"Two decades as a Headteacher took its toll"


This blog comes from a secret Headteacher who undertook Integrity Coaching’s NEU 18-19 Coaching programme. The research study into the impact of this programme has since been published by Leeds Beckett University in January 2020. 

I applied for a place on the Integrity Coaching Headteacher programme, funded by the NEU, in 2018 at a time when I was struggling to manage the various pressures and demands of my role.

I became a Headteacher in 1999, and there had inevitably been numerous occasions over the previous two decades when my job had been challenging, stressful and all consuming; but this felt different.

I was three years into my third headship, running a successful school with a fantastic staff team and a very supportive school community. My life outside of teaching was also good, a happy marriage, gorgeous family and living in a beautiful part of the country.

Running on an Empty Tank

There was no reason to feel the way I did as far as I could tell. There was no reason for the anxiety I felt every day on the drive into work, or the 3am worries that kept me awake, or the lack of enthusiasm I could muster for anything outside of work. There was no logical reason for these feelings, but that didn’t seem to make them any less debilitating.

Part of me felt that having been a Headteacher for almost twenty years meant that I was battle hardened and resilient. Looking back it’s clear that the opposite was true. Two decades of relentless pressure (much of it self-imposed), scrutiny, fear of failure, high stakes inspections and perfectionism and had taken its toll.

I could point to particular incidents that accelerated my decline, but the truth is that I simply hadn’t looked after myself properly in terms of my mental health, or realised that I the tank was close to empty. As a result, day to day issues that I should have been able to deal with easily became harder to manage.

Finding Support

I’d been to my GP who told me that my symptoms were common amongst teachers, particularly Headteachers, and that I should perhaps consider a change of profession, not really the answer I was looking for. I booked a telephone coaching call with Viv Grant in response to an email Integrity Coaching had sent out. I didn’t really know what I expected from the call, but equally I didn’t know what else to do.

By the end of the call Viv had identified the extent of the problem and signposted me towards additional coaching support with Integrity Coaching. I knew that my school didn’t have the budget to fund the programme, but Viv mentioned the NEU sponsored initiative.

Coincidentally, having been an NAHT member for over twenty years a number of factors had led me to become extremely dissatisfied with the union’s overall level of support locally, and lack of challenge over key educational changes nationally.  This made the decision to return to the NEU and apply for the Integrity Coaching programme a fairly logical one to make.

Having successfully gained a place on the programme I was supported by an experience coach. This was the first time in my career that I’ve ever had coaching of any sort, and the impact on my personal and professional well-being was significant.

Re-building Resilience

Through the coaching programme, I have gained an invaluable insight into how and why I reached such a low ebb in 2018. Whilst there are no miracle cures or quick fixes for the long term effects of prolonged stress and pressure that I’ve placed myself under, I feel that I now have the tools to self-awareness to begin to manage these issues more effectively. I am therefore hopeful that I can continue in my role as a Headteacher for the remainder of my career, being effective but without causing further damage to my own health.

It’s impossible to say for sure what would have happened if I had not become part of the coaching programme. There is a chance that I would have picked myself up and carried on for a while. I am however convinced in my own mind that I was as close to becoming ill, and that without help I may well have struggled to carry on in the role.

It is rare to find a job in any walk of life these days that is pressure free. That said, there are few jobs which carry such a high stakes public accountability as that of being a headteacher. Added to this, there is the seemingly constant need to change and adapt to the latest Ofsted focus or change of policy direction from the DfE, whilst at the same time trying to organise the school in a manner which is aligned in some ways to needs of the community and the values which led you into this profession in the first instance.

A duty of care to School Leaders

In short, being a Headteacher in the 21st Century is a challenging role. Having worked in three local authorities and as Headteacher of three schools, I have lost count of the number of School Leaders and colleagues I have known who have been forced to leave the profession early on health related grounds.

It almost seems to have become an accepted and acceptable risk of the job. Aside from the catastrophic personal and professional consequences to the individual, the impact on the school, the staff and the pupils that losing a head has is clearly anything but acceptable.

I am very grateful to the NEU and Integrity Coaching for leading the way in seeking to address issue of Headteacher wellbeing and sustainability in such a proactive manner.

The sad fact is that the pressures and challenges that Heads are facing is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future. Indeed, one could argue that without professional coaching becoming a standard part of the support that School Leaders are offered, it is hard to imagine how we will reduce the damage being caused to our schools and our profession through the untimely and unnecessary loss of talented School Leaders from the system.

I would therefore urge policy makers, unions and schools alike to heed the recommendations of Leeds Beckett University’s new report “Sustaining a Vital profession” that came out of this coaching programme, and ensure this type of provision becomes part of the duty of care that all School Leaders are offered in their role.

After 18 months of research and evaluation, in January 2020, Leeds Beckett University published their long-awaited research report into the impact of leadership coaching in schools.

The research is the first of its academic research of its kind to explore the relationship between coaching, wellbeing and leadership effectiveness amongst Senior School Leaders.

As part of this, the report shines light on the common emotional and psychological challenges of Headship, and the impact these can have on our Headteachers and School Leaders.

On top of this, the research report also plots a path forward and highlights the crucial role coaching can play in our schools, in particular:

– The powerful impact that leadership coaching has on both personal and in turn, school performance
– The role coaching can play in supporting well-being, professional practice and personal development
– How coaching can support Headteacher retention and the sustainability of the role

If you’d like to download the full report, please follow the link below…

Read the Report

“Headteachers give so much of themselves to support teachers and to make a positive impact on children and young people, and yet they experience some of the highest levels of stress in the system.  At a time when the challenges in the education system are becoming acute, this research demonstrates that specialist coaching can make a real difference in the professional and personal lives of Headteachers.”

Professor Rachel Lofthouse


One Response

  1. Thank you for taking the time and courage to share your experiences; they resonate very strongly with my experiences, which were in the private sector. I also took Viv Grant’s excellent course after I (semi) retired. It has made me reflect on what challenges I experienced and I now coach current heads with greater empathy and authenticity. The programme is outstanding.

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