The second session of the Phepha uFunde campaign on the radio focused on anxiety in schools, especially what learners, teachers, parents, and SGB members are currently experiencing during the pandemic. Our learners shared their anxieties around completion of the matric year, as well as the stress they faced as young adolescents caused by the fear of being stigmatized as a result of the testing protocols and the accompanying social consequences. A school leader spoke about dealing with anxiety among teachers, learners and parents, and even the resistance from some of the teachers to implementing changes at the school. 

So what role should our leaders play in dealing with anxiety in our schools? Firstly, we have to recognize that these experiences are real – they are real for each one of them, and we cannot deny it or wish it away. Ms. Mogape mentioned that anxiety was a problem in many of our schools before Covid -19, and the levels of fear and anxiety have been heightened during the crisis. In fact, some would argue that many schools have become “high stress” institutions, and require concerted efforts to support them. 

Secondly, leaders have to engage members of staff, learners, and parents around what they are experiencing at the personal and psycho-social levels. They do this by creating spaces where everyone can feel they are safe and supported, and will be comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. This can take the form check-ins or rituals that are done on a regular basis at school, and do not have to take up too much time. Rituals are activities that have deeper meaning for people and serve to comfort, motivate, and inspire them. 

The third thing leaders have to do when dealing with anxiety at school is to listen. Now, as easy as it may sound, this is sometimes a hard thing for leaders to do. Many times, we don’t really listen – we listen with the intention of replying, or providing an answer, or solving a problem. So while someone is talking, we are already thinking of how we are going to respond.  When dealing with anxiety at school, the leader has to listen in order to learn and understand what colleagues are going through. We call this authentic listening as it gives full attention to the speakers and conveys respect for who they are and what they are saying. Below are four tips to engage in authentic listening when dealing with anxiety at the school:

  • Give full attention when engaging in listening and don’t allow for distractions (phone, computer etc.)
  • Withhold judgement by putting your opinions, thoughts etc, aside. It could cloud your listening and weaken the professional relationship
  • Body language (paralinguistics) is important and be aware of tone of voice, facial expression, posture etc. that may be related to feelings and emotions
  • Don’t interfere or interrupt as it may block the speaker’s train of thought and be interpreted as being disrespectful

When leaders create opportunities for dealing with anxiety at school, it also creates a sense of camaraderie that builds the resilience of the team and motivates the members to do their best despite the uncertainties of the moment. Marilyn described this so well when she said that at their school, it feels like, “We are all in this together.” This speaks to the essential aspects of effective teams, where there is a sense of shared destiny, shared purpose, shared responsibility, and shared support. These characteristics form the bedrock of what we call agency – which is the belief and ability that individuals and teams have to act on a situation and change it. It is very encouraging to see these characteristics displayed in a number of schools during the current crisis, especially in the manner in which they have responded to the pandemic.

Dr. Nako really summed it up well when she mentioned four core principles and practices that leaders must encourage in the school when dealing with anxiety. These are: kindness, warmth, gentleness, and patience. These are relatively simple practices, but they have powerful effects. 

When these principles are put into place and practiced on a daily basis by everyone in the school, they will eventually morph into and become part of the school’s culture. This culture can be described as a culture of care, and it becomes the foundation that underpins and enables effective teaching and learning in the school. A culture of care is also characterized by a sense order and discipline across the whole school – these are necessary pre-conditions for optimal learning. The pandemic, despite its many disruptive setbacks, may also have presented us with an opportunity to introduce or restore a culture of care in our schools – this is a wonderful gift that we can give to our learners. 

So, I would like to close with a statement for our leaders to reflect on as they navigate our schools through the crisis:

“During times of crises, people will always remember how the leader treated them and made them feel…”

Until next week … take care… and be caring.