I hear this again and again from those I work with — while they are amazingly prepared ‘on paper’ for raising and maintaining school standards, challenging under-performance, and guiding their school through its next OFSTED inspection, Headship in practice is an entirely different matter.
Behind the role are an array of emotional challenges that must be managed if leaders are to stay in the profession for the long-haul.
So what are these major emotional challenges that face Headteachers today?
1. Heightened Responsibility
When you become a Headteacher, you now carry the full burden of responsibility for delivering the whole school vision and for meeting the needs of a community that believes and trusts that whatever the problem, you can fix it!
Very often it can feel as though you are carrying the full weight of everyone’s expectations on your shoulders. No matter how diverse their expectations might be, from parents to politicians, you are expected to shoulder everything.
On top of this, you now have a myriad of responsibilities, that require you to demonstrate additional expertise as a social worker, child psychiatrist, politician and community worker, all within the space of a day – even though you’ve never been trained in these areas.
What happens when the weight becomes too heavy?
With this weight of extra responsibility, some Heads (particularly those new to the role) can feel they have to actively demonstrate to staff and all the stakeholders that they’re going above and beyond for their school and pupils.
Without a strong level of confidence and the tools for effective self-management that support can afford them, many school leaders feel compelled to work deep into their own personal time, such as weekends and evenings and ignore the cost to themselves and others.
Without proper emotional support to help tackle the root causes of this behaviour and related thinking, leaders can find themselves experiencing feelings of guilt, self-doubt, frustration and anxiety, all of which can serve to harm their own well-being and exacerbate the situation.
2. High Accountability, Public Scrutiny and Low Job Security
Rarely a day goes by without there being a news story about education in the local or national press. For today’s school leaders, the stakes are very, very high. It can seem that every action, whether individual or collective, is now under close public scrutiny.
This can create battle fatigue, a feeling that the individual or the profession is always under attack.
With the growing focus on results, OFSTED grades and league tables, Heads now sometimes don’t even have the certainty that they will still be in a job in a month’s time. An unfavourable OFSTED report or a disappointing set of exam results, can signal the end. For too many in the profession, it can feel like the sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over their head!
The threat of forced academisation and all that this entails only adds to feelings of insecurity and fear, that so many school leaders experience.
When you were a teacher, no matter what kind of challenges you were facing, you were still surrounded by a group of people in your school, who were going through similar challenges, but as a Head, you now know for the majority of the time, you are on your own!
There are fewer opportunities to discuss where you’re struggling or share how you’re feeling with those you work alongside. You are all too aware that doing so may cross professional boundaries, dampen team morale and/or undermine their confidence in you as a leader.
Competition between neighbouring schools, the waning support from local authorities has decreased the levels of trust and mutual support that once existed between Heads. You know all too well, the impact that your ever-decreasing circle of support has had upon your ability to cope with the challenges of school leadership.
Though friends and family may be able to offer well-meaning sympathy and care, this is sometimes not the support which you really need.
However, the cost of having no-one you can talk to about the stresses that come with your role can leave you feeling isolated and left with no choice but to soldier on, alone. Keeping your fears and worries hidden from view, but privately aching inside as the burden of carrying them around becomes heavier and heavier.
It goes without saying that doing this is not exactly a great set-up for good leadership, nor is it sustainable.
Is there another way to lead?
Like all top leadership positions, school leadership and headship in particular brings with it the type of power that isolates: positional power. The higher up you are in an organisation, the more your positional power means that you not only have increased pressures and responsibilities, it also means an increased distancing in relationships.
When you are ‘lower down’ the school hierarchy it is much easier to build relationships with those who are like you and to share problems with those who will have had similar experiences. As you climb, the number of individuals that hold the same or similar post diminishes until, finally, you reach the top – head teacher – and look around to find that there is no one in your setting who holds the same position as you.
Learning how to balance the need for human connection, with the need to maintain the integrity of the leadership role, is a challenge many Head Teachers face.
Without support, life as a Head Teacher can be both lonely and limiting. Progress can be slow and in extreme cases stunted; neither the individual nor those they lead seem to be able to reach the level of maturity necessary for sustained personal effectiveness.
This isn’t how school leadership should be. That’s why I offer free Headteacher support calls to all those who may benefit from a confidential space where they can…
– Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
– Receive support and encouragement
– 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!