As I discussed in my earlier blog “What Every School Leader Should be Told about Change”, change presents a significant challenge to school leaders not just practically but also on an emotional level.
I explained that School leaders must have a process in place for dealing positively with reluctance to change and the emotional and psychological demands that it places on individuals. As without such structures, the consequences can be damaging for everyone. Yet often very little, if anything is done to prepare individuals for the emotional and psychological consequences of change.
In order to help school leaders better understand why support is needed to address these challenges, I asked one London Headteacher to share his experiences. John who was new to Headship back in 2014, took up his appointment, determined to continue his predecessor’s success and preserve the special nature of the school, whilst trying to bring about improvements that were needed. However, he soon found that change was seriously affecting him, his behaviour and in turn, his health and his ability to lead his school. This is what happened. This is John’s Story.
My name’s John and I’m in my third year in my role as a Head Teacher of a one and a half form entry in north London. We currently have around 330 children with 22 teaching staff and 25 support staff.
My predecessor had been here for 19 years and had done a fantastic job. Many of the staff were here even longer than that. My greatest challenge was having to manage the transition of having new leadership. It was a very successful school but it soon came clear to me that it was in need of change. I had to balance the need to make important changes that the school required, whilst ensuring that I did not disturb the special nature of the school, the things which everyone thought worth keeping – once I’d discovered what these things were.
The personal challenges of managing change successfully
However, in trying to bring about changes that were necessary to take my school forward, I began to find some of my behaviour began to conflict with the person that I wanted to be. I found myself becoming addicted to the drama of school life, moaning and getting worked up about the problems I came across.
Worst of all, I felt like I was losing some of my humanity, which was supposed to be one of my greatest strengths as a leader. It wasn’t just the dealings with my staff that were impacted, my relationships also began to suffer. The role had made me feel quite lonely, so I needed someone to unload with but when I did so, I was doing it with my partner who didn’t know how to deal with what I was saying and in patterns and rhythms that weren’t necessarily healthy.
Once in the post, it suddenly didn’t seem very appropriate to discuss the emotional issues I was experiencing with my professional colleagues. If and when I did reach out, the best advice some gave me was: “I know, it is like that,” nobody ever said to me “Don’t worry, it will get better.” They just acknowledge that it is really difficult and it’s difficult for them too. Everyone’s going through something different.
This was all slowly damaging both my personal well-being and health. After one visit to my GP, I was not only put on anti-depressants, I also found out that I was suffering from stress-related heart palpitations which was a serious risk to me, given my age.
Coaching … a different approach to managing change
Fortunately, I have a very supportive governing body. From the outset, they were aware that I may need some support due to my lack of experience and the quite significant changes the school needed. They also had a clear understanding of the difficulty of the role, so they asked me what help they could offer me. My school improvement manager had suggested that I seek coaching.
It was the face-to-face aspect that really sold it to me as building a relationship with somebody was important to me. It had to work for me, so it had to be somebody I could speak to with complete confidentiality, with whom I could be open enough to allow an emotional response to come forth. There was a huge benefit to the expectation and unspoken acceptance that I could be completely myself, and if I were to get emotional, that could happen and that it was completely OK.
In this role, I think that’s absolutely key to have that chance to meaningfully explore your vision, experiences and values openly and honestly and I don’t think any other methods can provide that. Someone who doesn’t tell you what to do but instead empowers you to bring about meaningful change for yourself and your school.
Increasing personal capacity to deal with change
What I learnt was that the job may not get any easier but what changes is your ability to deal with it and that’s how coaching has helped me. It has meant that now when I deal with the stresses of school leadership, I do so far more successfully, particularly when other people are involved.
It helped me become a nicer person to be around in school and they’ve really noticed the difference. I am now always endeavouring to be positive. I am now much more careful to keep my moaning and anger in confidence, whereas some of that might have come out before.
I’m also just so much more efficient after coaching, you can just get so much more out of me now. I think that’s played a significant role in contributing to my school’s performance – we’ve really nailed it this year. The staff have been doing some amazing things in terms of fulfilling their role, the teaching has really reached a great quality. I also now feel confident knowing that I am doing a great job for the kids and that these kids are getting a good deal.
What could happen when personal support is not offered
God knows what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had coaching, I could have struggled, got really ill and the school would have definitely suffered as a result.
I think this is such an important point – you have to consider the alternative. What’s the impact of you not being as efficient as you could be? The way you hold yourself, the manner in which you approach, the job, these things really require you to be in a good place.
I know without coaching I would not be here in post today with the confidence and comfort I have now and certainly, the school wouldn’t be in such a hugely positive position.
How can I learn to develop my own ability to manage change successfully?
If you are wondering how like John you can also learn to manage the effects of change both on your school and you as a person, I have recently hosted a Webinar to seek an answer the central question:
“How can we work positively with the challenges and opportunities presented by change?”
The aim of this Webinar was to discuss how we can positively transform our attitudes to change and subsequent outcomes, by learning to constructively engage with the personal dimensions of the change process.
During the webinar I shared what I’ve learnt about change from my years of experience as a school leader and as a coach. In particular, I will discuss how:
– A reluctance to engage with the psychological and emotional aspects of change can be harmful to you and your school.
– Key coaching tools can help you develop new ways of thinking to empower growth and development
– To develop new mindsets that will help you successfully manage change amidst external pressures and demands
Ultimately, I explained how by learning to let go of resistance to change, embracing it and taking meaningful action, you can place yourself firmly back in control of change.