This blog comes from Integrity Coaching Associate, transactional analysis expert and Headteacher Nurture Meal facilitator, Giles Barrow.
About five years ago I became acutely aware of the troubles presented by the head teachers I worked with. It was an especially bad time in terms of education policy. The Con-Dem coalition was in power and Micheal Gove was in his ascendancy at the DfE. The shift in policy reflected a fundamental move toward a very different understanding of not just what schools should be doing, but also radically changing how they should go about their work.
This was the time of mass academisation, free-school proliferation and the withdrawal of initiatives such as Every Child Matters and the national strategies. There was also a move in Ofsted to a much more data-reliant approach in determining judgements and head teachers across the country dreaded the wait until Wednesday lunchtime at which point the inspectors would have notified them of an intention to visit that week.
I have been working with Headteachers for over twenty years now. I am familiar with the term-by-term cycles of school life and the stresses and strains that invariably ebb and flow from year-to-year. But during this recent past, I was not only aware of a dramatic shift in stress amongst school leaders, but I was also feeling close to being overwhelmed myself in the face of such anxiety across the dozen or so schools that I was working with.
I began to notice a sense of impotence – not knowing quite what to do, or how to help these colleagues. I became increasingly aware that I was not sufficient for the task emerging in my work. I realised that this was what in supervision and coaching is referred to as a “parallel process”. This refers to how the dynamic in any field of practice gets replicated, or paralleled in another area of practice. In other words, my experience of being overwhelmed in the specific context of coaching head teachers was reflecting the very same overwhelm that they in turn experienced in their work with staff, LA officers, inspectors and governors.
The situation of being surrounded my such a diverse number of individuals and groups and yet feeling utterly isolated and alone. The sense of having so much to express, but having no arena in which to do so without it being judged or politicised in some way. The irony of having a position of being in charge whilst knowing how powerless it can be at times. I also noticed that the expectation to put on ‘brave face’, or a being in some sort of performance role, was often at a significant cost; that such a mask became heavier and took much distracting energy.
Recognising parallel processes is a helpful skill to develop because it can then be used to create a healthy, alternative process that might potentially parallel back into the work of head teachers in their day to day work. That’s the theory, but I was left wondering how that might help me in practice. What can we do when we do not feel sufficiently resourced for what lies ahead of us? That is the question I realised was at the heart of the matter.
A simple response is to reach out, connect and resist the temptation to singularise; I like that word. It means that tendency to imagine that the distress is mine alone and that no-one else will either understand or be able to cope if I reached out for support, It is also combined with a toxic spell that some seem cursed with, which is that to ask for support, or even contact, is a sign of weakness.
If there is one strategy that has been most efficient in diminishing the power of head teachers, it is the old colonial mantra of divide and rule. Pitting schools against each other through segregating the nation’s school estate via academy chains and league tables is one way of externally divide and rule. But the more insidious tactic is to work on the internal level, in the minds of head teachers, instilling the notion that those who reach out must be the weak ones.
It was in the midst of this sense of helplessness that the only idea I had came into view. Several of the head teachers I worked with were all within an hour’s travel of where I live. I am fortunate to run a small farm, I raise livestock and have an old mill house that has been restored so that it can be used for all sorts of small gatherings. I decided to just focus on what I knew I could do; cook a meal and invite the head teachers along.
The invitation made it clear that the evening would not have an agenda, it would not involve me either training or coaching, and they in turn need not be concerned with being on parade, or on guard. The purpose was to show up as themselves and enjoy the company of others who, in my view, do some of the heaviest lifting on behalf of our communities.
The meals were always mid-week in order to discourage late night sessions leaving people potentially hungover and exhausted for the next day. Sometimes there were four or five, and sometimes there might be a dozen.
We held one a term and later in the year we hung around outside in the Suffolk summer evenings. Everyone respected the space, in the sense that there were no performing seals, strutting peacocks, or ales pitches. Just a bunch of dedicated professional taking a brief time out to share the pain, lick wounds, swap insights and get grounded. We saw some of our group retire, resign and be removed from their posts. We also saw them re-gain, re-group and renew their sense of purpose and careers.
Last year, in conversation with Viv, I mentioned the meals and, she recognised the great value in offering our School Leaders a chance to “drop the leadership mask” and connect with other Heads in such a relaxed and collegial setting. So since then, we have been hosting these meals together in London, all of which have been strongly supported and successful.
Having been to quite a few now, I notice that within the chatter, the gossip, the intense conversations, something always emerges – collective power becomes re-kindled and individuals feel heard, connected with, and perhaps, whole again.
However, if there was one meal that stands out to me, it was the first meal we hosted in London. We were very clear in our purpose. This was not going to be one of those Head teacher gathering where individuals met with their peers, but still felt the need to be to wear their leadership mask or suit of armour, for fear of being judged or criticised for anything that they might say. This was going to be different. We wanted this event to say to all Heads who attended.
‘You are of value; you are of worth and you have the right to have your needs met’
We made sure that there were no:
– Obligatory tasks
– Agendas [ particularly of the hidden kind!]
– No fixed outcomes
The experience provided a wonderful space full of laughter and joy, in which Heads were able to lean back and for a couple of hours, drop the leadership mask, appreciate and enjoy the company of fellow school leaders.
As they did so, there were 4 key things that I noticed happening when Headteachers dropped their leadership mask….