Business as (un)usual: How resilience can help us to cope with the new normal


20th May 2020

We have all been through a tough couple of months since the UK went into lockdown. Whether Covid-19 has directly affected you, or you have been fearing that it will, levels of stress and anxiety have been high across the board. According to the ONS, three quarters of adults Great Britain are still ‘very or somewhat’ worried about the effect of the virus on their lives right now, despite lockdown measures beginning to ease last week. 

For teachers, Covid’s impact has been huge. Days of uncertainty followed by a rapid decision to shut schools altogether left staff reeling. Despite the drastic changes, the sector has, as usual, shown incredible strength and ingenuity in tackling the challenges of the ‘new normal’, with impressive developments ranging from the online curriculum offered by Oak National Academy to schools stepping in to sort out meals for families, while they waited for the government’s voucher system to get up and running.

 While it’s great to celebrate the ability of groups and individuals to rise up and deliver their best in the face of adversity, it is also vital to remember the importance of self-care, at a time when everything has been turned on its head. To find out more about the strategies that can help us cope in difficult times I spoke to Gabrielle Rowles, an expert in resilience, about some of the challenges that schools  serving the most vulnerable pupils are facing and how to manage them.

A: Hi Gabrielle! Would you like to introduce yourself?

G: Hi, my name is Gabrielle Rowles, I’m a history teacher by trade, with 18 years’ experience. Engaging with history has given me (and therefore my classes) a strong commitment to social justice. My favourite mug depicts the Tolpuddle Martyrs, that’s how committed I am!

Throughout my career I have been interested in creating a more level playing field in education. After completing a Masters in Education, focused on Pupil Premium interventions, I was invited to work for the social enterprise Boingboing as their training and education specialist. I now work with schools across the country to help them implement an evidence-based strategy for whole school resilience called the Academic Resilience Approach, which was developed alongside the charity YoungMinds.

The approach enables institutions to apply evidence from research studies and practical examples to create a resilient school community. Adversity is the bread and butter of what we do; our focus is always on beating the odds for vulnerable or disadvantaged pupils and also trying to change those odds.

A: Thanks! What were you working on up to the point when Covid started to have an impact on the UK?

G: Until schools were partially shut, I had been working with 24 primary, secondary and special schools in Hastings, to support them to develop strategies focused on mental health and emotional wellbeing. The work is part of the Hastings Opportunity Area programme and Boingboing’s role is to help schools establish a whole school approach that bolsters learning capacity.

To be honest, the schools in Hastings were operating in a context of adversity before Covid-19 struck. Hastings is a town with incredible community spirit but in 2016, it was ranked 282 out of 324 on the Social Mobility Index, which compares the chances that children from disadvantaged backgrounds will succeed in education and work. The challenges are huge.

The school staff I was working with behaved pretty resiliently when I visited them in the run-up to lockdown, but it’s so easy to be overwhelmed. At the moment adversity feels universal but we know that disadvantaged and low-income groups are feeling it the most.

Adversity is the bread and butter of what we do; our focus is always on beating the odds for vulnerable or disadvantaged pupils. Share on X

With up to 74% of their cohort eligible for free school meals, schools in Hastings already have to be creative, flexible and energetically committed to creating an inclusive learning ethos. In normal circumstances many run food banks from the school premises.

Belonging to a school community, with routines, and with a caring competent adult can be a lifeline for some pupils, but nationally only 5% of children identified as vulnerable are attending schools, and the economic situation will have pushed even more families into dire straits. Having observed how the Hastings schools care for their communities I know they will be working very hard to reach out to the many children who may need them.

A: Do you have any sense of what home schooling is like in the area?

G: Resources are a serious issue. An estimated 700,000 children in the UK have no access to laptops, tablets or desktop computers and cannot access online learning. This will necessarily exacerbate an already unacceptable attainment gap for disadvantaged children.

In addition, schools in Hastings have well above average numbers of pupils with SEND and English as an additional language, making it even harder to create learning resources which can be accessed by a large number of their cohort. Many staff will be concerned that the learning and sense of belonging which they have carefully crafted since September is gradually unspooling and wondering how to mitigate this when pupils return.

Schools in Hastings have well above average numbers of pupils with SEND and English as an additional language, making it even harder to create learning resources which can be accessed by a large number of their cohort Share on X

A: One definition of resilience is ‘positive adaptation to adversity despite serious threats to adaptation or development’. That sounds pretty well suited to our current situation. How can a resilience – focused approach help now?

The Academic Resilience Approach identifies staff as the school’s greatest asset. I‘ve been thinking really hard about the best advice to offer school leaders and staff so they can maintain the resilience needed to support the welfare and learning of their pupils. I advise school leaders to ‘put on their own oxygen masks first’ and foster their own wellbeing. To avoid burn out, staff must be encouraged to temper their expectations of what can be achieved, recognising that this is a crisis.

Senior leaders will enhance resilience if they encourage staff to voice their worries and establish what basics they need to work in these constrained circumstances. This is more effective than bombarding staff with information and directives, and will be vital as more discussion take place about when school will reopen. A resilient school community relies on everyone reaching out to draw others in, creating a strong sense of belonging, noticing and  encouraging each other and taking part in decision-making. Feeling safe is also of paramount importance and leaders need to work with staff to create protocols and procedures for handwashing, ventilation and physical distance combined with social connectedness as pupils return.

A resilient school community relies on everyone reaching out to draw others in, creating a strong sense of belonging, noticing and encouraging each other and taking part in decision-making. Share on X

Feeling resilient depends a lot on relationships, and clear communication with families is also really important. Staff need permission and opportunities to safely nurture their relationships with pupils, through personal connections, video messages and voice recordings, because this fosters learning and also boosts their own motivation. Staff and pupils will be missing the micro-interactions such as a smile or using someone’s name, which aren’t necessarily for a purpose but help people to feel anchored.

A: Trying to focus on the positives is an important motivator for all of us at the moment – what are the silver linings keeping you going right now?

G: A fantastic surprise since the coronavirus outbreak has been the number of ex-pupils who have found ways to contact me to ask if I’m ok and remind me of some embarrassing thing I did when teaching them. I’m taking that as a positive!

I also spoke to a Danish head teacher recently who told me about their experiences, as Denmark is cautiously opening their schools whilst maintaining social distancing measures. Using shorter school days to accommodate smaller classes is having a positive impact there. He told me:

“We knew it anyway, but here it is proven. The children are learning very fast just because they have more attention from their teacher in small groups. This could be an outcome from this crisis – quality counts more than quantity.”

A crucial aspect of resilient thinking is to conserve the positives and hold onto hope. There are many things about our unequal society and its impact on health and education which have gained publicity since the coronavirus forced lockdown on the UK, and we have no idea what the future holds. But there are also opportunities to rethink education, to distil our priorities and reset what we do. This might be our moment of hope. Never waste a good crisis, as Churchill said.

What next?