Mike Fielding argues it's time to invest in helping candidates cope with rejection
Julia writes good applications; she gets interviews; but so far no one has given her the headship she craves. After eight failures, she's beginning to get desperate and her self-esteem is being eaten away.
It's no good talking to her about interview technique: she's had advice, practised on video, taken feedback and listened to tips from almost everyone she knows.
Nor, in most of her colleagues' estimation, should she conclude she's not ready for headship. She just doesn't seem to have suited any of the governors she's seen; although one chairman did say they would have liked to appoint her but felt the school "needed a man".
Anyone who enters the headship race - or any other promotion contest for that matter - inevitably invites rejection and few people get the first post they go for. But what happens at the point where ambition gets undermined by fear of failure?
At first, Julia blamed interview panels for not appreciating her qualities. "I did a bloody good interview, my references are strong," she said after her third time out, "and the chap they appointed has only been a deputy a couple of years."
By interview five she was asking, "What's wrong with me? Go on, be honest. " Now, it's: "I'll never get a job; I'll be stuck here for ever." That's bad news for the school as well as for Julia. Coping with a disgruntled deputy - especially one who was always thought a high flier - puts strain on all the staff but particularly the head and other senior management team members.
They have to watch a valued colleague and friend lose confidence and diminish as a person. The search for encouraging responses becomes more difficult. In that situation, the rejected person wants comfort but not conventional words; and analysis that doesn't rely too heavily on the rational. So, for instance, pointing out that she probably did nothing to lose the job, it was simply a matter of chemistry between governors and the successful candidate only brings forth the cry, "What's wrong with my chemistry, then?" Family life, too, becomes difficult. Julia's partner, Roger, a successful teacher who loves the classroom and has no interest in seniority but completely supports her ambition, dreads her return from interview.
"She'll pretend to be philosophical," he says, "but I know she's hurting inside and in a few days the anger will come out and life will be hell for a while."
Like her colleagues, Roger feels powerless to help. "I sometimes feel like ringing up and saying 'please don't reject her again'."
And that's part of the problem. None of the appointing governing bodies has any responsibility for Julia. Naturally, they don't know she's been to eight interviews (and, if they did, might take it as a sign to stay away). Nor that what they might offer is not just a job but the lifeline to feeling good about herself again.
Those people who do feel some responsibility - her head, colleagues, the area officer - are powerless to do more than write supportive references or, like Roger, be there to help her deal with the tears.
The strength to carry on, or the decision to quit, can only come from Julia herself. And that applies to the thousands like her - if you count all types of post - whose zeal, commitment and sense of self-worth is being damaged by failure to realise quite realistic ambitions.
We invest getting a job with immense psychological as well as professional and financial significance, but don't think much about the means to support failure. Perhaps it should be a requirement of applying for promotion that the candidate has already undergone a therapeutic course in dealing with disappointment.
Classes are available for people facing the possibility of bereavement and that's exactly what continued inability to get a job can feel like - the death of hope, ambition and belief in ourselves. Understanding causes and developing coping strategies beforehand would help to make the reality less painful and the determination to continue more likely.
Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chumleigh, North Devon