What Happens When Leaders Find Headspace

This Blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small. 

When I look back on my time as a Headteacher, time never stood still.

There was an abundance of meetings to hold, opportunities to be taken advantage of, problems to solve, fires to put out…  Yet, there was always a shortage of what I needed most …time and space.  Time to be still and space to think and feel.

In the frenetic life of a School Leader time and space are rare commodities. By not affording time to reflect on lessons learnt, people can find themselves repeatedly making the same mistakes.  The lack of space also limits avenues to explore and process the emotional aspects of the role.

As a result, life as a leader can feel mentally, emotionally and physically intense.  This level of intensity, which most School Leaders experience, usually brings exhaustion and too often leads to ill-health and burnout.

Increasingly, ill-health and stress-related issues have made us more aware of the need to protect the mental health of our young people, our teachers and School Leaders. We have come to realise that time and space are important conditions for a healthy life and sustained hard work.

With time and space, individuals are able to process their thoughts and feelings, develop a more compassionate approach to looking after themselves and find new ways for sustaining a healthy emotional equilibrium. Various contexts are available for School Leaders to attend to these things.  One of the most effective we have found is to offer what we call:

– A space to think
– A space to be
– A space to feel safe
– A space to understand and be understood
– A space to map the way ahead

Some may feel that devoting time to such a space is nebulous or indulgent but on the contrary, we have seen how having Headspace is an essential part of a professional and personal ‘infrastructure’.  I certainly know I would be less balanced, self-aware and available to others if I didn’t have such space. To be responsible for helping so many others to be OK means taking responsibility for making sure we’re OK ourselves!

Since I’ve been creating such spaces for myself and others for over fifteen years now, I thought I would reflect on the experience and try to explain what this space gives me. It helps me to remember what really matters, let go of negative habits of mind and renew and reinforce some positive ones.

Given the space to think and reflect, one thing I remind myself of is the balance between making things happen and letting things happen.  Our life journeys are always a blend of these two ways of relating to events.

As a Head, I used to pride myself on making things happen.  Since I stopped, I have become much better at understanding how much that happens is beyond my control and governed by the extraordinary system of humanity and nature that I am a part of.

When I forget this, I usually become frustrated by things I could never expect to anticipate or control.  I learn again to notice and appreciate the effects and signs of this interconnected system of exchange and interaction, between humanity and the world we inhabit.  I notice that I attract to myself experiences and relationships, whether joyful or painful, exquisitely tailored to what I needed to learn, on my journey towards awareness and wisdom.

I also remember to get back in touch with a quiet, loving, vulnerable but honest, clear and healthy ‘inner me’: a surprisingly strong but wise and patient self, that I keep too well defended when I’m tired, over-stretched and have forgotten all this.
What do I let go of, that’s negative?

The most important things I stop doing are worrying and over-reacting.  Getting away and slowing my pace, expanding my consciousness by reflecting with the help of a group, I’ll stop worrying about:

– Things that don’t matter as much as I think they do
– Things that will sort themselves out more quickly if I don’t interfere
– Things that I can’t deal with yet because they haven’t happened
– Things that have happened and I can’t change
– What other people think of me.

I understand that worrying about all these things has led me to overreact and often made them worse, not better. With this space, I renew habits of mind that I know are helpful, but which tend to lapse over time and under pressure:

– Listening to what Parker Palmer1 calls my ‘inner knower’: that instinct for the right response, that I need to trust in order to make rapid decisions with integrity
– Experiencing and allowing my feelings to flow more freely, letting them overwhelm me if they’re that strong. (This I don’t usually feel safe to do in everyday life, but it is immensely cathartic in a safe space and helps me to empathise more authentically with other people.)
– Reminding myself that everything passes and changes as long as I let go
– Trusting myself to lead from a place of passion and compassion, letting what I do and say flow more naturally from who I am
– Trusting others to be inspired by me, as I am by them, when we are truly open and ready to learn.

When I return, I carry the benefit of these changes, I know I am more tolerant, a better listener, a wiser decision-maker and easier and more engaging to work and live with, than I was before.

I am sure there is more congruence between what I say, what I do and how I come across, making it easier for people to know and trust my integrity.  I believe these are important qualities of effective and sustainable leadership.

 This past year has brought many unprecedented challenges for the teaching profession and Headteachers in particular, have had to engage with their role, their staff and their communities in ways that they could never have imagined prior to the events of last year.

For many School Leaders there is now an emerging need to:

 – Review their role and find a deeper meaning from what has unfolded
– Renew and revisit their sense of vocation and purpose within the context of the impact of the Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement
– Reflect on lessons learned from this period and how they might influence their own leadership and the relationship that they have with themselves and others

As important as these needs are, we know all too well, that the spaces to think and reflect deeply on such matters are few and far between. This lack of space can mean that there are very few avenues for exploring and talking in depth about the immense challenges of this past year and also exploring solutions for moving forward.

Our “Developing Headspace” programme has been designed to meet this need. The programme has run successfully for several years and in light of recent events, our September cohort will have a particular focus on restoration and rejuvenation and what this means in the lives of Headteachers.

The programme will provide a reflective space for leaders to renew perspective, think strategically and refresh the vitality of their core purpose. It will also support individual capacity for authentic, inspiring and sustainable leadership, as well as provide on-going care, support and encouragement for leaders across the school year.


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