'Heads carry a vast burden of responsibility'

Whenever someone interacts with a school leader, they leave something behind. It might be a secret, confession or joy. All too often, it adds to the burden of leadership, writes Emma Turner

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In every headteacher or school leader’s office, there is an invisible bucket of rocks. They may be squirreled away under their desk near their feet or they may be up on a shelf, nestled amongst the folders and files. Sometimes, the bucket is almost empty; sometimes, the rocks can be seen spilling out over the rim of the bucket and gathering in small piles around its base.

Some of these rocks are fragile and flinty, prone to breaking in sharp shards should they be handled in the wrong way. Some are barely more than clumps of sand, on the surface, seemingly firm and strong but ready to crumble under the slightest pressure. Others are shining polished glittering pieces of stardust, twinkling with promise; among the rest of the bucket are jagged and tearing pieces of layered rock, ready to skin your hands should you reach out to help them. Towards the bottom are endlessly heavy rocks, although small in size, dense and almost unliftable, such is their deceptive weight. Between the bigger rocks lie multiple tiny pebbles, some beautifully smooth and polished, others spiky and rough.

The bucket is invisible, yet it is carried everywhere the leader goes. Sometimes swinging the empty invisible bucket cheerfully as they go around their daily business and other days simply staring at the bucket, almost cowed by its weight and seemingly without the strength to lift it alone.

Every time a person interacts with the school leader, they, like Hansel in the woods, leave a rock or a pebble. Sometimes it is a bright and shiny one, full of positivity and in others, it is a heavy and leaden burden. And these pebbles and rocks are not left intentionally. They are the emotional weights and confidential considerations the school leader will carry with them through their working day and for which frequently they feel they have to carry alone. Some pebbles and rocks are joyful and twinkling with heartwarming excitement – the staff member who confides that the fertility treatment of the last 5 years has finally worked and although it is early days, they thought they ought to say something; the brilliant phase leader who has just aced her NPQSL.

Other rocks exhaust the school leader with the weight of responsibility – the death of a pupil, a harrowing child protection case for a pupil who has been in the school’s care for 7 years; the need to inform an entire staff that a colleague’s illness is terminal. For these rocks, there is nowhere to leave the bucket and no choice but to carry it. And so the school leader – at points in their career and at most points during the day – has to filter the sea of information and decision making through the pebbles and rocks of the bucket. Every conversation and decision has to trickle down through the multiple layers of sharp shards and twinkling gemstones.

Which decisions can be taken while the bucket is this full or this empty? How can we ensure that the sandy rocks don’t crumble and the heaviness of the horror of some of the rocks the school leader has to deal with don’t make it into the boot of the car to sit on the bedside table and keep them awake at night? 

There are so many pieces of advice for school leaders about adjusting their own oxygen mask first before assisting others or ensuring that they model self-care and promote wellbeing but most leadership advice ignores the fact that this all has to be done alongside carrying the bucket. And sometimes it is hard to attach your own oxygen mask when your hands are busy gripping the handle to haul around the weight of the rocks.

It is all too often overlooked that in a caring profession, which many enter because they want to make a difference to the lives of pupils and communities, school leaders are often required to shoulder the emotional burden of a child, a family, a staff member and at times, a whole community. Rarely in other professions is the bucket of rocks filled with so many different rock types, all clouded by the swirling sandstorm of existing really strong and positive ongoing professional relationships. When a medical professional witnesses a trauma, it is rare that they have an existing relationship with the patient or their families. When police officers are called to a scene of domestic violence it is not expected that they then see and deal with those families on a daily basis sometimes for years to come. When a social worker is dealing with a case of abuse or neglect, they don’t necessarily already know both the perpetrator and the victim and have to see them daily.

All of those professionals have their own buckets of rocks and they will all be carrying their own weights but the role of the school leader is unique in that their bucket contains the disclosures, the secrets, the confessions, the joy, the magic and the flashes of brilliance of all aspects of not just school life but life itself.

The messy business of working with people means that the bucket of rocks is constantly being filled and emptied as life, with all its twists, turns and surprises, throws up ever more unexpected landslides, dazzling meteor showers and seemingly impenetrable stony slopes. So what can the school leader do to lighten the rocky burden? Well, as the saying goes, “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” We should never ignore our bucket of rocks: this is what makes our school community unique. This is our local granite or sandstone or slate. These rocks are the building blocks of our schools and their communities and should always act as the bedrock and the filter for all we do.

As leaders, we may feel weighed down with the heaviness of responsibility and confidentiality but we should also feel hope and bravery and pride. When someone brings us a pebble or a rock, they are trusting us to keep it safe and to help them carry it. People who bring the pebbles and rocks to our door are telling us that they believe we can help; that they trust us to do the right thing and they are not necessarily always hurling jagged stones at us.

So, just as Hansel and Gretel used the stones to navigate so could we too use the rocks as a guide. And for those thinking about school leadership, it is not all grey granite and lead; in that bucket are also fire opals and amethysts and beautiful rose quartz. So next time you head into your leadership office, have a look around for the bucket of rocks and see if there are hidden gems or heavy peridotite. 

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire. She tweets as @Emma_Turner75 

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