with previous years.

Hopefully, administrators and officials will take this into account and be realistic, understanding and supportive, rather than critical or judgmental about schools’ performances. Principals, though, are nevertheless on edge. They shouldn’t be.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Alison Scott, Executive Principal at Bellavista School in Gauteng, said this:

“If you want to support student mental health and wellbeing, you have to support teacher wellbeing and mental health because they are very inextricably linked.”

I’ve frequently used the metaphor of painting a wall as an introduction to workshops about creating a healthy school culture. If you simply slap new paint on top of a flawed and unready surface, you might get something looking shiny for a while, but it won’t be long before your handiwork flakes and fades. If you don’t spend those background hours filling, sanding and priming, that glossy top coat won’t last and your work will soon come to nought.

It’s the same with people. If we don’t look after underlying health in all its facets, banging on with the syllabus and emphasising results just won’t work. It is utterly vital to get the underlying human stuff in a good state, then worry about content, assessment and achievement.

As Scott suggests, the sense of wellbeing in an organisation flows from the top, so who is looking after school leaders? How long can they continue to put up a brave appearance for the benefit of their staff and students before they burn themselves out? 

If the health of an organisation’s people is looked after, productivity and focus will flow and the measurable results will follow in due course. DM

Mike Russell is the retired head of Bridge House School in the Winelands of the Cape. Prior to that, he was head of Redhill in Morningside, Johannesburg. For a short period, he worked as an education consultant and adult trainer in the publishing world, and he kicked off his career as an English and French teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

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