This blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small.
Many things can cause a crisis in a School, more often than not – they result from a set of circumstances which are often caused by things entirely out of one’s control as a school leader.
This has never been true since the coronavirus outbreak caused schools to shut back in March. Today, many Heads find themselves having to sail previously uncharted waters; they are having to captain and lead ‘digital’ schools whilst simultaneously provide some type of specialised, alternative provision for children of key workers.
Given this pressure and enormous amount of change is also happening alongside many leaders’ personal circumstances, it is understandable to experience quite significant psychological upheaval.
With this upheaval leaders can begin to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the situation.
If this is the case for you, here’s three things you should do to regain a sense of agency and give yourself the best chance of surviving a crisis like this…
1. Remember Your Oxygen Mask
Firstly, I have learned that how you feel is more to do with your inner state than what’s going on out there. When I’ve slept well and feel physically and mentally OK, I somehow feel ‘bigger’ and problems seem ‘smaller’. They even seem to matter less, although I am still driven to solve them as best I can. The difference is that I have some energy to do so. Fatigue, on the other hand, makes us turn in on ourselves and it becomes even harder to face the world.
The first piece of advice, then, is a bit of a cliché: it is about remembering ‘to put your own oxygen mask on first, before trying to help anyone else with theirs’.
However difficult it becomes, the discipline of maintaining your own healthy patterns of sleeping and eating, including time to relax and unwind before bedtime, is part of the responsibility of leadership, not a luxury that you can no longer afford!
2. Recognise our own vulnerability
The second piece of advice is to be open, from the start (and it’s never too late to start), about your own vulnerability and ‘belong to the same community of human beings that you feel so responsible for’.
If your leadership cultivates independence and interdependence, so that your colleagues become leaders in their own right, who gladly cover for your moments of weakness as you cover for theirs, the crisis becomes navigable.
This does not equate to you becoming dependent on them! You are giving permission to be human. People will be more inspired by your modelling of humanity than by your failed attempt at being superhuman.
Of course, a Head does still need to be able to step back and be able hold colleagues to account. It is important that your sense of belonging does not depend on your role and life at school. Maintaining other sources of wellbeing and involvement may be difficult when school takes up so much time, but they might be a lifeline when things get tough.
Some find this personal support network in social contexts, some in their spiritual life, many in their families. Like a spider, you attach your web of support securely around 360 degrees, in both your personal relationships and your professional community. If one fails, others hold firm.
3. Find Support
Above all, if things seem overwhelming it is essential to talk. Finding someone to talk to close by is difficult, since you are aware that people employed within the system are judging you and have their own agendas. It may be, for instance, that someone designated to support you is also reporting on your performance – and your coping levels – to the authority for which you work.
Rather than feeling like support, this may feel as if it is simply increasing the pressure. You may have a partner who listens well, but you want to avoid loading too much work stuff on your personal relationship and your partner may not be aware of all the professional implications.
My last piece of advice, then, is to find your own external, non-judging and professionally informed support, so there is always someone to talk to who understands what you are coping with, who helps you to maintain perspective and look after your own wellbeing.
As an authentic leader, your sense of identity and belonging becomes portable, adaptable and available to others, even in a crisis. You are an inspiration, not a fantasy hero!
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!