By Amy Forrester

Pastoral leaders have never had it easy, but this year they’ve never had it so hard. Here, Amy Forrester explains how remote education has presented new challenges for pastoral care

“Become a Head of Year,” they said.

“It’ll be fun,” they said.

They weren’t wrong!

Being a Head of Year really is one of the very best jobs that you can do within a school. It is a privilege and an honour. We support young people in the very best and the very worst moments of their lives. We are their cheerleader, their confidant, their school-parent; we are so many different things to so many children. That brings with it the joy of having excellent relationships with young people as they become young adults.

But it also brings with it an emotional rollercoaster; we can be blindsided in an instant. We can go from the ridiculous to the heart-breaking within seconds. We never know what our days will look like, nor what we’ll have to deal with at any given time. It takes tenacity and perseverance, sometimes even just to get through an hour, let alone a day.

I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Being a pastoral leader in a pandemic, though – that’s a whole other ball game! Much like everything in a school, the pandemic has led to the job taking on a whole new life of its own.  Not only does remote pastoral care become more complex when you’re doing it without seeing children in person, the pandemic itself has also triggered a surge of pastoral challenges. From the unprecedented level of grief in our communities, to the mental health of our young people, the job of a pastoral leader is the most challenging it has ever been.

Much like remote teaching, remote pastoral care is infinitely harder. So much of our work relies on being around students, noticing something about their body language that has changed, or noticing a change in atmosphere. A good pastoral leader develops spider senses, deeply in tune with their young people. When you then end up doing pastoral work remotely, that’s immeasurably harder.

There are still ways that your pastoral spider senses can guide you, though. It might be that a child isn’t handing their work in, or sends an odd email. It might be that they’ve withdrawn in live lessons: their once bubbly presence replaced with silence. But so many of these interactions rely on a range of staff being in tune to young people; remote pastoral care is more of a team effort than it ever has been. Great communication with and between staff is absolutely vital to ensure that any missing jigsaw pieces are noticed by someone who knows that child. They must trigger our professional curiosity; is this child ok? Why is this child presenting differently? What do I need to do as a result of this?

Of course, the next stages are further complicated by the remote nature – talking on the phone or via email can feel impersonal. All of those tell tale signs, the body language, their face, their voice – they’re taken from us. Finding the best way to communicate for each child is really important. This could be via email, but using more informal methods such as text message or a Teams call might help give you a better insight into that child, and whether they need any support. It goes without saying though, that this needs to be done safely – with another member of staff in the background of the video call, or the use of a work mobile phone for text messages.

As well as these aspects of the job, the pandemic itself has left an indelible mark on all of our communities. Never before have we seen this scale of sadness and loss. It hit me one day, realising that if this amount of our students had all lost a relative on the same day, to the same thing, it would be a National tragedy; a horrific accident, a terrorist attack. Yet because deaths have occurred over a 12 month period, it seems to have weakened the way we react to it. This shouldn’t be the case. We have students who have lost their loved ones well before their time. We need to be alert to this, and while I don’t believe that schools need to suddenly implement hours upon hours of wellbeing and mental health sessions for students, we do need to ensure that we have a sufficient professional understanding of, and compassion for, the tragedies that have played out within our communities.

Any experienced pastoral leader will tell you that, when students experience trauma or tragic events, the best thing for them is a sense of normality and routine. Never has that been more true. School needs to be that predictable, safe and reliable place that it always has been, a place where students can think about something other than their grief for a brief moment or two.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be mindful of their experiences; far from it. In fact, by consciously keeping things as normal and predictable as possible, we are doing what students really need us to do; be a place of stability and routine, with compassion at the heart of all that we do.

Pastoral care has been thrust into the limelight by the pandemic, and rightly so. The pandemic has also reinforced a simple truth about the importance of it; without effective pastoral care, teaching and learning cannot be excellent. Young people need to feel safe, secure and have their emotional needs met in order to thrive in their learning. But pastoral teams cannot do this alone; we must row together as a staff body, with each member playing a crucial role in creating a network of compassion and support around each child. Whether we are in school, or learning from home, that simple truth remains.

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