This blog comes from Headteacher of Brundall Primary School, Rick Stuart-Sheppard.
Having been in education for several decades now, I’ve had plenty of chance to witness what leadership at its very best looks like in our schools.
In that time, I’ve observed how great leadership often comes when individuals feel empowered from the inside out, are able to take decisions that are right for their own settings and on a personal level, they are emotionally and psychologically ok.
However, I’ve also seen how the circumstances of our education system in the last few years has begun to hinder this, such as the undercurrent of fear that now exists within our profession resulting from an accountability system – that at times, has seemed to be more punitive than supportive.
Meanwhile, there has also been rising stress levels amongst Heads, who are increasingly expected to manage change that is driven by external forces and in a direction that many feel is the wrong one, such as the imposed Curriculum a few years ago and enforced academisation more recently.
The ‘symptoms’ of stress, over-work, external judgments and demands can end up taking up so much space, that it is easy to forget to look at the aspects of life that can help us build resilience, persistence and capacity for learning and growth.
This inevitably has had an impact on our schools as after all, ‘When the Head sneezes, the whole school catches a cold’ as one education guru remarked.
I can’t remember which leader said it, but I think it really crystallises the impact of how the Head conducts him or herself about the school as, if the head is stressed, that stress flows from the Head throughout the veins of the school and circulates.
Equally, a Head attending to their own well being communicates that sense of okay-ness as they move through the school, and everyone moves a little further up the scale of being able to make a positive contribution to the school community and learning.
I believe if we are to ensure that the latter is the case for our leaders and in turn, our schools, we need to focus on two aspects of well-being and mental health that sometimes get overlooked: purpose and community.
There is considerable evidence such as from The Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, that our connectedness with social groupings helps people to feel happier and more able to take charge of their lives and find solutions to the problems they are facing.
Meanwhile research from Stanford University, showed that there were very real health benefits to our social connectedness, with their research showing that it can help people live longer, recover from disease faster and protect against illness.
Moreover, their studies also showed that those who feel more connected to others, tended to have lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem and greater empathy and trust for others.
As Helen Keller is quoted as seeing in the recent book “Deep Learning” by Michael Fullan, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much more’.
There is nothing we do in school that stands in isolation, and so the quality of every single relationship in the school matters. Crucially, this should also include the head’s own relationship to self and whether they are looking after themselves to a sufficient degree, so that they can create and enable positive, constructive relationships.
I certainly know from my own experience that the more I can connect with my (moral) purpose, that education is a force for good and for helping ourselves and the world get better, the more empowered, creative and alive I feel.
This, in turn is strengthened by my connectedness to others-my relationship with Governors, my relationship with the leadership team and staff, as well as groups I belong to outside of school.
That’s why I also think events like Integrity Coaching’s upcoming Headteacher Review and Reflect session is so vital, in helping Heads to not just rekindle their purpose, and reflect on their own contexts, but also to provide them a chance to connect with fellow heads.
I know it will be a good way to ensure that I am ‘connecting’ and relating in a way that sustains my well-being and so I’m looking forward to joining this event on the East Coast soon!
A Chance to Reflect
In the frenetic life of a school leader time and space are increasingly rare commodities. With a constant flow of meetings to be held, problems to solve and fires to put out – it can be very hard for leaders to find the time and space to be still and think.
As a result, it can feel though there is rarely any time for you to take a step back and reflect on one’s leadership and more widely on the issues you’re facing. However, without this chance to stop and consider what’s working and what isn’t – many leaders find themselves repeatedly making the same mistakes or simply leading on “autopilot”.
This lack of space also means many have very few avenues for exploring and talking through the emotional aspects of the role, the challenges it poses and the impact is having upon them, mentally, emotionally and physically.
In turn, this can (without doubt) increase the risk of emotional ‘burn out’. When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating to our ability to lead others, our health and our overall well-being. Having been a Head myself, I know all too well what this feels like but equally what must be done to prevent it!
That’s why we’re now offering this “Headteacher Review and Reflect” session on Tuesday 21st May at Mill House in Suffolk from 1.00pm – 4.00pm.
This session is designed to be a space where Heads can come together to take stock, review the goals that they set at the start of the year, re-build your emotional reserves and achieve a clearer sense of what you want to achieve across the rest of the school year.
With a mixture of solution-focused questions, reflection on think-pieces and facilitated group work, it is our hope that those who attend the session will come away with…
– A greater sense of clarity about steps they need to take to achieve their goals for the following term
– An understanding of how to be better cope with the stresses of school leadership and stay well in the process
– New connections and relationships with other Heads that they can tap into as a source of support
– Increased confidence in their own ability as a school leader and how to carry out the role in a way that maintains their integrity and authenticity