Coppice Valley Primary School:What I’ve learned about communication and staying connected in a pandemic
This time last year, we had no idea what was to come with the pandemic. Last January, my blog was about new year’s resolutions and our family plan to do something new each month. Well, the first lockdown put an end to that pretty sharply! Still, I’ve been reflecting on the last year and if there are any positive lessons I have learned as a headteacher.
Communication and Connection stand out for me and over the year have become distinct from each other in my approach at school. Communication means transmission of information, letting people know what’s going on. Connection means linking up and interacting with people, making personal contact.
Since the first lockdown and school closure, getting information and guidance from the government has been a source of frustration. Schools find out about closure via the coronavirus news updates at the same time as the rest of the country. Usually, the fine details and many implications of closure are not included in the first draft of the guidance and headteachers are left with many quandaries. I’ve learnt not to react too quickly whenever new rules and guidance are released. There is usually a change or addition in the guidance within a few days as all the snags and omissions are raised so it pays to be cautious at first.
As well as practicing being more patient, I’ve also learned that in a crisis you can’t communicate enough with your community. Lack of information generates fear and resentment towards those keeping you in the dark. In the absence of information from those in authority at the time you need it, there is a vacuum that can be filled with misinformation that can do a lot of damage. Our imagination can go into overdrive when we don’t know what’s going on, especially in such a worrying situation like a pandemic.
With this in mind, I’ve stepped up my communication with our community since March 2020. Even when I didn’t know much in those early days, when I was waiting on information from the government, I would email our families and staff a few times a week with an update saying just that – I don’t know yet but when I do, you’ll be the first to know. This approach was a departure from my pre-pandemic communication style. Personally, and professionally, I’m reserved and I don’t like to be a bother to anyone. I don’t ever want to be that person that when you see their email in your inbox or caller ID on your phone, you think, “Urgh, not you again!”. But I’ve learned that all bets are off in a crisis. Regular communication when fear is at its highest is vital to help people remain calm, hopeful and connected to their community. Over the weeks and months from March to December 2020, we found a new normal in school communication. Several times a week communication has settled into a weekly Friday email that gives a round-up of what’s been happening in school during the week, the latest news and events.
We’ve all seen how isolation affects mental health during the pandemic. Feeling connected to something is essential to remaining optimistic and positive. To help our families feel connected to school and each other, several ideas have evolved over the last year. Teachers began making recorded videos of themselves reading stories to send to their classes , just so they could hear their voice and know they were thinking about them. This developed into sharing videos via our Facebook page so all the school could enjoy them. My amazing deputy, Dan, took this further still, creating Facebook Storytime Live every Thursday at 7pm during school closure and even the summer holidays. Our families send in messages during the broadcast, getting live shout outs, birthday wishes and even an interactive quiz. We even came out of retirement for a Christmas Special! It’s been massively popular, reaching outside of the school community nationally and globally, getting tens of thousands of viewers which tells you just how much people need to feel connected to schools, (as well as the quality of his storytelling of course!). Dan is back with Storytime Live each Thursday at 7pm during this latest lockdown.
I’m fortunate to have lots of talented and dedicated staff who have embraced the need for connectivity. My Early Years Leader, Corrie, is an endless source of creative ideas for videos and my Year 4 teacher, has a degree in film making which I ruthlessly exploit (sorry, not sorry Charlotte!). They’ve made great lesson videos but have really shone for their community connection videos – our Home Alone inspired Christmas film we made with the children and staff was a huge hit, again with tens of thousands of people reached around the world. I’ve got to say, when they pitch an idea that involves us staff being on screen there is a communal staff moan as we all hate seeing ourselves on screen but inevitably, we always step up and do it anyway because the feedback from the families has been so positive. Not for our outstanding on-screen performances that is (far from it for me!), but for how much it’s meant to our children to see their teachers and friends or for parents to get something close to that connection they used to feel when they could come into school to see plays and assemblies. Check out our YouTube channel to see what we’ve been up to.
I think we’ve all seen the same things happening in our family lives too. We’ve being forced to embrace video calls and remote family dinners and quizzes just to stay connected and keep the feeling of isolation at bay. With this latest lockdown and school closure, it feels like we’ve gone back to the start. This time at least though, we have learned our lessons about communication and connection and can go into this next phase of the fight against the virus with all our community interaction cylinders firing from the start.