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Why school leaders should put themselves first

If head teachers and other school leaders do not look after their own wellbeing, they will be unable to support their staff and pupils. This article explains why the least selfish option for head teachers and school principals at this time is to put their own needs first. Just as parents in an aeroplane emergency are instructed to put their own masks in place before attempting to help their children, so senior leaders need to take care of their own health and stability if they are to be effective supporters of staff and students.

As the date has been agreed for the reopening of schools there is much discussion about how transition might be planned and what schools might look like, post-covid. There is no doubt that school staff, teaching and non-teaching, will be looking for ways to make the transition back into school as painless and productive as possible for the students. However, this can only happen if teachers, teaching assistants and those managing them are in a secure and happy place themselves.

Heads need to put their own needs first? This is maybe not the advice you were expecting? Well consider this.  Vineet Nayar, the CEO of a large company in India turned conventional business thinking on its head by suggesting that instead of putting customers first, that the wellbeing of employees should be the employer’s priority. He argued that it is from happy and well-motivated employees that customers will get the best service. Spending time in schools and classrooms, I have observed that students with good strategies for mental health also have teachers who enjoy their work. Funnily enough, those teachers who seem to be happiest in their work are managed by head teachers who also love their work, and who find ways of making the job work for them.

Several years ago I was managing a Behaviour and Attendance Support Team and part of my role was to support schools through the process of excluding students, including the avoidance of exclusions where appropriate. I remember clearly a conversation with the teacher of a student who had just been excluded. She told me that a year earlier, this same head teacher would not have excluded a student for this kind of behaviour, but that his recently heightened levels of stress had definitely contributed to the decision to exclude. It was clear that stress was having detrimental effects not only on the head teacher himself, but on his staff and students. The effect of his stress had life-changing consequences for at least one pupil.

This led me to look at the data around head teacher stress and to look at how our own Local Authority was supporting the pastoral needs of head teachers. What I discovered shocked me. Data around long-term sickness and early retirement due to stress was an eye-opener, as was the data around how many head teacher posts remained vacant or required multiple advertisements before sufficiently qualified and experienced applicants came forward. As for pastoral support – and this was a large ‘shire’ authority – there was a single, albeit highly-rated, one-day course run annually by a retired head teacher. We decided to get a focus group of head teachers together to find out more about head teacher stress, and six people came along. The general consensus was that stress just came with the job and as heads they just had to grit your teeth and get on with it. One head told me:

Excluding a child is something no head wants to do. But when it’s all done and dusted, no-one asks “How are you?”

This led our team to change our approach to be more supportive of heads around the time of an exclusion.

Whilst there are charities such as Education Support who help teachers and head teachers deal with stress, wouldn’t it be preferable to work in a way that keeps stress levels at a manageable level? Now is a good time for heads to look at their own needs and to make sure that they factor these into school reopening plans.

Stress and burnout is not caused by high levels of work demands nor lack of time, but by powerlessness, according to Alfie Kohn. Each one of us human individuals has a basic need to feel in control of our life, and when we feel things are out of our control our bodies and minds create behaviours (through various actions, physiological changes, emotions and thoughts) that can be described as ‘stress’.  William Glasser’s Choice Theory Psychology explains that for an individual to have good mental health, we must find ways to satisfy 5 important personal needs. If we don’t pay attention to these needs, then we will find ourselves trying to meet them in ways that can interfere with our personal or professional lives. These 5 needs are: love and belonging; power/self-worth, fun, freedom and survival.

To remain mentally and physically healthy, we need to ensure that we have ways of satisfying these needs on a regular basis, or else we might end up trying to meet them in ways that are damaging to relationships or are to the detriment of others.

So, consider how, as a head teacher, you meet these needs to a satisfactory level:

  • Love and belonging: How often are you planning to meet up with people you like and with whom you can truly be yourself? Who
  • Power/self-worth: What do you do on a regular basis to help yourself feel you are a competent, worthwhile person? What do you do that makes you feel good about yourself? Who admires you? When do you give yourself a pat on the back?
  • Fun: what do you do on at least a weekly basis that you would describe as ‘having fun’? This could be at work or outside work. It really helps to have activities n the workplace that you have decided are on your ‘fun to do’ list. 
  • Freedom: What do you do at work or home that helps you to feel free? Free to make your own decisions, free to be yourself?
  • Survival: What are you planning to do to ensure that you eat, exercise and rest well? How does your time-management reflect your self-care and self-respect?

The person who neglects to attend to their own psychological and physical needs is in danger of becoming overtired, lonely, bored and antisocial. The head who makes it clear that they are looking after themselves responsibly (that is, that in looking after themselves they do not prevent others from meeting their own needs) is setting up a culture of wellbeing for themselves and their staff. Without this culture, attempts to meet the needs of students will be disingenuous.

So, before thinking about the curriculum, pace of transition and all the other catch-ups that are coming at schools, head teachers and other senior leaders take some time to consider their own personal needs and plan how to give a solid foundation to their own mental and physical wellbeing so that they will be best-placed to support their staff and students in the months to come.

What are your thoughts? What is your experience of head teacher burnout? What impact did this have on you and others? What helped? Please leave a comment below and start a discussion.

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