In the week schools are set to open more widely, community reporter Jo Fiddes talks to Sarah Griggs, head teacher of Valley View Community Primary School in Rodley, about the most challenging period of her teaching career.
The day begins…
Sarah is in the difficult position of running her school from home, as her husband Glenn is deemed to be “extremely clinically vulnerable”.
He suffers from Motor-Neurone Disease, and as he uses a breathing machine most of the time, to contract Coronavirus would have very serious implications. To protect him, the family are all shielding at home.
As a very “hands on” leader, Sarah has found this hard, but has mastered new technologies such as Zoom to ensure things are running smoothly.
Valley View has remained open for children of key workers and those children deemed to be vulnerable, and this week staff are preparing to welcome back children from Year 6.
Daily communication with staff who are in school, and checking that everything is running smoothly, is followed by answering any emails/queries that have come in overnight… as well as reading the latest (and frequently changing) government guidance on the safe opening of schools. She says:
“Keeping up with the guidance has been a full-time job in itself. It has changed countless times so far, often at very short notice, late at night.”
Sarah describes the day when lockdown and school closures was announced.
“When schools were initially closed, I received a phone call from a parent asking if her child could still come to school. At the time I was sitting in my office at school watching the announcement from the government on my phone. It was impossible to respond accurately as this was the first that we headteachers had heard about it.”
The day unfolds…
Whilst no day is “typical” Sarah usually has at least one Zoom meeting a day – often more.
One day was spent from 8am until 5.45pm just on Zoom calls – seven in total. This could be staff meetings, a senior leadership meeting, or a discussion with local head teacher colleagues to share their interpretations of the government guidance and how it applies to their particular setting.
Sarah still wears her “work tops” and is therefore ready if she has an online meeting, but like many of us she has been living in jeans for the last few months.
She explains how strange this can be, as getting out of her work clothes at the end of a long day has always been a signal to turn off and relax.
Keeping parents and carers informed with regular communications, alongside filming assemblies for children to watch online are also regular jobs from home.
Having created a school with family at its heart, it is particularly difficult to look out for every individual when contact is no longer face to face. Sarah says:
“Our school ethos is absolutely fundamental to Valley View. It is very frustrating not to be able to see people in the flesh. My job is 100% people, and I rely on seeing expressions and being able to read what adults and children need in order to support them.
“Seeing people across a screen makes this so much harder and more cumbersome. But we are working through it and finding solutions.
“I’m dealing with new issues and situations every day – this has certainly been the most challenging and stressful period of my teaching career.
“I want to do the best for children, families and staff, but ultimately safety comes first so we are taking a cautious approach to re-opening more widely.
“I’m really missing face to face interactions with the children. It’s those moments of joy witnessing children who’ve done something fabulous that makes this such a uniquely wonderful job. At the moment it seems to be all health and safety legislation and paper work, which is hard.”
Both her daughters, Alice and Elsie, along with Alice’s boyfriend Dylan, are also working from home – so desk space is at a premium and any internet issues can cause tempers to fray!
Sarah often ends up working in her bedroom so any delicate conversations can remain confidential. She added:
“Looking back, I had the idea that home working might be a bit more chilled and relaxing than a usual day in school, but it’s been quite the opposite.
“I have been working at an incredible pace and intensity, and making very difficult and stressful decisions. I miss the commute home when I would usually reflect on the day and move from the work world to the home world. Now it all blends into one.
“The one exception has been lunchtimes. Anyone who works in a school will know the idea of a “lunch break” is a myth. However, as a family we now sit and share lunch together, which has been a real, albeit brief, point of calm and sanity in the middle of the day.”
The day ends…
The laptop goes away when the day’s work is done but if no-one is watching Sarah switches to e-mailing on her phone, Trying to switch off has become even more difficult during the pandemic, as what’s happening in the community and country affects what she will need to do in school.
There is a daily dilemma of whether or not to watch the Government’s daily briefing. To watch means being more prepared for the implications on school leadership; to not watch is to be a little more protected from the devastating statistics.
To balance the very sedentary work style at the moment, Sarah has managed to go out for a run every day. Usually walking around school seeing children and developing teaching and learning would use up 5,000 – 6,000 steps per day.
During lockdown, Sarah’s Fitbit has kept her informed of just how few steps are managed when sitting accessing a laptop.
Some time trying to switch off with some family TV time is usually how the day ends, and time to address any care needs for her husband. The intention is often to read a book, but usually sleep takes over!
“This whole experience has been tremendously difficult, but what keeps me going are two things.
“Firstly the trust I have in all the Valley View team who are there, where I should be, working face to face with children and parents. All the staff have been working so hard in the most testing times we have known, and continue to do amazing work for our children and families. Knowing Claire Griffiths, my wonderful Deputy Head can be there in the building when I can’t be means that I know the school is in very safe hands.
“Secondly the thought of returning properly to a job I love, and reuniting in person with my school family as soon as it is safe for me to do so. I really can’t wait to see them all.
“There have been tears already and there will no doubt be more to come…”
You can find out more about Motor-Neurone Disease and make a donation by following this link.
Read more in Jo Fiddes’ ‘Day in the Life’ series during lockdown here.
Sarah Griggs was doing a marvellous job at Valley View up to my youngest son leaving 2009 and I’m thrilled to hear she is still with them.