I know many a Head who has been there and I have been there myself. The night before test results are due, unable to sleep a wink, tossing and turning, your mind endlessly sifting through different scenarios as to what might happen and how you’ll respond if the results aren’t what’s expected.
I remember once being at a recruitment and retention conference attended by the ‘great and the good’ in education and politics. When one Secondary Head spoke about how he had cried in the school car park on GCSE results day, there was an audible sense of “I’ve been there too” from the educationalists that were in the room.
However, from the politicians present their lack of empathy and understanding was clear for all to see. Many of whom had presided over the policies and system changes that have created the toxic culture of fear and anxiety that are hallmarks of our current testing regime. It would not have been in their interest to admit to the corrosive effect that these changes have had upon the mental health and well-being of our teachers and school leaders.
But … if you are a teacher or a school leader, it is in your interest to face up to the impact that the pressurised testing regime has upon the collective mental and health and well-being of the profession. The continuing pressure to succeed, has created false gods out of Key stage tests, GCSE’s, ‘A’ Levels and government league tables.
However, salvation is often short lived, dependent as it is, on the inevitable variations between one cohort to the next. Teachers, school leaders and pupils alike, now feel that they as individuals, that they as human beings, are only as good as their last set of test results.
The American author and activist, Parker J Palmer, provides some useful words of advice in relation to this topic. He says:
“To those who say we need weights and measures in order to enforce accountability in education, my response is yes, of course we do, but only under three conditions, that are not being met today.We need to make sure:
1. That we measure things worth measuring in the context of authentic education, where rote learning counts for little
2.That we know how to measure what we set out to measure and,
3. That we attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more important than those that elude our instruments
Now we know in our current climate, this is going to be hard for most politicians and policy makers, but it shouldn’t be hard for you, if education is your vocation and means more than number crunching and the management of data sets. To be able to rise above the pressures of an unforgiving and relentless testing regime, it is key, just as Palmer says, that you develop practices that enable you (alongside government metrics) to measure what you really believe to be of value and worth.
How? …. Well you can begin by doing three things…
1. Define what success looks like for you and your context
Don’t listen to those who say, ‘Context doesn’t matter.’ You know that it does. The lives and the stories of every pupil in your school creates the complex tapestry for teaching and learning. Value and honour that context and what you and your staff do to make it colourful, vibrant and a story full of hope and optimism for the pupils that you teach
2. Never forget that teaching is a human and emotional endeavour
Our children are not widgets on a factory assembly line and neither are you a robot filling them full of meaningless facts. Teaching is relational. It is a ‘labour of love’ that involves the heart and soul. To prepare our children for the future they need to be not just numerate and literate, they need to be culturally and emotionally literate too.
They are global citizens and deserve to not only be treated as such, but equally to be equipped with the skills that will enable them to form positive relationships with individuals from all corners of the world and all walks of life.
3. Realise that exam results don’t define you or your self-worth
A set of data, numbers on a spreadsheet are not the totality of who you are. Just because the system treats teachers and school’s leaders as if they are, does not make it true. As a teacher or school leader it is essential to your own health and wellbeing and indeed for the pupils that you teach, that you develop a strong sense of self that is not entirely linked to your work. There will always be challenging times in the life of a school. Whether they are due to a poor set of test results or something else, the challenges will never be too far away.
But …if you have invested time in developing yourself, managing your responses to stress, developing a deep understanding of who you are, when the challenges come your response will be different from most others. You will find from some-where deep inside you, the capacity to gain perspective and rise above the challenges that you face. You will discover a level of courage that you may have never known before.
I know how damaging any bad news, whether it is exam results or OFSTED report can feel as a School Leader. When you invest so much of yourself into the role and you know how good your school is and can be, bad news can hit even the most assured school leaders.
The important thing to remember is that as a school leader, you do an amazing job! Every day you invest enormous amounts of time, energy, passion and commitment – seeking to create better futures for our children and the communities you serve.
This isn’t easy to maintain and particularly, after a long week or a setback, it can feel as though your energy, hope and emotional reserves are in short supply.
That’s why I believe it’s vital that when these times comes (and they will) that you have someone who you can turn to, who can offer you a listening ear, support, encouragement to help keep you going towards your vision.
For me, the realisation came about, after a particularly challenging encounter with a parent. I had become so used to numbing out my emotions and wearing my ‘super-head’ cloak, that when my emotions did finally catch up with me, I was at a loss as to what to do.
All I could do was sit in my car and cry and cry and cry! It was only when this happened and after some deep soul searching, that I realised why I had got to this place and what had been missing from my life as a Head teacher … Support!
I’m not talking about the type of support Head teachers get from school advisors, governors or fellow colleagues. It was a different type of support that I realised had been missing.
I needed support that was confidential and non-judgemental. I needed a space where just for a while, I could take off my cloak and be me. A space where I could show my vulnerabilities and be supported to make sense of my own emotions in relation to the demands of the role.
We all need help sometimes, so that when the going gets tough (as it always does) and we fall down; we don’t remain on the ground – but instead are supported to get back up again and with renewed focus and energy, empowered to carry on towards our dream.
Sadly, some 15 years later, there is still a woeful lack of ‘proper’ support for those who are at the helm. As a result, there are many Heads for whom emotional overload is a still hallmark of the role.
It’s for this reason, why I now offer FREE “Coaching for the Soul” Calls to provide school leaders with a safe, non-judgemental space to talk through the challenges of the role.
This call offers a confidential space where leaders can:
– 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!