“We all end up in diapers.” Daisy – curious case of Benjamin Button.
Dear aspiring head teacher,
Do not read this.
You may die before your retirement…
Do not be angry with me. Do not turn from your path because time has addled my mind and my medication can do strange things to ambition. Or so I am told. You don’t need me to tell you this, but I will, there are times when being the head teacher is so stressful that you can see your face age in the mirror before you. You are not Dorian Grey. You are human.
I hope you are not still reading?
This is not a rallying cry to ‘The Best Job In The World’. It is not pretty.
I heard of another head who died before he was fifty this week. A heart attack. It scares me but I am never surprised. It was half term this week. I sat down on Friday night to relax. Like a fool I noted I had mail on my iPad. I opened it… Another grievance. My heart burst as I read it. I have read many over the years – the bursting heart reaction only gets more intense with time. I am 45.
When one becomes a head teacher things get complicated.
I have been slowly soaking up my many years of experience. When I was a new head nothing fazed me. Experience is the name we give to our mistakes as Oscar Wilde said. Problem is, as a head, experience is the name we give to having to deal with everyone’s mistakes. Including our own. There are a lot of mistakes to be made.
Once upon a time headship bought a quiet and firm authority. You marched the corridors and the room went quiet when you entered. This time has long gone. There are days where I feel utterly used and abused, a husk. I have been verbally assaulted (and assaulted via the written word) on more occasions than I can count. Rarely by children. I hosted a CP conference recently in which the Police said, “Best remove the glass.” I am ok with this. But you must understand it comes with a cost. A head told me very early into my first headship, “You must remember you have to treat everyone as though they have butterfly wings… And remember they think you have the hide of a Rhino!”. My hide is crisscrossed with scars, some deeper than others… But all scars leave their mark. When I was working in Tower Hamlets a friend used to joke that I was on the front line… “It’s fucking Nam man.” It wasn’t but there were days when things were so surreal that a normal mind had to be affected. I look back at Tower Hamlets with rose tinted glasses. It was the time of my life.
I have over the years sat in meetings where the things that have been disclosed (meaning handed over for you to deal with) are beyond my training… Nothing prepares you for the many situations a headship can throw at you:
Rape, FGM, human trafficking, death/ suicide (of children, staff, governors and parents), abuse, mental illness, special measures, divorce, affairs, 7/7 bombings, sudden sackings, failure (SATs, Ofsted or LA review), a letter from a lawyer, tribunals, parental complaints, 999 emergency calls to school or the 1001 other situations headship presents upon a silver plate. You know those books 1001 films to see before you die? There are times in headship where I think its 101 things that will help you to die quicker… I am at that stage in my career where opportunity keeps knocking. I keep asking myself. Is it worth the stress?
Now it is very important that I say this. I would do nothing else. I am proud, blessed even, to lead my schools and I know what needs to be done. I have sat in my car, last week included, and sang at the top of my voice bathed in the glory of being THE head of MY schools. But ignore this stress at your peril. Here’s my point, I was not prepared for this. I learnt to deal with it because I had to. I learnt from heads with hardened hearts – with a force field surrounding them that seemed to cut out the sun. I learnt from emotional wrecks – storming out of staff meetings because someone questioned the font on the teaching and learning policy. I learnt from the many casualties I have witnessed over the years. Each one a reminder that this is not a job for the insecure. Most importantly I learnt from myself.
I do not have a hard shell. I am not the hard leader. I am only honest. My strength comes from a hard honesty. I liken myself to putty. If you prod me I change shape. You can see the impact marks. Whereas, the head with a hard shell. You can prod them time and time again and you will see nothing… But one day they crack and shatter. Try putting a shattered head back together? Whereas, the reshaped putty keeps changing – It may just be a little grubbier.
So, if you have got this far. Here is my advice.
DO IT! Headship is never boring. It is a job with which you can be assured that you can make a big difference. But acknowledge this much:
You will be scared.
You do not know it all. Furthermore, you never will.
It is OK to cry. Just not in front of the children or staff please.
You will fail. Sometimes privately and sometimes VERY publicly.
You do not have to carry it all alone – find your tribe.
It is OK to watch the teachers do what you can no longer do. Admit that they know teaching better than you. Do not confuse monitoring and strategy with what they do. Accept that with each term this part of you will wither as you do not have daily contact with teaching at the front face.
Take your (And others) Well-being seriously! Really seriously! Don’t roll your eyes at the mention of the word. That is the folly of the least experienced – or the heartless.
You may find that you cannot do it… Getting out is hard but keep going at your (and the schools) utter peril. When you fail do you have people around you who understand this? Failing in the perfect new world of education can be harsh. Look around you at those who slap your back in times of plenty. Will they hold you up in times of struggle? I’ll give you 10 seconds to work that one out…
So, the longer I do this the less I think I know about doing it. It is as though experience fails me. Is it that the enormity hits you over time? Is it that experience teaches us we know nothing? Or is it that we learn understanding through dissolving our ignorance? Maybe ignorance is bliss?
Not a nice thought but you start headship in your new suit but you soon realise that you might just end up in a diaper.
If you know of someone thinking of headship… Share this with them. If they get this far – if they are ok with diapers – then there may be hope.