To be a Headteacher today is not as simple as the title suggests. It’s likely you aren’t the lead learner or the grand exemplar of what excellent teaching and learning should look like.
To be a Headteacher today means not only must you know your craft, but you must also show that you possess skills that are commensurate with those possessed by social workers, psychologists, politicians, data analysts and a whole host of other roles that remain conspicuously absent from any formal Headteacher job description.
Ask any Head teacher and they will tell you that this is true. Ask any Head teacher and they will tell you that these often-competing roles require them to be able to:
– Switch mental modes quickly and efficiently
– Deal comfortably with conflict
– Adapt with speed to ever-increasing and complex demands
– Engage deeply and constructively with detail and data
– Continually offer their values up for inspection
– Comfortably work with knowledge of all kinds
It’s Hard Emotional Labour
To coin a phrase from Belinda Harris, author of, ‘The Emotional Work of School Leaders’, all of this is “Hard Emotional Labour”. It is “Hard Emotional Labour that creates a high degree of dissonance in the internal world of many a School Leader and is the cause for many a sleepless night.
Thoughts become entangled, negative and increasingly self-depreciating; Many a Head teacher finds that their days and nights are plagued by such thoughts as:
“Am I good enough?”
“ What do other people really think of me?”
“I can’t do this for much longer”
“I am sure others think that they can do a better job”
“When OFSTED comes will that be the end of my career?’
In addition, individuals find it hard to cope with the level of emotional intensity that each role, each situation, each new challenge requires. As a result, many a School Leader finds that:
– Their emotions are suppressed only to be felt as aches and pains in their body
– They ‘numb out’ to cope with the often-overwhelming range of emotions that accompany each day
– They become short-tempered and increasingly irritable
– Relationships become fraught as emotional disconnection gradually becomes a hallmark for the majority of their social interactions
Leaders are human first and foremost and it is these inner needs that must be met if they are to flourish in their roles. Our system gives undue emphasis to the observable, public face of School Leadership’ Leaders are judged by what they say and do and rarely is the question asked, “How can an ‘outstanding’ public performance be maintained?” Yet it is the one question that must be asked for the health and happiness of all our School Leaders and ultimately our children.
Doing the Inner Work
This constant switching between modes, the navigation of relationships with a range of stakeholders requires a need for extremely high levels of physical, emotional and psychological resilience. In order to survive through these pressures, we need to do the inner work that is necessary to sustain us.
So what does the inner work involve? Well doing the inner work means devoting time throughout the school year…
– Developing new ways of thinking and new ways of leading that support them in performing and staying at their best
– Developing a deeper understanding of your emotions and how to deepen your own level of emotional intelligence
– Really coming to understand who you are and what experiences have shaped you as leader
– A deepening of your self-awareness and understanding, so that you can lead yourself with confidence
– A search for meaning amidst the complexities and challenges of school life
When the inner work is undertaken with as much conviction as the outer work, then leaders develop the tools that enable them to thrive and sustain their public performances.
The inner work allows you to address your own negative thoughts and self-judgment. It allows you to challenge those thoughts that cloud your perception of yourself and event, the thoughts which make you question yourself, your judgement and fear what others think.
The inner work allows you to address your own vulnerabilities. The inner work allows you to address your hidden world of thoughts feeling and emotions. The inner work allows you to work through emotions of insecurity, hurt, anger, resentment.
To quote the American author, Parker J Palmer, ‘The inner work is as real as the outer work’ and yet so few School Leaders are supported to have the time to do this inner work that is a key part of what is necessary if our leaders are to both thrive and survive in their roles.
Rising to the Challenges of Headship
From managing excessive workloads, the impact of budget cuts and high levels of personal accountability and public scrutiny – over the years, the role of Headship has always been fraught with challenges and pressures.
However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic back in March 2020, sadly we’ve seen the intense demands on our School Leaders grow yet further.
Not only have leaders had to rapidly adapt to quickly changing government advice and establish new practices and protocols for virtual learning and health and safety monitoring, they’ve also been expected to provide support to their communities and inspiring leadership throughout these difficult times.
Having to manage months of relentless challenge and crisis management (alongside the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic has taken on all of us) has proven to be extremely challenging even for the most experienced and resilient Heads.
And it is now perhaps no surprise that many School Leaders who are reporting feeling battle weary, beleaguered and burnt out. As a result, an NAHT poll back in November 2020 found that almost half of Headteachers plan to leave prematurely – and 70% say job satisfaction has fallen in the past year.
With this, in mind – I believe there’s never been a stronger case for the need to ensure that our School Leaders are properly supported; strategically, operationally and emotionally to ensure they not only survive in the headship role, but also thrive in their attempts to deliver the best outcomes for our children.
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 still, many Heads remain endemically under-supported, without spaces the need to off-load and encouragement they need as they manage the burden of the weight that they have been forced to carry.
Friends and family might offer a listening ear, but again it isn’t easy. Unless they have walked in your shoes, it can feel like no-one really fully understands what you are going through.
However, I know from my own experience as a Headteacher and now as an Executive coach that personalised support is vital, if leaders are to keep their hope alive and stay connected to their vision, passion and purpose.
That’s why I’m now offering free 1:1 Coaching calls to give senior leaders a chance to:
– Talk through and get support with the challenges they’re currently facing
– Reflect on events and the impact they’re having
– Gain clarity about their current situation 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!