Few would argue against the importance of personal health in our lives, yet many of us neglect this as we get swept up in the world of school leadership and school improvement. Primary schools are places where you find the most committed and caring people, prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to help children, family and colleagues – often at the cost of their own wellbeing.
It’s a great thing that many people see teaching as their vocation, but it is important that those in schools remember that to neglect their health is not just unwise, but irresponsible.
I speak from personal and painful experience about what can go wrong when you try to be all things to all people and fail to look after yourself.
It was about 18 months into my first headship when my body finally said: "Enough is enough." It came about a month after an Ofsted inspection – one that had been long awaited and had been the focus of our work pretty much since I started at the school. It was successful, but the process was gruelling.
I was a young head, desperate to prove myself through the challenges which had come thick and fast, including tackling underperformance, parental challenges and the pressures of trying to secure a good Ofsted judgement in a village school where the expectations were high. Every school has its challenges and, while I would be the first to acknowledge the difficult work that goes on in more deprived communities, the raised expectations and sometimes vigorous parental engagement that come with working in a more affluent community bring about their own pressures.
Avoid teacher burnout
Looking back, it was pretty obvious that I was heading for a fall. The hours and intensity just weren’t sustainable, yet I was so determined to succeed and for the school to do well that I just kept adding everything to my job list and saying yes. There were lots of bad habits that I’d fallen into; it is not difficult to see why I got to the point of burnout, particularly while trying to juggle the demands of a young family at the same time.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Unsustainable working hours: I was so determined to be able to cope with everything on my plate that I started getting up earlier in the morning and finishing later each night. I was setting my alarm clock for 5am in order to try to get some work done before the family woke up. I would get to school early, stay late and then typically work at home in the evening until 11pm or midnight several nights a week.
- Broken sleep: I was so wired when I went to bed, I found it difficult to get to sleep. As I tried to sleep, I would often remember several other things that I needed to do. I would lie and think these over; I would be making notes on my phone for the morning; and I would get back up and go and do them.
- Weekend working: As a teacher, I had often worked on Sunday afternoons or evenings. This had now become so regular, it almost felt a part of my core hours. I would find myself spending parts of Sunday looking forward to the point when I could switch on my laptop and work.
- Constant email: These were the early days of primary school email and smartphones, and the lure of having access to email on the go was too much. I was continually online and accessible, with notifications pinging constantly, and fell into the trap of replying too quickly to everything that came in.
- Rehearsing hypothetical conversations: I developed a habit of practising future difficult conversations in the car wherever I went. I could be in the car driving to work and I’d be talking out loud to an imaginary Ofsted inspector arguing the toss about something to do with Year 3 data trends. Or I’d be in the shower having it out with a parent in anticipation of a meeting that might never happen. This was one of the most unhelpful habits, looking back.
Exhaustion, anxiety and panic attacks were the price I paid: debilitating and terrifying moments that would creep in and get me at any time of the day or night. It was a difficult period and I still have a note that I wrote describing my symptoms from that time, which reads as follows:
- Not myself
- Feel like I’m living in a bubble
- Can’t face things or cope
- Want to stay in bed
- Stomach and chest pains
- Short of breath
- Nothing’s real
- Want to switch off
- No emotions/unsociable
I keep this as a reminder of how bad things got, and a prompt to keep a healthier balance and never to take good times or wellbeing for granted. This perspective is important to me and the reason why I’ll either be out on my bike or running on Sunday mornings, rather than opening my laptop.
Actively acknowledging our own vulnerability to stress, and working on strategies to counter this is really important – particularly when working in a challenging environment. In areas of high deprivation, when facing ongoing external scrutiny or at times of significant change, it is inevitable that the level of challenge and stress will be higher. Failing to acknowledge and work deliberately on our wellbeing in these situations is like trying to walk on the moon without a space suit; no one is superhuman.
By no means can I say that I’ve cracked it; but I love my work and am usually happy to put in long hours, with strategies in place to avoid it getting unhealthy again. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I believe this to be true in most cases.
Thankfully, through support from my family and time with a counsellor, I learned about various wellbeing tools and techniques, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, which helped me through. Although difficult, this experience helped me to build resilience to cope better with challenges in the future.
If you are reading this and recognise some of the same unhealthy habits in yourself, do yourself a favour and get some help to get it all in order – make it a priority. If you are reading this and haven’t experienced it, you could do worse than to work on some wellbeing tools anyway, as everyone is vulnerable – particularly in the high-stress roles that working in some schools can involve.
Tom Rees is the executive headteacher at Simon De Senlis Primary School and the education director at Northampton Primary Academy Trust.
This is an extract from Wholesome Leadership, published by John Catt Educational