This story comes from the Headteacher of Marlborough Primary School, Geraldine Foley.
I am the Headteacher of a large school (we have 535 children on role), based quite centrally in Cardiff. It serves a very diverse catchment area; with children coming from predominantly professional/affluent households, alongside a few from deprived backgrounds.
When I first heard about Integrity Coaching, I had been a headteacher for twelve years. I was five years into my second headship, and recently undertaken a temporary executive headship of another large primary school.
Over the past twelve years as a Head, I had given so much of myself, that it had been to the detriment of looking after my own well-being. While things professionally were going well, I was completely burnt out. I was running on empty.
Being a headteacher became everything. I had neglected my friendships, no time or energy for anything else. I had lost sight of who I was as a person, it was though the “real me” had vanished and I had become just a headteacher. I was working increasingly long hours and found myself often still working at 9 o’clock in the evening. Without realising it, it was beginning to undermine my effectiveness as a leader; things started taking me much longer than they used to, e.g. checking e-mails etc.
That’s what twelve years of headship had done to me. I became the shadow of the person I used to be. I tried to hide it from everybody, from my family to the people at school. I managed to keep a lid on it, but then it started to unravel. Just before I got in touch with Integrity, I ended up in hospital experiencing black-outs. It was only after I was in hospital and had to have brain scans that I knew that I could not carry on working and leading the same way. It had to change! I still had fourteen years ahead of me, I had to find a way of looking after myself in the role, in a way that would help me keep me healthy.
Recognising the need for a different type of support
I had been working with a leadership consultant who had helped me with my leadership development at my school. However, I knew this work would not have an impact if as a leader I did not address my underlying issues.
Shortly after ending up in hospital, I read Viv’s book. Her honesty about what happened to her, how she responded and her journey from that point onwards, really resonated. I realised that what she was explaining in relation to “Stress Management for Head teachers” was exactly what I needed. That’s how I came across Integrity Coaching.
I reached out to Viv and I was delighted to find out that I would be able to get a comprehensive coaching support package, completely funded by the NUT. This meant that I didn’t even have to consult my governors but they were fully aware that I had coaching and they were very supportive. Many of them came from business worlds where coaching is part of the culture and so they knew the value of it.
The Benefits of Coaching
As part of the NUT programme, I was assigned a coach who was a very good match for me. I think I was placed very carefully. The coach was somebody who came from a different world to me (the business world) but she evidently had the personality, the experience and the skills that were exactly what I needed.
In our sessions, she would really challenge me with the phrases/words that I used. She would also probe deeply and question me to get me to think carefully. It is so supportive to just have some-one really listen to you. It is just magical. We don’t often have the opportunity to let down the mask as Headteachers but it’s so important.
During the first couple of sessions, we worked hard to find out exactly what was at the core of me, as a leader. My coach kept probing and pushing me, to discover what it was that I wanted to lead for. This was the first time that I realised the kind of leader I truly wanted to be. It was incredible. It opened a door for me in a way that I cannot fully describe.
So much creativity and growth came out of the coaching. The space really allowed me to change as a leader and helped me to find answers from within. My coach helped me to see that taking time out for my leadership development was not just helpful to me but also to my team.
I saw how when I’m at my best, I’m so much more able to support and get the most out of those I lead. I learnt that I needed this time to develop myself as a leader and a space to reflect, think and explore my ideas – and that this is not indulgent but rather, it is absolutely vital.
It really transformed how I am as a leader. I stopped being the leader that I thought people wanted me to be; and started being the leader I am. I found a way of leading my team as myself and engaging with my team in a natural way.
The Additional Benefits of Coaching
Coaching also inspired me to look after my well-being and encouraged me to give myself permission to look after myself. I started running again, I started going to yoga classes twice a week, I re-established friendships, I even began walking to school! It made me remember who I was as a person and stopped me being just a headteacher.
Coaching also reminded me of the duty I have to look after my staff. It helped me develop the first steps towards building a culture of well-being in our school. We formed a well-being team and that is now one of the strengths of what we are doing at the school.
It also challenged me as I knew if I wanted to develop a culture of well-being, I had to model what self-care and work-life balance looks like. So, I stopped working excessive hours and to ensure that I no longer read e-mails at home, I took the email app off my phone and iPad.
The year I received coaching became the most fulfilling year of headship career and I credit that mostly to the coaching sessions. Even my governors could notice this. When they saw the way I was, the way that the culture at school changed and how the staff had developed. The benefits really permeated the whole school.
Since then, the school has continued to do really well. It is flourishing. Standards are high, provision is very good, and we are very well regarded in the local community and beyond. People are coming to see how we are developing leadership in the school and we are now able to help other schools to flourish.
On a personal level, the whole experience was life-changing. It’s just so valuable what the school gets back in terms of leadership and I just can’t help but feel very, very lucky and blessed to have got this support.
As a school leader, it’s important to realise that the well-being and flourishing of your school begins with you. After all, it is only when our own needs are met that we are able to effectively meet the needs of others and model the well-being we want to see in our schools.
That’s why it’s important that you are afforded the time and space to reflect and identify issues, find solutions and embed new ways of leading that’ll best support you to maintain your ability to lead, inspire and create better futures for our children.
If our leaders are to sustain consistently high levels of effectiveness and develop as leaders amidst the growing emotional cost of leading, the complexity of the role and heightened pressure of being a school leader, this form of support is not just helpful – it’s vital.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
Yet school leaders remain endemically under-supported and, as a result, many leaders are left without anyone to turn to when they are in need of support, clarity, guidance or even just some encouragement to keep going.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls for school leaders to ensure they are provided with an opportunity to:
– Talk through the challenges they are currently facing in their role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help them overcome the issues they’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had
– Gain clarity in their thoughts and their current situation