Putting students first is a laudable goal for a school leader but not if it means being a workaholic, says headteacher Mark Leppard. He explains why those who prioritise their own needs instead are in fact likely to be happier, more productive and more capable of bringing out the best in others
Throughout my 15 years as a headteacher, there is one thing that has never changed: I have always put the students first. “If you want my answer to be ‘yes’, show me how your idea supports students,” I have often told my staff.
Yet, having now navigated a year of this horrible pandemic, I have started to question my priorities. Is putting students first really the best thing for a school leader to do?
You cannot serve from an empty vessel, as the writer Eleanor Brownn says. In other words, if we don’t care for ourselves, how on earth can we care for others?
I still have the students at the very heart of all we do as a school, but I’ve recognised that in order to make this approach work in practice, my focus as a leader needs to be on supporting my staff – who will, in turn, support the students.
Taking that one step further, I have realised that I will not be able to properly support my staff if I do not focus on looking after myself first. Self-care can be surprisingly hard to practise, but it should be a non-negotiable for everyone, leaders included. Here are some practical steps that have helped me to put myself first.
1. Cut the excess hours
During my first headship, which lasted nine years, I was a workaholic. I genuinely believed that the more I did, the better I would be. I worked throughout weekends, believing this set a good example to colleagues, and worked late after school. As a result, I allowed very little time for myself.
Did others benefit from this approach? Possibly, in the short term. But, looking back, I think decisions were often rushed and made when I was too tired to be leading well. The school was still extremely successful but I can’t help thinking that it could have been better if I had just taken greater care of myself.
When I secured my second headship, more than five years ago now, I made a conscious decision to take more time for me. I reassessed how I led and realised that I did not need to have the solution to every question. Instead, I could ask more from my team and take the time I needed to feel energised enough to support those I was asking to step up.
2. Start small and simple
Small changes enabled this to happen. To start with, I deliberately went in to work later, only 30 minutes before students were due to arrive.
Previously, I had been there an hour and a half before. I then started to cut back at the end of the day, too.
I made sure that, unless absolutely necessary, I left work 30-40 minutes after the students. Instead of holding after-school meetings, I ran one or two co-curricular activities. I ensured that senior leadership meetings happened during the school day and not after hours. I also began taking the time to eat properly and keep hydrated, rather than simply rushing a snack while sitting at my desk.
3. Put limits on technology
Technology is great and can make many aspects of our lives easier, but it is also a dominant beast that can dictate to us how we behave. With this in mind, I began to use its tools to help me move away from it and, where that wasn’t possible, I literally moved the device.
My out-of-office email message now goes on during long weekends and immediately after the holidays start. I have banned internal emails between staff after 5.30pm and before 6.30am, encouraging the use of “schedule send”. This means I am not constantly looking at emails throughout the evening when I am supposed to be fully focused on my family.
I have also disabled emails on my phone entirely, so that I am not contactable 24/7. I removed notifications on all communication apps, so that the hypnotic red circle telling me I have a message does not drag me into my phone. I now check messages only when I want to, not when the phone tells me to.
4. Prioritise sleep and exercise
In a bid to avoid going on my phone or tablet late at night, I recently bought an old-fashioned alarm clock so that I don’t have a device next to my bed – and my sleep has improved. Sleep is the oft-forgotten component of improved performance.
Alongside prioritising sleep, I now make a conscious effort to exercise regularly. Walking away from school at a reasonable hour gives me time to do this.
As well as benefiting my health, it has also benefited my mind. Going for a swim, run or cycle, playing five-a-side or hitting the gym gets the endorphins circulating, which feeds my emotional wellbeing.
It hasn’t always been possible, this year, to exercise indoors but, as the coronavirus restrictions slowly lift, there are now more options to get yourself moving.
5. Drop the guilt
I have made a conscious effort to not feel guilty about taking the time to relax. If I am watching TV, I try to focus on that alone. Again, I make sure that my devices are not near me when I sit down on the sofa to unwind, so that I avoid having one eye on the screen and another on my phone.
By trying to look at the phone and the TV, I found I was doing both tasks badly. I heard someone once say “just do one thing at a time, but do that one thing with 100 per cent effort”. Even if it is watching TV or reading a book, allow yourself to just do that, so that your mind can fully focus and not be overworked or distracted.
Do I manage to practise self-care in the ways I have suggested all of the time? Certainly not. But I aspire to follow my own advice and am getting better at it.
What I have noticed is that when I make a conscious effort (and it does need to be conscious) to look after myself, I am more effective at supporting others, I am more content and actually feel less guilty.
If I find myself veering away from this approach, I always return to Brownn’s words: “You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” This reminds me that the steps I am taking are really about giving myself the energy to support others, in order to help them support the students – who, ultimately, are still at the heart of everything I do.
Mark Leppard MBE is headmaster of The British School Al Khubairat, United Arab Emirates
This article originally appeared in the 16 April 2021 issue under the headline “To look after your students, first look after yourself”