It has been a tough few weeks. I used to say, “I never get stressed”. I was an idiot. What I should have said was, “I never noticed my stress”. I have allowed the adversities and complications of headship to grow inside of me ignored for far too many years. The little things that happen, a cross word said on twitter, a slightly difficult school improvement visit, a late night parent email, a minor child protection concern… the things that sit on your thoughts before you close your eyes at night. They do not dispel into the darkness, they often go underground ready to meet up with the bigger issues such as the utter emptiness of a parent, staff or a child’s death, an official complaint, an assassinating public letter, an Ofsted condemnation or a grievance (the horrible thing is I could list thousands of examples). The ‘whole’ of stress is more than a sum of its parts though.
I have seen this from a distance in others. I have seen colleagues crumpled and empty. I have seen the weight of problems (not always the most difficult) burden leaders like a chain of kryptonite around the neck of Superman because the ‘will to go on’ did not listen to the common sense of ‘enough is enough’. I have taken phone calls in the night that just ask, “Why?” I have rarely given responses that dignified the question. I always thought I was some super being because I was able to incinerate stress like electric fly killers… whereas in fact I was the camel in the Sahara futilely swatting at flies. I always remember this quote from a colleague after a member of his team committed suicide hours before her final NPQH assessment, ‘I had known her for about eight years and she was excellent at her job. She would have made an outstanding head in her own right’. She had ‘lost her confidence’ the inquest decided. A lot more was lost. I still can not imagine what it was like for the very respected head teacher to have a suicide note addressed to him? The strength it must have took? Perspective is one of the greatest stress levellers I find.
I think we misunderstand the word resilience.
Resilience to stress is a myth. The problem is resilience really means ‘bouncing back to your original state’. What if you don’t know what your original state was though? I often speak to people and many assume that resilience is our ability to resist stress. That the better you are at ‘resilience’ the more you can resist.
Stress is complex; it works with a ninja-like stealth and you only know about it when there is a ruffle in the wind and a cold sharp pressure upon your throat. The resilience part is your ability to bounce back from hardship and ordeal. We need certain things to ‘bounce back’ – most importantly we need a place to bounce back to. The problem is a lot of what we do in schools is about the ‘long distances’ and this sits awkwardly with the immediate culture of improvement that so many of us hear from those that do not have to DO it. Getting your affirmation in this culture usually feels worthless when you have real problems in the real world and many of these are painful. I am now developing a response to stress that says, “You can run but you cannot hide… So why am I running?” By thrusting the unpleasantness out of my immediate conscious all I am doing is delaying its impact. Resilience is not how far you can turn up your force-shields – resilience is ‘knowing’ where you want to be and how to get back to that place.
Everyone needs affirmation; everyone needs validation of what they are doing. I have found, over time, that none need it more than leaders, managers or teachers in schools. The problem is we quite often get the affirmation from someone who does not feel the twist in our stomachs. It really bugs me when someone tells me to have a relaxing weekend or to forget about it. HOW? How can I get these thoughts in MY head in to a place where they are safe? I am not the type of person who can relax on a beach knowing I have RISKS that either are happening at that point or will be happening soon. As head teacher, I believe you sometimes feel the weight of accountability like no one else. So, the hot bath… It means nothing to me.
I have to acknowledge the risks and I have to be sure I have done everything I could do to lower those risks. Whether this is a member of staffs wellbeing or a safeguarding issue over the weekend. I don’t like going in to the weekend feeling like I am playing roulette. I need certainties not glib affirmation based on chance. That is why I have colleagues who give me brutal feedback. They buy me a drink after but they do not hesitate to tell me what they really think. As you can imagine I spend the odd weekend in a state of stressed concern because getting the certainties is becoming hard. I don’t want to rant about social services here… but I am left more concerned about the pressures on this service than at any time in my career. I have never seen it so stretched.
It has been a tough week. I am stressed. Not biting my nails or anxious and furtive stress. I am stressed because that is, sadly, the natural state to be in it seems. I am stressed because I am acknowledging the fact that I find what I do difficult. I would be a liar if I said anything else. I find the demands hard. I am stressed because if I was not I would not be a head teacher.