When we go into schools, the majority of our work is done with the children or young people. We mentor, form relationships and seek to support them. We take assemblies and lessons aimed at them, we run clubs at lunchtime or after school for them. We run prayer spaces and offer creative resources to help them explore their spiritual questions. However, they are not the only ones in school. Teachers, teaching assistants and support staff all form part of the school community, alongside the children or young people, and they, as much as the children, can set the atmosphere in school. If staff don’t feel happy or supported, the whole school can be affected.
What does a school where the staff are supported, challenged and loved actually look like? It is a community that is harmonious, where disputes and discussions are handled swiftly and with care, where staff feel valued and where they can see career progression. It is a place where staff feel they have the time and resources to devote to teaching children to the best of their ability and where they can help students to achieve their potential.
Of course, we as schools’ workers, church staff and volunteers can’t influence the policies, budgets and teaching methodologies of the schools we visit, but there are things that we can do that make a real difference to the way people feel and show that they are valued.
It is good when thinking about a new area of engagement within schools to revisit your strategy. When you seek to support staff, you can be quickly drawn into areas of school life that are worthwhile, but not essentially part of your primary objective. As with all the ideas that are contained in the school pages in this magazine each month, we would encourage you to ask first whether it helps you achieve your objectives in school, or distracts and takes you away from the primary reasons you are there. There are two key questions to start with when thinking about strategy, included below for you. Sometimes, it helps to start with a blank piece of paper, rather than looking at what is already written up and established:
- What is the aim of your work in schools? If your ministry in schools was a journey, what would the destination be?
- How are you going to achieve those aims? Thinking about a journey again, what modes of transport will you use to get to your destination, or what routes will you take? You might want to think about what activities or input best helps you get there.
Once that has been established, you will need to consider other factors, such as who will help you get to your destination, how much time you should give to each separate aim and what the costs will be. Of course, with any strategic planning, we should pray and listen to God, asking him how he wants to use us in schools.
After taking some time to consider why you go into schools and what you are there to do, here are some thoughts on developing your practice to accommodate supporting the staff in school.
Sometimes we are so busy that when we arrive at school we focus solely on what we have come to do and then leave without taking time to see what else is currently going on. Perhaps we can build in a little extra time to our school visits, to pause and observe what’s happening in the school. If we thoughtfully look around, see the expressions and demeanour of the staff and pupils, then we can start to understand how the school is doing and how the staff are feeling. We can then come up with some ideas that might address what problems there might be. But we won’t know if we don’t look!
As we do an assembly, take a lesson or deliver some other input in a school, we should try to talk to the teachers or other staff before or after the session. There might not be the chance to do this every time we visit, but wherever possible, we should build relationships with staff. This often develops naturally if you spend any time in a staff room or wander around the school popping in to see staff in their offices, for example. That way, you can listen to what the school might need that you can provide - filling a gap in after-school provision, mentoring students who are struggling or helping to raise money for something that the school desperately needs but can’t afford.
Even the mere chance to be listened to will be of benefit to staff who might not have the chance to sound off about their concerns. You might not be able to do anything practical, but being a listening ear may be the best thing you can be at that point in time.
There are certain times of year where stress levels are high, both in staff and students. These include the start of the academic year when a new intake of students arrives, while staff and pupils are getting used to new classes, timetables and expectations.
If you have spent much time in a school, you will quickly pick up on the fear of Ofsted! Schools get inspected roughly once every three years, often with very little notice. Even ‘outstanding’ schools will find inspections stressful, as extra pressure is on staff to show the school at its best. If you visit a church school, you may also have come across SIAMS inspections - this is the Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools, and will make sure that a school is meeting the needs of all learners, as Ofsted do, but with a focus also on the Christian ethos of the school.
Another key time of anxiety in school life is around exams, be they SATS, GCSEs, A Levels, or smaller tests that happen throughout the school year. Knowing when these times are can help you provide the right support to staff as well as pupils.
Get to know the office staff
The office staff are vital to the running of the school, but can easily get forgotten. They are the people you see as you arrive at and leave the school, so try to build relationships with them too. They also know much of what is going on, and will know when timetables are changing or special events are taking place. The more you know them, the better your picture of the needs of the school will be and the better you can support these important people.
You’ve watched, listened and become familiar with the school’s particular flashpoints, so what next? Each context is different, but here are some ideas that might be useful in most schools, whether primary, middle or secondary.
Spoil the staff
At times of stress, it can be difficult for staff to find time to eat or take a break. How can you provide good things for teachers when they are short of time? This could be something as simple as arranging to come to school during the exam period with coffee and doughnuts, or putting a tin of chocolates in the staffroom during an Ofsted inspection.
If you work with certain teachers, then a well-timed bunch of flowers or small treat speaks volumes in terms of how much you value them and how closely you’re listening and supporting them.
Be there to listen
As mentioned in the section above, we need to be listening to those who work in schools, and this can become a crucial support to both teaching and support staff. Think about how you can provide emotional support for staff themselves. Perhaps you could take some time to be available for staff to come and meet with you. This could be an informal check-in with staff every now and again or it could be a more regular formal set-up agreed with the head. You don’t need an agenda or to provide answers, but the gift of listening and being a sounding board for staff can be a powerful way of supporting them.
There will probably be at least a few staff in a school who are Christians. Why not offer to run a prayer group for those staff (but available to all) before school starts? Even the busiest of teachers can choose to make this a priority, even if they cannot make it every week.
We can also bless the whole of the staff by giving them an opportunity to be prayed for. This can work in a multi-faith setting by having a prayer box in the staffroom or in school reception, where teachers and support staff can drop a prayer request in there at any time (anonymously if they wish), and you empty the box each week and make a point of praying through the requests either on your own or with others you work with.
You can also encourage staff by leaving encouraging messages in their pigeon holes or cards on their desks.
One schools’ work organisation cooks a meal for the whole staff on their inset or training days at the start of term every year. This is a great way to bless the school staff and make them feel valued, especially if your team go the whole way and act as waiting staff! There are many things to consider, but pull in some volunteers, make sure you can have use of the school kitchen and set this up before the end of the previous term. This goes a long way to helping staff begin the term well.
There are all sorts of creative ways you might go about blessing the staff in your local school. Where will you start?
Amy Tolmie is project director for SchoolsworkUK, part of Youthscape.
Alex Taylor is resources editor of Premier Youth and Children’s Work.