'School leadership is wonderful but stressful': 10 tips on how to keep going

Have a life away from the classroom, accept that you are expendable – and eight other ways to deal with the stress of school leadership

Simon Botten

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My run slowed to a shuffle and then stopped altogether. I was 10 miles from home and the cold March rain hammered down. I sat on the muddy verge by a particularly soulless stretch of the A38 and burst into tears.

School leadership is wonderful, but undoubtedly stressful. The daily firefights just to keep the school running, the thorny complaints or staffing issues where all you can do is come up with the least-worst option, and constant pressure to drive up standards with Ofsted lurking. 

Some heads reach breaking point and decide that the joy of the job isn’t enough to outweigh the pressures it brings –  a draining of talent that our education system will struggle to replace. Mental illness is often the secret disease that eats away at school leaders and staff at all levels, often not being recognised until a crisis point has been reached – sometimes with tragic consequences. 

But this blog is not about clinical depression. Musings of a headteacher about stress will no more cure clinical depression than a broken leg. This is simply my own observations on how to stay sane after 11 years of headship, for those headteachers or leaders who are trying to manage the stress of a stressful job but are not yet at the point of needing real help. 

1. You are brave and capable

A wise person once said to me that "leadership is confidence" and he was right. To some degree, leadership is a confidence trick which we all deploy to persuade others, and often ourselves, that we (and they) are made of the "right stuff". All successful headteachers sometimes have to fake their resolve and confidence because they, like everyone else, have no magic crystal ball to see what the future holds.

At my school, the back of all the children’s PE T-shirts is emblazoned with the slogan “zip up the hero suit”. This reminds us that when times are hard we must don the invisible superhero suit that we all have hidden beneath our usual daywear and project, if only to ourselves, the confidence to succeed.

When staring in the mirror, it does no harm to look for a superhero staring back at you.

2. Accept that you are expendable

And understanding this fact is essential in keeping perspective.

Two years into my first headship, I was asked by the LA to speak at a new headteachers’ event. Having survived the first period in a school in difficulty, I thought carefully about what I would say. My first slide was entitled “Remember – you are expendable.” I can still see the fretful glances between the senior LA officers as I delivered the line. I was not invited to speak to new headteachers again.

But I still think I was right. 

Headteachers are the only member of a school team whose job is directly linked to the school’s success. Making peace with the fact that our tenure as the leader is only guaranteed when the school is succeeding is one of the most difficult – but important – psychological thresholds which we can overcome.

3. Tell the truth

I have never yet got into trouble for being honest. No matter how bad the news, my governors and the LA – even Ofsted – have always treated me well when I have told the truth – no matter how unpalatable that truth is.

Things in your school will go wrong – usually on a weekly basis, although usually small things. Occasionally bigger things will go wrong (Sats results will be poor, the LA or some other agency will criticise you or the school, a parent will complain) and the temptation is to minimise or cover-up the issue.  However, the most helpful thing which you can do for the school and for your wellbeing is to own this failure.

Telling the truth is a lot less stressful than trying to cover up a mistake (which will eventually be found out anyway).

4. Get help

When things go wrong, the most useful thing you can do is to take proactive action. 

Sometimes you will know what needs to be done but often you won’t, so getting a fresh pair of eyes (ideally specialist eyes) on a problem can quickly provide clarity when previously there was just a sense of fatalistic foreboding.

In some schools, there is still the absurd notion that unless the head and the rest of the staff have found every solution to every problem themselves then they have somehow failed. I take the opposite view and always call in advice when something hasn’t gone to plan. After all, if I knew what to do to solve the problem, then I wouldn’t have the problem in the first place.

5. Get a life

Your friends are nice to you (it’s in their job description). Having a regular opportunity to vent is psychologically liberating and great for your mental health. Friends and family put things into perspective and a night in the pub with a good friend who thinks your data on closing the gap between PP and non-PP children is the dullest thing in the world stops you taking things too seriously.

My deputy plays skittles every Thursday evening, ballroom dances every Friday evening and watches Bristol City every Saturday afternoon. On top of this, he is usually out at some social gathering at least one other night during the week. All his work is done to an excellent standard, he attends copious evening school events and works 7.30am-6pm . And I have never seen him stressed.

He loves his job but also has that rare thing in our profession – a life.

6. Get a coach

As a new head in a school in difficulty, I commissioned a leadership coach – mainly because it seemed the fashionable thing to do. I remember driving to the first (three-hour?!) session feeling slightly irritated that I was wasting my time navel-gazing when I could be getting stuff done.

Boy, was I wrong.

Three hours later, I had answers. And not answers given to me by someone else: no, these were answers that had been lurking in my brain all along just needing a skilful coach to coax them into the sunlight.

Leadership coaching helps you unknot all those tricky inter-related problems and see each for what it truly is – a logical problem with a logical solution. 

7. Make hay whilst the sun shines

Make-Hay.jpgAs someone who enjoys running ultra-marathons, I understand that failure in these races is a physiological certainty. You accept that at point X your body will want to give up and you train both your body and your mind not to give up at this point – by practising exhaustion and fatigue regularly.

As school leaders, we need to use the periods of low stress to reflect on how we have managed high-stress in the past and how we will manage it again in the future. Stress is as much part of our job as naughty children and cross parents. 

When the sun is shining and all is right with our schools we should be developing a plan for when the next wave hits us. Having an "emergency drill" already worked out in our heads will provide us with the mental markers which we will need to deal with whatever is going on. And this will make it a whole lot less stressful.

8. Look for the good – remember why you’re here

Nothing lifts the soul like remembering your core moral purpose.

So when the spreadsheets won’t give you the answer you need, spend a bit of time in the part of the school where you can see your impact. Maybe even teach a lesson… if you’re very brave, teach a lesson in Reception.

Being a school leader puts us in the privileged position of creating a corner of education which we believe represents perfection. Even in the most troubled school, you’ll find the green shoots of something great. Seeing the product of that effort makes much of the hardship in getting there feel worthwhile.

Go and spend some time looking at what’s going right – not just what’s going wrong.

9. Run

runWhen life gets too much – run. Even if it’s just around the block – go for a run.

Science has shown time and time again that physical exercise is one of the most effective ways to beat stress, so build it into your day. Cycling or running to and from work is a great way to clear your head on the way to work and decompress on the way home. If you can’t run (yet) – walk. Park the car a half mile from school and walk the rest. Or go to the gym. Or go for a swim. Or play football/netball/hockey. Or dance. Or get an allotment.

It really doesn’t matter what you do – only that you do something.

10. Keep going

hell.jpgAnd so on that rainy day in March, I sat on the verge. Defeated. 

And then I felt a bit silly. There was no other way home – I had no money and there wasn’t a bus. If I sat there much longer I’d freeze.  I stood up and ran home. When I got home and my wife asked if I’d had a good run I just nodded and went for a shower. This was the truth. Sometimes you only have the choice of stopping or going on – and stopping is never the right choice.

The ubiquitous Second World War "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters might look like just a bit of olde English kitsch now, but in 1940 as the blitz raged the government genuinely feared that the population would despair and civil order would collapse. The propagandists’ simple message of trudging through to better times was a stroke of genius – willing a traumatised public to keep going.

So if your grandparents could keep going as bombs literally rained down on their heads, I’m pretty sure, even when our Sats results are wobbly, we can keep going too.

Now go for a run.

Simon Botten is the headteacher at Blackhorse Primary School in Bristol. He tweets @southgloshead and blogs here

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