Back when my wife and I lived in Ethiopia we took our 4X4 Lada Niva out on an adventure to the Bale mountains. We broke down in perhaps the most inconvenient place imaginable to break down. The nearest city was miles away and for a week we found ourselves stranded in a one café village.
Lots of people tried to help but nothing worked. We became so desperate that at one point we almost allowed an ancient Landcruiser to tow our Niva onto the edge of a small ravine so a rickety bridge made of splintered wooden planks could be used to move our car onto the back of a truck.
With images of our car dropping twenty feet into a ditch and being smashed into pieces, at the last minute I halted what, with hindsight, was a plan we should never even have considered.
Years on, Amber and I can laugh about this, but at the time it wasn’t funny. It was stressful because we just didn’t know what to do, and the stress of not knowing what to do led us to consider crazy things we wouldn’t have otherwise even thought of.
Not knowing what to do is stressful. This is why starting as a teacher, starting a promoted role or even moving schools is difficult.
Whatever a person’s role, working in a school is indescribably complex, with large numbers of decisions having to be made each hour. Having to think individually about each decision is exhausting and so, as time goes by and we become more experienced, we automate some of these decisions and so free up working memory to think about other stuff; before we know what to do we need to work it out.
For example, when we know the system by which we get photocopying done, we might send off an email without thinking. Before we know the right person to email we have to spend time finding out who the right person is, how the request should be formatted and perhaps even making do without, which then causes knock on complexities later in the day.
Similarly, not understanding a school’s behaviour policy can also cause a great deal of stress. For example we may know children are not allowed phones out in school and needed to be confiscated if they are seen. However, we may not know what to do if the child refuses to hand the phone over and walks away from us. If we know what to do in this situation – for example emailing a centralised on call system to pick up the child later – we are unlikely to be unduly stressed by it, but if we don’t we may end up arguing with the child or even following them around the playground in a sort of undignified game of cops and robbers.
Some contexts are easier than others. When there are simple, clear systems and procedures followed by everyone then it doesn’t take very long before we find ourselves automating our decisions and can begin to think more strategically. When there aren’t clear systems, or worse when there are on paper but nobody actually follows them it takes far, far longer. When things are most chaotic the best that can ever be achieved might be our own individualised procedures and systems which have to be continually reiterated to pupils who experience different systems elsewhere.
It is important SLTs prioritise the development and maintenance of these clear and simple systems. Without these all staff will find themselves wasting too much time in making knee-jerk reactive decisions, dealing with the repercussions of these and then becoming frazzled. It is also well worth remembering anxiety and stress make bad decisions much more likely and can, on occasion, contribute to unprofessional behaviour. In chaotic contexts the best achieved by many teachers will be day-to-day survival, making proper strategic decision making impossible. CLT is useful here – as an SLT member would you rather your teachers are thinking about curriculum, teaching and learning, or what they should do if a child is found truant during lesson time?
Staff lucky enough to work in a context in which there are strong, clear systems should learn and use them. Often the cause of stress is just not knowing what to do, and the best way to avoid becoming stressed is just to find out.
This is probably as true of life in general as it true of schools. My wife and I, after a week of worry, resolved our car issue by just phoning an Ethiopian friend who immediately told us we just needed to hire a mechanic from the capital city where we lived, who would travel down to us, fix the car, then drive it back for us when the work was done. Apparently it happened all the time and there was a clear system for it.
Looking back it seems so obvious. The reason it wasn’t was we were so stressed about not knowing what to do we weren’t thinking straight.