I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down
Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
I recently heard that when Tony Blair was asked how he had lasted so long as Prime Minister he took out his wallet, opened it and produced a folded piece of paper on which two words were written:
This was the advice he was given on his first day leading the UK by his security advisors. No matter the situation we need you to stand up so that we know where you are and then we will do the rest.
There is so much to say about the trials and tribulations of school leaders but one issue that seems to be rife at the moment is how ‘leaders’ weather the stresses and strains within their role- how they are able to ‘keep standing’ when everything around them seems to be falling to pieces.
I wrote a tweet last night that said:
My one and only headteacher tip: Stand Up…
No matter what comes your way it will be, at worst, a weeks’ worth of stress. Just keep thinking – what do I need to do to just stand tall? And just do it. It is your school and you deserve to be there. Remember why you got there.
Apart from being badly written there are many inaccuracies in this tweet. Firstly, I was thinking about the day to day stresses of the role. The parent complaint, nasty Facebook comments, general staffing and pupil issues… The problem is that though these can have a devastating impact upon leader wellbeing (especially when combined with other issues in some perverse multiplier effect) they usually just need the school leader to stand tall through them and they pass on by. I was trying to get across that many of our stresses just don’t merit the damage they do to our confidence.
What my tweet did not address was the bigger and more profound stresses on a school leader such as long drawn out staffing issues, parental complaints that only seem to escalate, the fall out of a bad Ofsted, the weight of child protection issues that keep you awake, the loneliness of decisions made… and the slow decline of our own mental health as we deal with these issues. These are never just a weeks’ worth of stress and they are usually with school leaders 24/7.
I believe the same principle applies though… we have to learn to ‘Stand Up’ when the weight of our problems are dragging us down. The only way through them is to keep moving forward to never lie down and give up to them. Once you go down and stay down, in my experience, you are lost. I remember going in to support a school once where the head teacher had turned a sofa in their office in to a bed. I didn’t need to know any more – I immediately knew that there was no way the school was being lead effectively if someone felt they needed to be in school in this way. We talk a lot about the confidence of a school leader and this is a crucial part of the role but more importantly, for me, is a leader’s honesty about how they are coping.
I had a difficult week this week – as did many of my leaders and there was one point where I felt myself being overwhelmed… I just asked everyone to leave the room, I then went for a walk and did not begin to address the issue until much later. I then went home – slightly defeated but positive that the next day would bring progress. This is an honesty that I have learnt because I know that I am not always sure, confident or even able to work out what to do in certain situations (Though everyone thinks you should be). I need to buy some time before I make decisions that could have a long term impact I come to regret.
As I have said so often – Longevity is the only real test of success in education. That is not some ode to a 35 year nonstop career that progresses smoothly. Longevity is about the slings and arrows just as much as the peaks. Those who have weathered the hardest times know that in the moment all may feel like it is lost but give it time and I have seen people come back in to education stronger and wiser. At the beginning of my headship career I had a horrific situation to go through that even now I have never blogged about or reflected on in detail (It is still too raw). This went on for 18 months!?! I know that it goes away though because it has no impact on my role as a leader now apart to add to my knowledge bank. I have worked with heads who became teachers, heads who support others wellbeing and heads who still work in education and all are happy to be where they are and comfortable (retrospectively) about how they got there. I think as we move forward, as we stand up and take the painful blows remembering where we came from and knowing that this experience will be over is key to getting through it.
Remembering where we came from – why we are here taking this crap in the first place – is something school leaders need to spend time on. You very likely made it to this role because you were the best person for it. Just because times are hard that does not change your skills and knowledge – your perception changes it. How you view yourself and this can be the killer punch – knocking yourself down is usually far more effective than the damage anyone else can do to you.
So, Standing Up is a career long skill to learn as a school leader. Whatever the problem remember to look down at your feet and if they are still firmly planted on the floor and you are still standing; take a deep breath and remember what it feels like.