To be a headteacher today is not as simple as the title suggests. It’s likely you aren’t the lead learner or the grand exemplar of what excellent teaching and learning should look like.
To be a headteacher today means not only must you know your craft, but you must also show that you possess skills that are commensurate with those possessed by social workers, psychologists, politicians, data analysts and a whole host of other roles that remain conspicuously absent from any formal Headteacher job description.
Ask any Head teacher and they will tell you that this is true. Ask any Head teacher and they will tell you that these often-competing roles require them to be able to:
– Switch mental modes quickly and efficiently
– Deal comfortably with conflict
– Adapt with speed to ever-increasing and complex demands
– Engage deeply and constructively with detail and data
– Continually offer their values up for inspection
– Comfortably work with knowledge of all kinds
It’s Hard Emotional Labour
To coin a phrase from Belinda Harris, author of, ‘The Emotional Work of School Leaders’, all of this is “Hard Emotional Labour”. It is “Hard Emotional Labour that creates a high degree of dissonance in the internal world of many a school leader and is the cause for many a sleepless night.
Thoughts become entangled, negative and increasingly self-depreciating; Many a Head teacher finds that their days and nights are plagued by such thoughts as:
“Am I good enough?”
“ What do other people really think of me?”
“I can’t do this for much longer”
“I am sure others think that they can do a better job”
“When OFSTED comes will that be the end of my career?’
In addition, individuals find it hard to cope with the level of emotional intensity that each role, each situation, each new challenge requires. As a result, many a school leader finds that:
– Their emotions are suppressed only to be felt as aches and pains in their body
– They ‘numb out’ to cope with the often-overwhelming range of emotions that accompany each day
– They become short-tempered and increasingly irritable
– Relationships become fraught as emotional disconnection gradually becomes a hallmark for the majority of their social interactions
Leaders are human first and foremost and it is these inner needs that must be met if they are to flourish in their roles. Our system gives undue emphasis to the observable, public face of school leadership’ Leaders are judged by what they say and do and rarely is the question asked, “How can an ‘outstanding’ public performance be maintained?” Yet it is the one question that must be asked for the health and happiness of all our school leaders and ultimately our children.
Doing the Inner Work
This constant switching between modes, the navigation of relationships with a range of stakeholders requires a need for extremely high levels of physical, emotional and psychological resilience. In order to survive through these pressures, we need to do the inner work that is necessary to sustain us.
So what does the inner work involve? Well doing the inner work means devoting time throughout the school year…
– Developing new ways of thinking and new ways of leading that support them in performing and staying at their best
– Developing a deeper understanding of your emotions and how to deepen your own level of emotional intelligence
– Really coming to understand who you are and what experiences have shaped you as leader
– A deepening of your self-awareness and understanding, so that you can lead yourself with confidence
– A search for meaning amidst the complexities and challenges of school life
When the inner work is undertaken with as much conviction as the outer work, then leaders develop the tools that enable them to thrive and sustain their public performances.
The inner work allows you to address your own negative thoughts and self-judgment. It allows you to challenge those thoughts that cloud your perception of yourself and event, the thoughts which make you question yourself, your judgement and fear what others think.
The inner work allows you to address your own vulnerabilities. The inner work allows you to address your hidden world of thoughts feeling and emotions. The inner work allows you to work through emotions of insecurity, hurt, anger, resentment.
To quote the American author, Parker J Palmer, ‘The inner work is as real as the outer work’ and yet so few School Leaders are supported to have the time to do this inner work that is a key part of what is necessary if our leaders are to both thrive and survive in their roles.
Transforming the Reality of School Leadership
The role of a headteacher has changed significantly over the last few years, with school leadership now becoming increasingly challenging, both vocationally and emotionally for those in the profession.
Heads now have a myriad of responsibilities and can have to cope with the emotional cost of everything from an OFSTED inspection, to unprecedented traumas within the school community, such as the death of a child.
Moreover, the pressure and lack of security that comes with the public scrutiny and high levels of personal accountability has served to exacerbate the emotional toll of the role.
More than ever, we need to find new and sustainable ways of leading that will enable School Leaders to overcome the stresses of their roles and maintain their ability to lead and inspire others.
That’s why on the 19th October 2017, we hosted Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for a new type of School Leadership conference; an “Education for the Soul” Conference designed to help leaders to explore and discuss what matters most to them (their values, hopes and passion) and locate ways of leading that are aligned to who they are, their goals, their vision and above all, don’t require them to sacrifice their own well-being.
It is fair to say, the day was a very special one indeed, and for me personally, it was deeply humbling to see so many school leaders and education professionals who were prepared to:
– Take a risk
– Ask of themselves challenging questions
– Think about school leadership differently
– Go on a deeper learning journey with themselves and others
It was so wonderful to watch these individuals drop their leadership masks and come together, in service of one another and in service of shared hopes, dreams and ambitions for our children and our schools.
As a result, the conference became a place where discussions about the relationship between well-being and school leadership could be discussed openly and candidly, and real solutions could be found.
Above all, the day confirmed to me three vital key lessons that I’ve learnt from my time working with School Leaders….