Coaching & Leadership Development
August 13, 2018

How to Survive as a School Leader

How to Survive as a School Leader

This blog comes from CEO of the Archway Learning Trust, Sian Hampton


Over the last few years I have moved from being the head of a single school, albeit on two sites, to CEO of a Multi Academy Trust serving over 4,000 students and employing about 700 staff. 


I love my job and the fantastic staff and students I get to work with every day, but the pressures of this changed role and the ever increasing demand for more have taken their toll.


This year has probably been one of the hardest – and most rewarding – of my career.  From a place of still figuring things out, there are five key observations I would like to make about how to survive as a leader and what my strategies will be going forwards.


1. Recognise the symptoms


Despite the chest pains, constant headaches and sleepless nights, I ignored all the physical symptoms of anxiety and kept going.  All leaders are high functioning so it is perfectly possible to soldier on without due regard for ourselves and our well-being no matter what our bodies are telling us.  Understanding that we are struggling, recognising the signs of stress and anxiety are part of the solution to managing them.


Stress can be positive as a means of motivation and energy helping us to perform more effectively, but we are in dangerous territory when that stress becomes physically limiting and instead of dealing with it, we compartmentalise and ignore it.


2. Collaborate don’t compete


There is a building narrative around the growth of Multi Academy Trust of competition, market forces, being bigger and better than our rivals.  For me this has real limitations.  Our ‘rivals’ are the very people teaching the same children as we are – just up the road.  Those ‘competitors’ are struggling with the same battles that we too face.


No one has a monopoly on wisdom and if some are further developed than us then great, let’s do what teachers do best and learn from them.  When our pride and egos get in the way of putting children first then we cease to act with integrity.  When our need to be ‘better than them’ prevents us from collaborating to make things better for children we have got things very, very wrong.


We have to act with a deep sense of moral purpose.  We need to know what that means for us and be as authentic to our values as we possibly can in an ever changing and ever challenging educational landscape.


3. Share with others


Sometimes it feels like there is an unwritten rule amongst some leaders that to be the best you somehow have to be stronger, wiser, braver, more resilient than everyone else.  This ‘leadership is a competition’ mind-set needs challenging.


Of course no one wants a leader to be flaky or lacking in confidence but sharing your worries and concerns in a constructive and open dialogue can be helpful.  Allowing carefully selected individuals whom you trust to see you as vulnerable and having doubts is not a sign of failure.  It is a sign of you being human.


Given that we all lead huge organisations full of humans, being able to empathise and react like one surely is a strength not a weakness.  I am not advocating wearing your heart on your sleeve at every staff meeting or major presentation but having a few people that you know and trust to talk to will provide you with perspective and give you the opportunity to share in a measured way when times get tough.


4. Coaching


Without sounding too much like an advert I cannot stress too much the difference that a professional coach can make.  There is a difference between a listening ear and someone who is a trained professional able to help you process what is going on in your professional life.


That ability to facilitate self-reflection and analysis is powerful in supporting more effective leadership.  Finding a coach who resonates with your values and sense of moral purpose is the key to getting this relationship right.   That coaching relationship can be truly transformative and in my opinion is money well spent.  As educators we are all trying to improve our students’ lives and educational opportunities all the time.  Why then would we avoid or be disparaging about the opportunity to self- improve.


5. Live well


I am deeply invested in the organisation I run.  It is a large part of my life and I suspect always will be.  The relationships with staff formed over a number of years are pivotal to the MAT’s success but also to mine.  The students I serve are funny, brave, inspiring, frustrating, exhausting, challenging all at the same time.  There is a big but however.


Despite my love of the organisation and all within it I do, it is important that I have a life beyond the MAT.  When my personal life and that of the organisation become so intertwined that I cannot see the light between the two I stop having any perspective and become a less effective leader.  I forget that other staff have families, small children, responsibilities for sick relatives, funerals to attend, marriages to plan, babies to give birth to.  We all have varied and diverse life experiences and that is what makes our schools great.


We bring that rich variety of experience to the table and share with students and staff members alike.  If we get to a point where we have no life outside of school because of some misplaced sense of heroism or martyrdom then we fail to recognise the real nature of our work.  We cannot enrich and support young lives if we do not enrich and support our own or those with whom we work.


Living well, showing kindness to ourselves and others, allowing ourselves time to enjoy things beyond the school gates is not only good for us it is essential for us to continue to do the demanding jobs we do.


I have not managed to perfect my work life balance yet or have all of the factors described above perfectly organised and working smoothly.  But I do know that without them I will not be able to deal with the privilege of doing what I do and supporting those with whom I work and for whom I work, namely the young people of our schools.  I can only serve if I am happy and healthy and that is my mission for the next academic year to come!


Supporting Well-being in your School or Academy Trust


We believe that true and sustained educational excellence can only be achieved when the need to provide a first-class education for our young is accompanied by the need to meet the emotional, mental and vocational wellbeing of those who teach them.


However, over the last few years, we’ve seen the challenges that schools, in particular, those in MATs face as they seek to raise and maintain standards. Many of these centre around relationships, people management issues and harnessing individual will for the collective good.


New structures, new systems, new roles, new policies and practices can lead to intense periods of transition and uncertainty which can evoke feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry. These feelings can quickly spread from one school to another and if not managed effectively can seriously undermine efforts for creating a unified approach to school improvement across a MAT. Common issues that can arise as a result, include…


– Low levels of Trust

– Poor communication

– Conflict in leadership styles

–  Role adjustment fatigue

– High attrition rates


Left unaddressed these feelings can seriously inhibit the performance and well-being of those who lead and work in our schools which can, in turn, impact on the outcomes for our children.


That’s why we are now offering an Academies Wellbeing Programme designed to help CEO’s, Head teachers and senior leaders as they seek to overcome the challenges of leading in a MAT, support the well-being of themselves and those they lead and above all, enable them to achieve outstanding results for their Schools. This programme is designed to support leaders to create schools that are:


– Places in which communication is open, constructive and honest

– Emotionally resilient environments in which all adults and pupils thrive

– Characterised by strong, supportive, professional relationships

– Healthy and happy and help to foster a true love for learning and in which personal transformation is possible


Learn More



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