Remedy for a suffering head

Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

As the autumn term draws to a close I'm beginning to realise that I am just not coping with the job.

I've spent every waking moment - and these now last through the night - worrying about how to produce a decent school evaluation form, restructure the staff, produce lesson plans for my PPA cover and - the last straw - undertake a six-hour online training session for child protection.

Our nativity play is this week and I have no idea who's in it or how it's going. Our PTA Christmas fayre is tomorrow and I'm manning a stall.

Do I come to terms with the fact that I am no longer an effective headteacher, or is there something I can take to make the undo-able do-able?

Your anguish is tangible. The first thing to say to you is that you are not alone. There is currently a huge agenda for schools, involving the implementation of wave after wave of DfES initiatives. Promises of freeing schools up from central control are like the promises that parents make to sullen adolescents: "you can continue to live in this house without us telling you what to do, just as long as you abide by our rules, contribute to the household and don't do anything which will undermine our reputation." A typical response to these exhortations is a renewed desire to remain in bed, postponing engagement with the demands of the outside world. That, I'm afraid, is a not too outlandish picture of the state that many of our headteachers are in. The NAHT's insurance coffers, according to Mick Brookes, are being severely strained by a significant rise in stress-related absence of heads who are saying "I simply can't do this any more".

The question is, if the central agenda is the same for us all, what is it that enables some heads to sail through it without too much personal damage and others to collapse beneath the strain?

Here are my top 10 tips for remaining resilient and resourceful, regardless:

1. Take responsibility for your actions.

Decide what to do. Choose how to behave; no one can make you do anything. Ban the words "have to", "ought" and "must" from your vocabulary. Ask "what would happen if I didn't?" Consider, in the light of your response, whether or not you want to do those things. It's your choice.

2. Don't be a hero.

Articulate feelings to others. Choose key people you trust and tell them that you need them. Invite them to ask you questions, but ban them from telling you what to do or giving you advice.

3. Picture the outcome achieved.

Visualise that SEF completed. Visualise and handle those slim portfolios of evidence which bring it to life. Imagine those children - smiling and enthusiastic - having great experiences with an energised teacher.

4. Put yourself in a resourceful state.

When was the last time you felt really confident, in charge, energetic, successful? Stand up straight, look up, get moving.

5. Mix with people who nurture you.

Don't spend time with people who deplete your energy levels, drag you down, and reinforce your negative self beliefs, but get out, network, collaborate and contribute.

6. Clear the clutter.

Literally, clear the decks. Throw out and give away.

Create the most aesthetic, conducive space to clear thinking. Only put into that space things which make you feel brilliant. Do the same with your mind. Know what can be ditched and what is important. Know the course you're on; you'll veer off it from time to time, but at least you'll know it's happening.

7. Invest in your own capacity.

You can't do a job or perform a task, if you haven't got the competence. Conduct a mental audit, own up and invest in your own learning. Don't skimp. It's incredibly important for you and your organisation that you've got the capacity to do the job.

8. Plan.

Heads are inevitably very meticulous about everybody else's plans, but not their own. Once you've made your choice about what you want to do, take the time to plan how it will be done. Importantly - who will be involved, who will lead, what resources will be needed, what blocks of time.

9. Be selfish.

Understand and meet your own needs. Don't be afraid to create time, space, support and structure which will enable you to function at the top of your game.

10. Celebrate.

This can be about a physical reward - a weekend away, an early night with the phone unplugged - you know what you like. But importantly, it should be a mental, reflective celebration. How exactly do you feel? Tune into yourself - what is it really like to have achieved what you've just achieved? How did you deal with your fears and anxieties? What did you do? What have you learned about yourself?

Record all of this in your beautiful, expensive, reflective journal. Next time you feel bowed down, overwhelmed and inadequate, read it.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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