8th May 1998 at 01:00
Joan Sallis Answers your questions


Our head has run out of steam. He's a really lovely man and has served this school loyally for 19 years.

Older governors tell me he was innovative and full of enthusiasm when he was appointed in his mid-thirties.

He seems now to have lost all his drive and to see every new development as a threat.

When occasionally he starts something new that interests him he puts his heart and soul into it, and we see flashes of what he must have been, but he soon loses momentum and either the idea runs into the sand or someone from the senior team takes it on.

With governors he is basically well-disposed but because we sometimes suggest things that make him feel tired he gets irritable with us. What can we do?


I have no qualms about answering your letter in this public space because I know there are too many like your head for identification to be a hazard. Not many appointed so young to face the past 15 years of non-stop change escape some degree of burn-out. There is no easy answer now that so much of the cost of early retirement for a healthy person falls on the school.

Among less easy (and therefore only partial) answers, I wonder whether anyone (or two) on your governing body has sufficient rapport with the head to be able to talk sympathetically to him about this heavy workload. You give no clues as to how he manages his time, but my guess is that a lot of heads will put huge amounts of energy (all right if they have plenty of course) into one or more subjects that interested them once, without realising that these have got out of proportion or that they are not top-line strategic tasks.

It could be the budget, or the school's public relations, staff development, information technology, almost anything. Handing over one such subject wholesale to a member of the senior team could work wonders.

You know his interests, and if among the bright ideas you fire at his weary brain (and do make sure that these are realistic) there is one that might appeal to him personally, it could then be a stimulant rather than an extra worry. You say he shows enthusiasm for a while with a new idea, and that might last if he were relieved of a block of time-consuming work, but do be very selective.

I often think about how we as governors propose for others to dispose, and a group of a dozen or more keen people all spawning good ideas that make work for others can seem like an onslaught when you are tired. A governor or two prepared to take on some of the uncontroversial detail of the implementation alongside the head, digging out the facts, finding who in the community knows something of use, presenting well-researched options, would be a different matter. And don't forget to show your simple friendship and appreciation of him personally.

Finally, if tiredness takes the form of dabbing ineffectually at a large number of tasks and being too overwhelmed with their sheer volume to complete anything, or even reacting to pressure from all sides with paralysis, like a chameleon on a tartan, not really working hard at all but getting exhausted trying to prioritise, your head may really be ill, because these are often early symptoms of breakdown. Don't ignore such evidence. may change your options

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