This blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small.
We’re all familiar with the notion of a ‘Superhead’ that is all too often projected onto Heads by the media, namely the idea of a Headteacher unmoved by any problems, and entirely impervious to criticism and job insecurity.
The truth is such a Head has never existed, yet many Heads still try to live up to this myth. Heads put on this “mask” to appear entirely in control and imply an unshakeable foundation for their school but by continually wearing this mask, it begins to alter how they perceive themselves.
Some Heads wear this “mask” so much that they begin to believe themselves to be this indestructible persona. In turn, their reputation of being able to control every situation becomes increasingly attached to their sense of identity and self-worth.
This self-concept is never more dangerous than when a crisis (like the one we are all in now) hits. Suddenly circumstances outside one’s control present themselves. In an instant it becomes clear that humanity, sincerity and compassion, triumph over acts of bravado and self-interest.
A crisis like this demands true leadership. Leadership that is in service to the greater good. It is leadership that requires huge amounts of empathy and self-awareness. It is leadership that that fully understands what is meant by the words “We are all in this together.”
Does this make sense to you?
I remember once suffering from a combination of a flu’ epidemic, a shortage of supply teachers and three long-term sickness cases on my staff. Behaviour started to get worse in classes most disrupted by absence. Those of us who managed to stay on our feet became exhausted and so more susceptible to bugs.
When this pressure is combined with a shift in your personal circumstances, a bereavement, a family sickness, even something as ordinary as a home maintenance crisis can cause psychological upheaval.
For those who’ve believed themselves indestructible and with no form of support available, that feeling of losing control of a situation due to circumstances beyond one’s grasp can be very strange and disturbing and threatens you as a person far more deeply. Because of the persona that the “Superhead” is trying to maintain, he/she is one of the most vulnerable in this situation.
Without warning, their capacity to cope begins to seem in doubt and the mask begins to slip. They have avoided close, supportive, professional relationships for fear of the mask slipping and, in doing so, they find themselves with nowhere to go when crisis hits.
Their sense of self-worth depends on their reputation remaining intact and both are now at stake. Picture the headlines: ‘Superhero falls to earth!’
The barometer of the school’s well-being
What makes things even more precarious is that the Head is very often looked to by everyone as a kind of barometer of the school’s wellbeing. Staff now see a worried or preoccupied face in their leader which makes them lose some of their own confidence and be less effective with their pupils.
On top of this, one of the dangerous elements of being a “Superhead” is that it often involves cultivating a ‘leave it to me!’ attitude, which can lead many in the school, particularly the more vulnerable individuals, to become dependent on the Head.
If a school has become dependent on this kind of leadership, everything is at risk in a crisis. Without an independent and empowered team to help navigate the ship in the storm, the Superhead is left to fight the waves alone and with little support.
Support in times of Challenge
As a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, the challenge and complexity of the Headteacher role has grown exponentially.
Every school leader in the country has witnessed an enormous amount of change in terms of what their life, their role and school now look like. Today, like never before many Heads find themselves having to sail previously uncharted waters.
These are unprecedented times, for which there are no rule or guide-books. Everything has changed! As a result, there is understandable anxiety about the current situation we are all in. Feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, isolation and stress are prevalent.
Relationships with families, pupils and staff have changed. The speed of change has been swift, with little or no time for school leaders to make sense of both the here and now and also what the ‘new order’ might bring.
In times like these, we need to be deliberate in pressing the pause button and finding time to reflect. Leaders need safe relational spaces to explore, question and reflect on how events are impacting on them, on others and their school.
It is a time when we can be explicit and openly address the fact that we are all in a time of transition. It is a time that requires open and honest discussion about what this period signifies for us all and with support, find ways through to the other side.
Without such spaces or the proper support, sadly we know that this crisis can prove to be both overwhelming and isolating for those who lead our schools.
Leaders also run the risk of emotional ‘burn out’. When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating, but we also can begin to derive less satisfaction from our lives.
Having been a Head myself and experienced burnout, I know all too well what this feels like and equally what must be done to prevent it!
It is for this reason, that I now offer free “Coaching for the Soul” calls, for Heads who feel that they could benefit from a confidential space that will allow them to:
– Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
– Receive support and encouragement in their current situation
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
– Gain clarity around their thoughts and plan a way forward
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!