I wrote a blog last week that detailed my recent health concerns and how I needed to acknowledge the impact that being a head teacher was having on my own wellbeing. It prompted an unprecedented response – over 100 DMs and many thousands of reads sometimes daily. The thread attached to the blog was very clear that many school leaders were facing their own health demons which they couldn’t unravel from their day to day. There was also a worrying number who detailed how they had left the profession due to the toll school leadership had had on their health. In fact, a follow up twitter poll which asked, ‘School Leaders, is your role impacting on your health?’ showed that over 650 out of 900 said ‘Yes’. This is an overwhelming majority with approximately 75 saying it was not impacting on their health. In some ways I wanted to hear more from them. What stage of their career were they? What was their fitness levels? Was there something universal about the positive impact their job was having? Sometimes we only look to the negative rather than learn from the positive.
One clear thing that hit me after writing the blog was how much it could be misinterpreted. My school is amazing, the children and the community – Utterly fantastic. The support from my team (Including my governors) is brilliant. I could not be in a better place. I have a deputy with years of experience who is calm and steady and as good a business manager as anyone anywhere… I have ambitious leaders around me who take on work above and beyond… but despite this I wanted to acknowledge the stresses and strains of the school leader and in particular – ME… and I wanted to lay bare my own health struggles so that I could not run away from them. Many people have told me I made myself very vulnerable doing this – they may be right but I have no regrets.
If life imitates art then I am at that chapter where after rising optimism I am face to face with a sinister plot twist – a crisis of poise within my profession. I am acknowledging the impact that dealing with the stresses and strains of leadership have had on me over time and to a degree I am saying they were getting the better of me. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It could be. I could have let this overwhelm me, play the victim and struggle to see any light at the tunnels end. I have chosen not to. I think this is a major factor in getting over this. One question continuously coming up on my timeline was?
What can be done about school leader wellbeing?
I don’t believe that there is some magic solution out there; an answer switch, hidden beneath the wellbeing tree. I am certain there is only one way through coping as a school leader. You have to take control of it yourself. You have to become confident in who you are and who you want to be. You have to acknowledge what your problems are – sometimes obvious like high blood pressure or out of control sugar levels and other times an overwhelming sense of panic, anxiety or depression. You need to know what your demons are and then you can begin to face them. For me, the sense of control I have suddenly taken is empowering. It has sanctioned authority over things I have felt were beyond my control and I am seeing the results of this.
I have lost 10lb (I have targeted 12 stone so need to lose another 10lb).
My blood pressure has dropped and I am getting less and less high spikes.
I am eating a healthy diet which I am beginning to enjoy – Though, not snacking on endless biscuits, crisps, pizza and bread is HARD work.
I am exercising more and feeling the benefits…
I haven’t drunk alcohol for over 5 weeks (Well I did have a glass of Red Wine at the staff DO last night – interestingly, I have never enjoyed a staff do more than I did last night – It was wonderful watching staff just chat and feel the buzz of warmth they have for each other – I think my new approach is also impacting on how I see things… I am also a lot less irritable – though maybe not irritating?)
I feel positive.
My job is important but my family – my home – is a wonderful place to be and I am promoting this all the time. I think about them more now than I think about my job. That is a significant change in my mind-set. That’s not to say I am doing less at work, or care less. Absolutely NOT – it is not possible in school leadership. Another point continuously raised was about how school leaders have to think about others wellbeing but who thinks about theirs? I am ok thinking about how best to help children and adults – it is in the DNA of the role. I want the people responsible for mine to be aware of the impact I have when I am well and in control. I want them to look out for me in a general way but I do not expect them to run my life. That is my responsibility. As long as I can talk openly and candidly without fear then they are doing what is needed as far as I am concerned.
Other people comment on the toxic environment school leadership has to operate in. It is certainly harder than any time I can remember in my 25-year career and headship in the eyes of most is an impossible job if you want to meet every expectation, solve every societal ill and ensure that every child is set up for the life they deserve to have. There are few things harder for the school leader to say than… I have reached ‘good enough’ and I cannot do any more. Fighting this system is as much a cause for the stress we have as any other reason – for me it may be a bigger factor than angry parents, a drop in results or disruptive behaviour. The system is unfair, the system causes many of the problems; the system is run by people who have no idea what it is actually like to run a school, or support a child, or teach against a backdrop of poverty or emotional turmoil.
But, maybe I need to stop blaming the politicians and make things happen despite them. As a school leader – I can.
It is that time of year where winter light crumbles into insistent darkness; it is cold, wet and windy almost every day and this term can be the hardest term for many, especially when you do not feel your unstoppable self. It is persistent and dogged and at times ruthless – sapping those hidden pools of stamina and chilling your reserves of goodwill. For school leaders under pressure this can be a very difficult time to be in harmony with the expectation of others. How dare this be the season to be jolly! But, we have to be. There is no respite, no excuse that will allow others to suffer just because we do not feel ‘up to it’. Someone has to be there to take on the mantle of the school leader and unless we are able to balance that enormous task with the time and space to look after ourselves – to use our spare time wisely (or better still make the time) then schools will not be as effective as they can be – and that impacts on everyone’s wellbeing. So, I am treating my wellbeing in the same way I would my school development plan – it is high priority and I make no excuses for it what-so- ever. Have a fantastic last week at school people!