Oh, in no time at all
This’ll be the distant past
Father John Misty – Ballad of a dying man
Very recently I have had to admit to myself that I am not made of iron; that I cannot just ride over every problem and kid myself it does not damage me. This has been a difficult process.
In 16 years of headship I have seen the role of the head teacher become something that is akin to building an object that was immune to gravity. An impossible task governed by rules that promise to bend expectation and meet the immeasurable (Unless you are Ofsted of course). To do so we have to break the very fabric of our own moral codes – to meet Ofsted’s constantly allusive benchmarks or external targets that skip the laws of space and time and assume the fantastic is the norm . To be a good leader we need to be something that transcends the ordinary – ordinary is for losers. On top of this we are governed by politicians that happily accept the greed of bigger and better whilst pretending that less money is a factor for perfection.
Recently I have not been as well as I should be and as hard as I convince myself that my health is not governed by this magnificent job I have to come to the conclusion that it is.
Every head teacher I talk to tells me their health is not what they want it to be… I have lost count of collegues who have been scared by the job – some still here and others long gone. The longer you lead the worse it would seem to get. Maybe I am speaking to the wrong head teachers? You know? The weak ones? The problem is I don’t speak to any head teachers who speak about the wellbeing benefits of leading a school right now! I see nothing but the fallout of taking this role on and feeling you are fighting a losing battle in the eyes of colleagues reflected in my own.
The fact that it is accepted that a 60-hour week is not unusual and 20 different priorities can be met to the same high standard – going from exclusions, to families in crisis, to speeches about Empathy, to inspiring words after amazing performances, to calming conflict, to performance reviews, to developing a life skills curriculum, to chairing meetings, to offering advice – all in the click of a calendar appointment – how the head teacher adjusts to so many critical roles is one of the key survival factors to leadership in schools. But adjusting is not looking after yourself.
We all get old and when ‘Old Primary Head’ is no longer a weak and possibly rather egotistical joke it is time to start listening to what my body is telling me. I am 50 and many will say – that is not old and maybe it isn’t – but 16 years a head teacher in challenging circumstances is long (Increasingly so). If I want to do 10 more it means I HAVE to learn to listen to my body and not just my brain… My younger, cocky new head teacher self, used to look towards these dinosaurs and scoff – what do they know about survival in this brave new world? We don’t need their negative, defeatist propaganda pasted to the walls of progress. Damn them all… Education! Education! Education! is a young leaders game. I have the energy and lifestyle to prove it. I hate my younger self with a vengeance now. He was an arrogant dick…
I have always been brutally honest and I often share more than many people want to hear (This is part of my own coping strategy – by being candid I face up to the reality that is out there). So, with the tutting and shaking heads of colleagues ringing in my ear I cautiously write this blog. Five weeks ago the doctors refused to let me leave the surgery because my blood pressure was critically high. I had rushed to the surgery after what could be described as a ‘difficult day’ late for an appointment and then BANG… Your body is not a happy one Mr Walton. Ironically I thought everything was fine. Now, five weeks later and a big lifestyle change settling in I realise I was living a BIG lie.
We lie to ourselves a lot us head teachers… we paste these lies over the top of our suits of armour to ensure that those that look towards us don’t think we can’t run a school. That we are weaker, vulnerable – a potential liability… Therefore we spin our lies:
I am NOT overweight … I don’t have High Blood Pressure… I don’t have diabetes…
Therefore, the pressures and stresses leadership creates were offset by a lifestyle that ignored the consequences because it made me feel ‘numbed to the worry…’ I could sleep without worrying about others because I was consuming things that shut me down to them. A thousand biscuits, alcohol on tap, no regulation in my diet… I used this world to distract me from what NO school leader can ignore – the simple understanding that if you lead in a school pressure and stress are going to be constant bedfellows. Therefore, I have looked in the mirror and now know that drinking was my CRUTCH and boy could I drink. Of course I didn’t have a problem, I never drank in the day and I never felt it impacted on my day…
I have been off alcohol for 5 weeks now and suddenly going from huge amounts of lovely alcoholic bliss has been a challenge – but I am glad that I am facing up to what this job makes us do. I am glad I am admitting to myself (and the few people who read my blogs) that I cannot go around pretending it is ok… It is through being this open and honest that I now draw strength.
I am now OLD primary head. I am stressed out by the many demands on my time. I do find the job as challenging as ever… But here is the KEY difference.
I know I am very good at the job of leading in a school -that I still LOVE doing it. I have always loved this job and found it an honour to do… but, I am no longer going around pretending it isn’t stressful just because I love it. I am no longer hiding from the impact it was having on my health. I am no longer going to say that trying to climb the impossible is even worth planning for. I am not going to entertain that lie like I see so many others doing. I keep saying that our longevity in our profession is the biggest measure of the success we have. Cutting that short because you can substitute your coping strategy with quick feel good habits has to be dealt with and I wish I did it 10 years ago – rather than after a health scare. But, we all have to start somewhere.
December 7, 2019 at 5:26 pm
Strong message there – heartfelt post. In my last six months of headship I was in a terrible state – and didn’t realise just how bad until it was all over. So important to step back and consider what is sustainable and sane before it topples you over.
December 7, 2019 at 5:30 pm
Thank you Tom. I think I am seeing this very clearly. As I said in the blog I have at least another 10 years so I have to do this now or I’ll risk my retirement being pay back for the stresses of the job.
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December 7, 2019 at 6:57 pm
A blog with integrity. I have read it twice but feel the need to reflect a little deeper. Much of this reflected thoughts I have on a job ,like OPH, I still love. Thank you for taking time so share your thoughts.
December 7, 2019 at 7:02 pm
Thank you for replying Claire… reflecting is key.
December 8, 2019 at 8:57 am
Well said. I have been a headteacher for 21 years and was diagnosed in 2011 with a Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia. The fibromyalgia and the pain are brought on by the stress of the job but I need to keep working as I am addicted to my job and I know there is still so much to do for our pupils. I now use a wheelchair full time due to falls and shakes but retiring ( I am 54) is very scary.
December 8, 2019 at 9:19 am
I think this is another level… when we love the job and it is hurting us – retiring is another blow.
December 8, 2019 at 10:37 am
Thanks for the honesty in this OPH. Not as long in game that is headship (now my 5th year) but this blog resonated well with demands of the role we face – which I too love but has taken over my life. This weekend I’ve had to stop and take some time for my wellbeing and listen to those memes that say ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’
December 8, 2019 at 10:48 am
I am lapping up my weekends at the moment. It’s Such a KEY time.
December 8, 2019 at 3:43 pm
I recently left leadership adter my Gp in no uncertain terms told me to get out, get out now.. get yourself together and rest… I am 2 months on now happy… I will not be returning to leadership or a classroom if I can help it. I have embraced a new career… am earning minimum wage and will smile into my 50th year. Some colleagues tell me I have lots still to give, but I also need to give back to myself. For those still in Ed. Savour the breaks, reclaim your evenings and weekends and give back to yourself.
December 8, 2019 at 3:44 pm
December 8, 2019 at 4:58 pm
Your honesty and open self reflection are a credit. I am into my 20th year as a HT and made those difficult lifestyle changes 3 years ago, and am more able now to face the increasingly bizarre, unscripted and unpredictable challenges that we face day in and day out. As heads we become very good at strategic and long term planning for our children, staff, curriculum and governance but perhaps we need to inspect our own 3i’s to the same level.
Keep doing what you’re doing, “young” head, and keep looking for the everyday joys in this wonderful job.
December 8, 2019 at 5:08 pm
Bizarre, unscripted and unpredictable… pretty much sums it up there.
December 8, 2019 at 11:00 pm
I was exhausted, moved, sad and grateful after reading this. Whatever are we doing to our HTs? I see many of the stresses ( I’m a CoG) and keep as close an eye as I can on our HT (a young head!) and can only thank you for all you’ve done for our young people. Look after yourself though – a dead HT is no use to anyone!
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December 15, 2019 at 4:41 am
I blame parents, and their unrealistic expectations
I was on my way into a school I help on a dark, wet Friday morning. I heard the bell go as I parked but there still seemed to be a lot of parents coming and going. As I was signing in one late parent was moaning loudly about the door not being open for her promptly; “Where’s the Head Teacher !”.
Due to cuts there is no administrator/receptionist and the Head was round the corner on the phone to someone. Ring, ring went the bell beside me. More shouts: a great example to her children and the ones lined up for their trip to the panto
February 1, 2020 at 2:27 pm
I have huge admiration and respect for you, Brian – and sympathy. I loved headship, but ten years in one school felt like enough for me, and I didn’t want the second headship route – though I know many people who have chosen that and who have found it re-energising, as a new context and fresh challenges and opportunities can be.
I have to say I have found life beyond headship rich and full – I’m 61 now and still enjoying the work I do but without the pressures I experienced as a full-time head at 52. I couldn’t have managed a second decade in the same school, much as I loved it, and maintained the same level of energy and enthusiasm. I know myself and what I am capable of. Supporting other leaders at all levels in a wide range of schools is something I find rewarding, and the balance in my life is much healthier.
Sending you very best wishes,
February 2, 2020 at 3:22 pm
Thank you Jill. It’s certainly not a job for the faint of heart and I only see it getting more and more challenging.