Show faith in your staff, and support them to trial innovation, writes Laura Kayes
Like my colleagues across the sector, I ended last year fuelled by the vapours of forgotten coffee and the stumbling velocity of an entire sector trying to regain its balance atop a treadmill of pulled rugs.
It was a year that we could have never anticipated. Looking back from a slightly safer distance, I’m struck by the near-constant stress of changing goalposts.
It felt like that funfair attraction when you try to hit a moving target with a football as coarse, atonal music increases in speed and volume.
The fluctuating flow of changeable information from the government was strenuous. Planning for a grand return to the classroom, then adapting to deliver in my living room, was exhausting.
Ending for summer in an eerily empty college felt like a sad contrast to previous
years. Campuses are usually bustling with student celebrations, with people clearing out lockers and promoting proms.
Often your desk will have cards from students you’ve taught for years – this year there was nothing but discarded masks and crusty hand sanitizer.
I left feeling deflated.
So had someone asked me in June if I fancied hiking Ben Nevis this summer I would have had to remove them and their toxic negativity from my life forever. Yet on a camping trip I found myself doing exactly that thanks to the whimsical tendencies of my wayfaring partner.
I learnt a few lessons on that mountain.
Around 5.30am we emerged from the tent bleary-eyed, and approached the base
of the mountain. It was already thronged with hiking groups and I was immediately struck by the huge range of equipment on display.
I considered my own and felt a little apprehensive. I compared myself to everyone around me as we set off. I felt embarrassed as people strode past me. I wondered why everyone around me seemed far less out of breath than I did. I fretted so much about this that I saw very little of my upwards journey.
As fate would have it, we passed a woman resting by the path at my lowest ebb.
She grinned at an unseen hiker behind me and joked about the length of time it had taken her to get there.
A voice shouted back that it was irrelevant, because “the journey belonged to no one but her”. That one sentence sparked a change in me.
Bolstered by the words of a stranger I pondered my internal beration. I thought back to occasions I had pleaded with my learners to be kinder to themselves.
I remembered how viciously they had scolded themselves against perceived criteria that omitted all their strengths. I spent a great deal of time thinking of them as I renewed my stride.
I considered how many arrive at college as apprehensive as I felt at the foot of the mountain. How many feel ill-equipped and vulnerable in ways that aren’t immediately obvious? I made a note to seek out those braving new landscapes.
I recognise that my colleagues are also managing anxiety about the year ahead as uncertainty lingers behind clouded regulations. We have flexed and adapted tirelessly.
We must remember we have developed skills we’ll carry forever, and are better prepared for the unexpected as a result. My experience also reminded me we have the potential to make things a bit easier for our colleagues too, with a helping hand and just a few kind words.
My experience also reminded me we have the potential to make things a bit easier for our colleagues
Finally, my request to management on our return would be to trust your staff this year.
My own management have been exceptional in these trying months. I have had their unfaltering trust in new strategies I wished to try, and a safe space for authentic reflection when those strategies fell apart around me.
The need to succeed with every try can suffocate creativity. So show faith in your staff, and support them to trial innovation.
At the summit of Ben Nevis, the celebratory atmosphere was contagious.
It occurred to me that I didn’t recognise a single one of the climbers around me from our ascent. I had no idea when they had set off, nor did I care. We had paced ourselves.
Pace yourself, this year, too.
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