In the past episode of Phepha uFunde, we focused on the return to school of all educators, including those who have underlying health conditions that may pre-dispose them to the serious effects of COVID -19. A new word that many of us outside of the health system have learned over the past few months is co-morbidities. Prof. Portia Mutevedzi from Wits University aptly described it as the presence of a disease, illness or health condition that makes people more susceptible to becoming severely affected by COVID-19. Prof. Mutevedzi also shared some of the findings of a national survey on educator health related to COVID-19, and noted that many teachers in our country have a high prevalence of co-morbidities. Top among these are hypertension, asthma, and diabetes. Our teachers are a national asset, and we should all be concerned about the status of their health. 

With the return of all teachers to schools this past week, it is expected that levels of concern, anxiety and fear would rise, not only among the returning teachers, but in the school as a whole. One colleague spoke about the inner conflict a teacher with co-morbidities was experiencing between fear of being infected and her commitment to the learners and desire to go back to school. Another spoke about a principal who was wondering about how he could support the returning teachers and other members of staff to do their best under trying circumstances. 

What the pandemic has revealed is something we all know but have not paid enough attention to – that teacher health and well-being is a necessary condition required for improving teacher practice. In other words, it’s not enough to know what and how to teach (this is teaching practice, which is important) – we also need to support the psychosocial needs of our teachers. After all, our teachers are human beings engaged in the professional practice of teaching. 

So what can leaders do at the level of the school to provide the support that teachers require? The principal, SMT and SGB have to focus on creating the enabling conditions within the school to enhance teaching practice. This involves the manner in which the school is organized and run. It includes everything from timetabling, adequate infrastructure and teaching resources, to teamwork and building a school culture that is characterized by care, a sense of belonging, and a common purpose that is connected to improving learning outcomes. The latter part of this leadership responsibility is especially important in dealing with anxiety and stress in the school. 

There are four steps that school leaders can take to create a holding environment of care and support for dealing with anxiety and stress at the school:

  1. The leader has to create a safe space that allows teachers to share their experiences, at the teaching practice as well as the psychosocial levels. The leader does this by building trust among the staff members at the school. 
  2. The leader has to listen to, acknowledge, and recognize the experiences of other team members, of the teachers, and of the support staff. 
  3. The leader has to engage these experiences, and not try to diminish it or deny it, because these experiences are real for those who are sharing it. 
  4. The leader has to encourage everyone to articulate what support they need to move forward, or what they think the next steps may be. 

Now this may be a bit uncomfortable to do, especially when it is new, but when these four steps are taken on a regular basis, especially when engaging with teachers, it allows them to feel heard, to feel respected, and to feel cared for. This serves to encourage teachers to exercise agency or to take action, especially if they feel supported by the leader/s. When this is done well, it will increase motivation and build the resilience of the team. 

In this blog, we focused on the role of the principal, SMT and SGB in creating the enabling conditions within the school to support teaching practice and respond to some of the psychosocial needs of teachers. In one of our future blogs, we’ll focus on the role of leaders in engaging the contextual conditions around the school that also affect school functionality, teaching practice, teacher motivation, and teacher health and well-being. These conditions, which often arise from poverty and social inequality, require a much more comprehensive response that includes but also extends beyond the leadership of the school. 

Until next week … let’s hold our schools and everyone in it together in an environment of care and support.