This blog comes from former Headteacher, IC Associate Coach and “Education for the Soul” 2019 workshop host, Samantha Jayasuriya.
I have worked as a Head for 20 years. I was appointed to my first post of Headteacher in 1998 after covering for a year for my substantive Head who decided to take early retirement after a bout of ill health.
After 9 years, I then moved to one of the first Co-Headships in the Borough, for a period of 5 years and then onto a full-time role as Head in a different school for a further 5 year. I returned to a Co-Headship for my final year as a Head before I started working full time as a coach.
Suffice to say, overall, I did enjoy the challenges of Headship. As a teacher I had had bucketloads of creativity, but realised as time passed in the early years, as a Headteacher, that my creativity had been squeezed, year after year, dampened by reports, data, and more.
As I unpicked my thinking, I realised that I had also started to hide my authentic self. I found myself distancing myself from the staff and sharing less and less, eager to take on the perceived notion of what a Head should do. I spent more time at home working, rather than relaxing.
As a Head with young children, I did not have any time for me and any downtime was napping in front of the TV. There was a distinct lack of creative endeavour. More worryingly, over the last ten years as a Head, I had very effectively stopped giving myself any time.
I was Headteacher, teacher, mother of two small children, wife, daughter and sister to many. But Sam; where was Sam? Speaking to fellow Heads, I knew that this was very common. We shared all our war stories at conferences and network sessions.
Many chose to work very long hours in a drive to stay on top of the heavy workload. Colleagues expressed their relief of being able to be on their own after school closed so the could ‘get down to work’. In the daytime, they would be focused on connecting with the many people who worked in the school.
Many confidentially shared worries about putting a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door in fear of staff disapproval. They felt that in doing so, they were not in service to the school community. They all expressed that they had no time for self and were all pretty exhausted.
For me, the turning point came as I stood in the kitchen of two artists in Honfleur, that my eyes were drawn to the amazing colour before me. The colour wasn’t in a painting but on a sweater. Rust, orange, red and tiny flecks of sage green. On enquiry, I found that one artist had knitted the jumper for the other. Not only had she knitted it but she had spun the wool and naturally dyed the yarn with plants from the garden.
That evening was the spark that re-lit the fire of creating in me. I had always created, having grown up in a household of a dressmaker. But now I felt I couldn’t afford the joy of me time as I had all these other people and projects to worry about. Slowly that anxiety was making me doubt my own thoughts and intentions.
So the decision to take up knitting not only helped me reconnect with myself but became my own method of, helping to calm my mind at the end of a busy day. I decided to share my journey with a huge group of people who were very interested in what I was doing – the pupils at my school.
They listened and questioned whilst I knitted my first cardigan after a 20-year hiatus. They gasped with ‘oh no miss’ when I unravelled the front with its incorrect shaping and cheered when a pupil modelled the finished article. These assemblies encouraged them to be brave, be curious, accept change and showed them how the community is so important for support.
By involving the pupils in my world, I showed them that I was a human too. That like them I needed rest and relaxation. Like them, I needed time to refresh. Like them, I needed to be consistent when learning a new skill. And just like when they are learning to read, write and add, that once that skill was mastered a whole new world opened up.
I learnt to weather the narrow views of some regarding knitters – ‘isn’t knitting just for granny’s?’ In time, I was able to shake some fixed mindsets about what Headteachers do with their time. I am proud to have taught many more people to knit, both young and old, and continue to encourage others to find that creative spark.
The impact on me was immense. Every day since I have sought to live a creative life. By giving myself creative time in my life, I have also given myself time to think and consider new ideas. Time to think has given me reflection time to consider negative thinking patterns which can overwhelm.
Creating connected me with new communities outside the education environment giving me a different perspective on issues inside the school. By working with others in a writing group, knitting/sewing lessons, I continued with my own learning journey. By learning and mastering new skills I kept myself grounded and connected to the experience of my pupils.
All in all, this boosted my wellbeing and built a more resilient Sam. I learnt a huge amount about myself and who Sam is from my reflections on what makes me tick. By standing up to perceived viewpoints of others I made some positive changes which supported me to navigate the stresses and strains of the role.
However, many Headteachers still continue to give all their time to others and a small amount to themselves. Apart from possibly facing burn out, it can sometimes lead to a lack of perspective. By always being on the go with dealing with the tactical, they lose sight of the overall strategy for the school. I do believe that times are beginning to change. The Heads I have coached recently know that time for self is essential.
It gives them the energy to move between what’s going on now and future thinking for their school. They know themselves and what builds their energy and are much more fulfilled by their work.
Do you want to lead with greater authenticity?
We believe that authentic school leadership is crucial for both supporting great leadership and developing healthy schools.
Yet being an authentic school leader can be exceedingly challenging, particularly in the context of an education system which has not, as yet, found a consistent way to enable school leaders to embrace their vulnerability and true sense of personhood.
The current education landscape, can at times feel harsh, brutal and a very unsafe place to show up as our True selves, but it is necessary.
Our schools, our young people need to be led by leaders who understand, as in the words of American author Brene Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.’
In order for that to happen and to learn to show up in this way, leaders need regular spaces where they can take off their leadership cloak and be themselves; a space where they can show their vulnerabilities, be open and honest about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings they are having and be supported to make sense of these in relation to the demands of the role.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have a space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects. Yet school leaders often have no such equivalent to support them on their journey towards greater authenticity.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls for school leaders to provide such a space where leaders can:
– Talk through the challenges you’re currently facing in your role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help you overcome the issues you’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had on you as a leader and as a person.
– Gain clarity in your thoughts and your current situation
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!