Who is excited about “back to school”?

back to school

So, today where I live (London) there is a definite “back to school” energy, as the symbolic public/bank holiday yesterday, Monday Aug 31st marked the end of the summer holiday/vacation period.

I even saw a queue of at least 15 people mid morning today outside a shop of a brand of children’s shoes, parents shopping at the last minute before primary schools head back. I Imagine some tend to wait until the last minute, others have that rhythm as part of their annual “back to school routine”.

What are different people actually feeling right now, though?

As a leader, whether that be as a parent of a student or as a leader in the workplace, as well as (critically) leading self, it is key to be aware of how those we have a leadership role with are actually feeling.

It might not be what you are feeling and it might not be what you expect them to feel.

Seeking to understand others is a key leadership attribute, so let’s explore a little so we can seek to listen to understand others and ourselves at this time.

Who is excited about “back to school”?

My post title question asked about who is excited. Let’s take that one first. So, what may people be feeling right now?

Starting with me, I am feeling excited. I always find the summer a little slow around business as people take time to recharge. I’ve also taken time to recharge too, so as we start September, I am raring to go, for activity to pick up and for me to do more and more of what I love, supporting brave and transformative leaders.

Also, my youngest son, aged 16, went through the tough period of schools closing in March, not being able to sit his external exams that determine whether or not he could enter the next stage of education (for him the final two years of school in the English system used in Cayman). After all of that, he did receive grades that gained him entry to the next stage in the course that he wants and, as he lives in Cayman where they have eliminated Covid-19, next week he is indeed excited to go back to school, to see his friends, to start to learn in a classroom again.

So, I’m excited, as will many others be, but I’m also always aware that some regard “back to school” less positively each year.

Is back to school an “up”, a “down” for you, or is it “mixed”?

In a normal year, whilst some are simply excited to get “back to school”, other have “down” or “mixed” feelings.

Whilst “back to school” energy impacts all of us, not only students and parents but all of us in the workplace or otherwise, let’s look for a moment at students. A few potential scenarios:

  • A student may have a very tough home life, whether with difficult or even abusive home relationships, or simply living in cramped conditions. They may be craving getting away from that to wherever they are at college or university, simply craving a new space.
  • Another may live in an isolated rural area and crave the social and intellectual stimulation of being back on campus.
  • We are all on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, so some introverts may have actually loved the remote learning they experienced and would prefer to continue.
  • Going down to primary school, we think of this as simpler times. I certainly do, I always literally ran in through the school gates on the first day of school, excited to see my friends and meet new ones
  • “Back to school” also means a long summer break with no studying, no work to prepare and submit. This can create negative or mixed feelings of “now I’ve got to go back to this until the Christmas holidays”. September to mid-December can feel like a long stint when there has been a summer break.
  • Stay at home parents keen to get some space for themselves.
  • Working parents feeling stressed about needing to be super-organised around both themselves and their children.

Accentuated and even Flipped emotions due to the Pandemic

Am sure most of you can look at the quick ideas above as resonant with your own past experiences and/or those of your children or family and friends. You can also draw parallels to the world of work to most or all of these examples.

Now, in leading self and others, let us consider how the impact of the pandemic may have accentuated or even flipped how we feel. In terms of accentuating the energy we may feel, there are many elements, including:

  • This has been a much longer break than normal. In England, Cayman and many other countries, schools closed in March and are going “back to school” in September. So, not ~8 weeks (in schools) or ~16 weeks (college/university) but more like 24-28 weeks. A huge “break” from physically being at your place or learning.
  • Students, particularly those in key exam years, missed their opportunity to either sit exams at all, or to sit them in normal conditions.
  • All students also missed the end of year rituals as well as much of the time they would have spent socialising.
  • Going “back to school” also comes with concern and, for some, outright fear and anxiety around the increased risk of virus transmission brought about by moving out of their own well controlled “bubble”.

These and other factors will absolutely accentuate whatever up, down or mixed energies people are feeling.

Also be aware that their normal feelings at this time of year may be flipped, which comes with the need for awareness from individuals and those they work and study with that this can be confusing and disconcerting at another level.

Imagine someone who, every year, loves the “back to school” energy, yet this pandemic year are suddenly fearing or dreading it.

The opposite may also be true, someone who loves the summer “break” feeling and normally doesn’t look forward to “back to school”, but this year is simply so keen to go back to school

Be aware of the varying energies, accentuations and flips from the norm.

My key leadership tip here is to simply ask people what they are feeling. If they say “I’m fine” or something otherwise deflective, simply ask them again, “no, how are you really feeling”. If delivered empathetically, people will typically open up, and expressing such thoughts help both you understand them and them release into their own understanding of self.

What about going “back to work”

Last week one of the national UK newspapers (known to be a mouthpiece for the Prime Minister) put out a ghastly front page headline of: “go back to work or risk losing your job”.

Ghastly on many levels, not least that a huge number of people have been working all along, simply not in an office or normal workplace. As so many recognise (those with empathy, unlike the editors of that newspaper), for so many people working remotely has come with added stressors, even leaving aside the “oh, btw, we are all anxious about living through pandemic”.

Leaving aside the callous nature of this messaging, the reality is that quite a number of businesses are now looking to have people come back to “the office” at least 2or 3 days each week.

Some of those people will have been working all along, some totally remotely, others may have been easing back to the office for a month or more. Others may have been furloughed for months on end and even put through a redundancy consultation, so will be carrying fears around the future security of their job.

All of us, yes, all of us will carry fear to some degree about the increased risks of catching the virus by going back to an office. I say all of us, as it is a spectrum. Some may feel almost paralysed by fear yet still feel they must go to the office or risk losing their job. At the other end of the spectrum, some may be quite relaxed about the increased risks. Know, though, that we act based on how we feel, not what we think. Rationality around risks is never the whole story, always be aware that people will feel what they feel, ask them how they feel, seek first to understand before you look to explain to them how safe it is etc.

So, in closing, all of this long post is aimed at one thing, to bring awareness that everybody will feel differently at this “back to school” and “back to work” time, including each of us as well as those we lead.

Listen, understand and, oh, always be kind.

Also published on Medium.