Last week, I have been reflecting on the turning of the seasons, prompted no doubt by a change in the weather, but also by re-reading ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats, a poem I have been exploring as part of my Brighton Odyssey series of virtual taster lessons. The poem captures perfectly the duality of this season: the sense of anticipation as harvest approaches (as the sun and season ‘conspire’ to ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’); the drowsiness that overwhelms us (in the ‘last oozings hours by hours’); and even the sense of loss (‘Where are the songs of spring?’). The feeling of melancholy that pervades the poem is well known to us all and, today, goes under a variety of names. University students will come to know it as the ‘third week blues’, others may suffer more acutely and recognise symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. However you label it, having spoken to a number of staff and students this week, it is clear that week three of the Autumn Term is living up to its reputation. Tiredness is setting in – and could it be that the start-of-term sensory overload has been more marked this year, coming after months of learning in the relative tranquillity of the bedroom or study? I’m sure this has been a factor.
However, there is something making our students smile – and it’s connected to the feeling of togetherness; to the huge oxytocin boost generated by their bubble existence; and the comfort of being surrounded by peers. Like all schools, we are taking a proactive approach to wellbeing, through assemblies, form times, and activities, but most important for me are creative ways we are finding to nurture the sense of community.
The whole school tuned into the Guild hustings on Monday as we heard representatives from each year group advocate their chosen charity: the individuals involved were articulate, and passionate about their charities, but it was the whole school coming together that made it so special. Elsewhere, it has been a pleasure speaking to new Year 11 prefects, and hearing their ideas for ways to connect with other year groups; and thank you to all the parent reps for joining the first ever virtual PTFA meeting last night. It was heartening to see your determination to keep the community going – there was a lively discussion about online raffles, about how best to fundraise during a pandemic, and an optimism that the coffee mornings and second-hand uniform sales will resume at the Prep before long – and they will.
As I mentioned in my letter to Senior parents last week, there is one part of the school community struggling to reap the benefits of a bubble-existence: it’s the part comprising our brilliant teaching and support staff. I am grateful for their ongoing positivity, despite their straitened circumstances. Seeing the staff room devoid of furniture, and largely silent but for a few fleeting conversations over a distance of two metres, is a daily reminder of what we have (temporarily) lost. (Where are the songs of staff?)
One way in which we are supporting staff wellbeing is through our reimaged appraisal system. In a desperate attempt to avoid the words ‘performance’ or ‘review’, and as a way of celebrating our school values, staff at Brighton Girls are now engaged in BOLD discussions (Brighton Girls Opportunities for Learning and Development’). A key part of the new-look appraisal is that one of three targets must relate to personal wellbeing. Some staff are committing to physical exercise once week after school; some are setting aside more time for family at weekends; others have embarked on reading challenges (although I fear this could get interesting for two members of staff as Mrs Ashdown and Mr Sherwood are going head-to-head in their attempt to read The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century); and my meeting with Mr Marsh ended with him drawing me a map of a circular run on the South Downs – I aim to put this to the test over the weekend. These are small things, but they send a message about what is important.
Community is key, but that community depends on the happiness of individuals.
Postscript. Thankfully, I did enter the staffroom this morning to find that the Friday feeling was alive and well. Apparently, I had just missed a moment of hilarity – it sounded suspiciously like something a former colleague of mine used to describe as an “outbreak of morale”.