Recently a colleague shared with me, that when the Masai Warriors of Kenya greet each other they ask, “How are the children?”
They ask this, because for everyone, even those without children, the response that they are seeking is, “All the children are well.” As according to their social script, things can’t be fully good for one individual or the community unless all the children are thriving.
Mac Macartney speaks of something similar when he recounts the symbolic lighting of the “Children’s Fire” amongst the indigenous people of North America. Mac says:
“I was introduced to the Children’s Fire one night as we sat outdoors by a blazing fire. Since that time, it has become the cornerstone of my thinking about leadership. Many hundreds of years ago, wise women and men, elders of a people who had been enquiring into profound questions concerning leadership, asked the question: “How shall we govern our people?”
One of the great challenges which these elders explored was the complex relationship between the short and long term. It was understood that actions which yield short-term benefits may not always serve the interests of the tribe in the long-term.
Further understanding that the children represented the tribe’s capacity to survive into the future. They understood the necessity of ensuring that the leaders always sought to secure a safe future for the children by testing every major decision against the future wellbeing of the children.
Knowing the power of symbolism, the chiefs ordered that a small fire be kindled in the centre of their council circle. This small fire was called the Children’s Fire and each chief was required to take the pledge of the Children’s Fire before she or he took their seat. The Children’s Fire existed to remind the chiefs of the first law:
No law, no decision, no action, nothing of any kind will be agreed by this council that will harm the children, now or ever. “
With both of these traditions, there is an explicit acknowledgment that every action taken by an adult has a direct impact, for better or worse on our children’s future. And it is therefore a responsibility of every adult, particularly those who hold leadership positions to exhibit caution, care and wisdom in the execution of their duties.
Reflecting on Mac’s words, I can’t help but think how refreshing it would be if in education today, our policy and decision makers took a similar view. How different it would be if they realised in relation to school improvement and current debates around mental health and well-being that:
– Rarely is short term gain a precursor for long-term success
– The health and well-being of our children is a measure of the health of our society as a whole and how the most vulnerable in our society are taken care of
– Many of their decisions have caused harm and radical change is needed to create a future in which all, young and old alike, can thrive.
If we accept that our schools play such an important role in our society, then I believe we have to pay serious consideration as to how we attend to the needs of our school leaders; not just the day-to-day operational and strategic needs, but more importantly the needs of the person in the role.
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!