Managing Your Emotions as a School Leader

This is the final part of a blog series from Headteacher of Three Bridges School, Jeremy Hannay (@HannayJeremy). 

It’s a Tuesday morning – I have just walked through the door and sat down at my desk after my 40 mile drive to work. 

I have a million and one things on my mind, have opened up my long list of things to do and just started crafting a reply to a difficult email I received, attempting to avoid an escalation.  Then there is a inevitable knock at my door.

First – I am THINKING – ‘This better be really important!’ But my response is: ‘Good Morning! How are you?’ 

This conversation goes a number of ways, but often is something like: 

‘I’m wondering if you had a chance to look at the email I sent you?’ (The one they sent me 5 minutes ago or last night at 11pm).

Now – I am THINKING – ‘You know I have just arrived – and I haven’t even been here 5 minutes…’

But my response is: ‘I’m really sorry, I haven’t had a chance yet.  What’s up?’

‘It’s just that I’m not sure everyone knows what’s happening for book day – and maybe you could send an email to everyone reminding them of the day, etc.’

Now – I am THINKING – ‘You have got to be joking. You have fingers, a keyboard and a computer – if you think that people don’t know, YOU SEND THE EMAIL! You had time to send me one!’

But my response is:‘Oh Dear! Let me do that with you right now.  It completely slipped my mind.  Thanks for bringing this up.  And – hey – next time, if communication seems light, please do feel free to send it for me.’

Obviously – this is a slight exaggeration of my inner voice.  I am not always a complete monster.  But – when I am not under the gun, it’s easy to be nice.

When you’re under pressure – which as HTs in England, we are almost 99% of the time – it is much harder to perceive emotions, manage emotions and act in emotionally appropriate ways.  Our responses, appropriate or otherwise, define the relationship with our staff and the smooth running of the school (or not!).

EQ: Our Emotional Quotient

Our Emotional Quotient is our ability to recognise our own emotions and those of other people.  It means being aware of body language, tone, background, strengths and struggles.  It involves having a cultural awareness (ex: how we express our dissatisfaction in Canada is actually quite different that in England).

Having a well developed emotional intelligence is another piece of the puzzle, when trying to build a culture of trust.

Perceiving Emotions

How in tune are we to our own emotions – how mindful are we?  In the example above, I was conscious of the fact that the email I was sending initially was of a very sensitive nature and my response was important.  This meant that I needed to be hyper-vigilant when interacting with others so that my stress and anxiety did not become theirs.

Perceiving emotions means being aware of your own emotional state and discerning the state of others through their own verbal and non-verbal queues. If someone comes in angry or frustrated, I meet them with compassion and care.  Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about – and I always hope that when I am angry or frustrated, I am met with the same care and compassion I give out.

Managing Emotions

Reflection is a large part of leadership.  Managing emotions is really about reflecting on our own emotional responses and their potential consequences – both positive and negative.  Sometimes I want to scream – sometimes I want to hug.  Both have consequences.

Knowing when and where those responses are best – beginning with the end in mind (as Covey would say!) is as important with our emotions as it is with our operational decisions.  In addition to this, managing emotions is also about how we support others to do the same.  As School Leaders, we recognise student behaviour as something that needs to be modelled and taught – however, often with adults, we lose that thought.

We ran a staff meeting last year where one of the exercises was to do some mindful tasting – to take a raisin and roll it around in your mouth for a minute.  What texture did it have?  What did we notice about it?  Did it have a taste? Did it change at all over the minute?

The point was to be reflective and appreciative of the moment. How often do we just shove food in our mouths so we can get on to the next thing?  When was the last time we actually mindfully tasted our meals?  It was about living in the moment and appreciating life.  It was also about managing our emotions – that everything changes when we take a minute to pause – reflect – respond.

Acting in Emotionally Appropriate Ways

You are a weather maker.  In our buildings, when we are low – when we are stressed, anxious, panicked – the staff reflect that.  Acting in emotionally appropriate ways is about exercising control over which emotions guide our actions.  Are you in control?  When you are responding to a person or situation, who is it about? Is it about you?  Is it about them?  Is it about the children?  Something else?

This is EXCEPTIONALLY IMPORTANT to unpick.  Our default answer is almost always ‘it is whats best for the children.’  I challenge that.  I challenge both that we always act in the best interests of the children (we can’t be mother Theresa all the time!) and the notion that children must always come first.  We are soil people.  Often, to take care of the children, we need to take care of someone or something else.  We need to take care of the people that take care of our people.

When Ofsted called a few weeks ago, I was out doing some work in another school.  A member of staff anxiously asked if I was coming back NOW.  I said no.  I’ll be back in time for lunch, talk with the staff and we’ll go about our day as usual.

The school I was at graciously offered me a swift departure – I said no thank you.  What was most important to me in those moments was that my response was not a reaction to the situation but a response that has been practiced 1000x over in my mind.

I have seen schools and leaders go in to complete panic-mode after ‘the call’.  Staff get wound up, miss their lunch, stay until midnight to re-back boards or mark book or plan flawless lessons.  I did not want that in my school.  I wanted staff to enjoy their lunch, go home early and rest, and the school to not be ‘on show’.  The two days Ofsted was due to visit also weren’t going to be changed either – it would send the wrong message to staff. I had pre-planned visits with HTs from Wiltshire and then further abroad from Germany and Belgium.

They went ahead.  If the staff saw me cancelling visits, stopping the school show, not supporting other schools – they would also change.  That is not what I wanted.

I don’t take care of children anymore.  Teachers take care of children.  We take care of the teachers so that they can take care of our children.  How is it that you would want your teachers to be supporting our pupils – when they misbehave, when they are struggling with learning, when they don’t understand, when they need more or different or special – when things in their life stink?  Show them what that looks like to care.

I recently read a blog by a new HT after their first year that said one of the things they had learnt was the courage to call out poor practice – when they saw it.  While I am sure this has the best of intentions about raising standards and supporting development, I see it as inherently flawed.

There are times that staff come to me with gripes about other staff – someone is not pulling their weight, they’re not doing what’s right or they feel frustrated with their level of commitment to something.  The easy thing for me to do is call them on it.  But the easy thing and the right thing are often not the same.  This is where I like to go deeper – ask WHY.

See things from that teacher’s perspective.  What is causing the performance issue – what is causing the complaining teacher to be dissatisfied?  Alignment, balance and harmony come from a series of complex relationships within and between staff and their lives outside of work. The worst thing I can do is respond immediately (unless it is VERY serious).

The best thing I can do is listen – pause and reflect – and respond later.  Acting in an emotionally controlled and appropriate way – this is not situational.  It is a constant. It means pausing your thoughts in the now for a better, more nuanced response later.

Walking the Talk – by Jeremy Hannay

Our ability to lead others is based primarily on trust, and this trust is founded a a number of factors. However, arguably the largest is the extent to which as a leader, we are authentic, genuine and honest.

After all, there’s no sense walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching. This is often a very complex piece of work. We can all describe what we do, and many of us can talk about how we do it.

But not all of us can understand and properly articulate WHY  we are doing what we’re doing…

Learn More


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